The Young Judaea youth movement is closing Merkaz Hamagshimim, the popular community center for young English-speaking immigrants it has operated in Jerusalem since 1996, Anglo File has learned. Movement officials said the Merkaz was no longer needed but that some services will continue to be provided by other segments of the organization and that no staff has been fired. Merkaz alumni and immigrant association officials said they regretted the move.
"Young Judaea is always reevaluating its programs and its mission in order to reflect changing circumstances and changing environments," Young Judaea's Israel director Dan Krakow told Anglo File. "When the Merkaz was created initially, it really filled a vacuum. There was really nothing quite like it in terms of the kinds of services it provided to young English speaking adults."
Many of the services that used to be offered exclusively by the Merkaz "are now being provided by newer organizations such as Nefesh B'Nefesh, The Jerusalem Center for Young Adults, Beit Avi Chai, and old time Jerusalem institutions such as community centers and municipal departments," according to a statement this week from Hadassah - The Women's Zionist Organization of America, Young Judaea's parent organization. "For example, when Center Stage Theater was established it was one of very few amateur English speaking theaters in Israel. Today, there are more than 15 of them throughout Israel, including an annual festival."
According to Rafi Poch, artistic director of the Merkaz's Center Stage Theater, the future of the theater is entirely unclear as of this week. "There are a lot of people who want to keep going and everyone wants it to be around, the question is just how do we make that happen now that we're leaving the space?" he told Anglo File. (The theater's last production, "Grease," staged together with Encore Educational Theatre Company, premiers on March 15 in Beit Sefer Masorti in the capital's Arnona neighborhood. )
Originally located in Jerusalem's German Colony, Merkaz Hamagshimim served as a combination absorption and community center for the wider Anglo community, offering young immigrants support and the chance to build a vibrant life in their new home. Hundreds of individuals passed through the doors of the Merkaz each month for social and cultural activities such as Shabbat dinners, evening classes, plays and special events.
The two dozen or so residents at the Merkaz formed the backbone of an active volunteer network. Many residents who came as long-term tourists stayed in Israel after living in or meeting people through the Merkaz.
In 2009, Hadassah sold the building for $9 million, closing the residential aspect of the project, and moved most activities to the capital's Baka neighborhood, where Young Judaea's Year Course program - relocated from its former campus in Jerusalem's Givat Masua neighborhood - is run.
"This is not a situation where Hadassah said to Young Judaea: close the Merkaz, we can't afford it anymore. That did not happen," he said. "Young Judaea had the luxury some 13 years ago of being in the position to offer programs, activities and services to a community way beyond our own youth movement." However, due to the current "economic climate" Krakow added, Young Judaea is in a different situation in which it is refocusing its mandate on serving its own members.
"We're going to continue to operate the counseling services but there will be a shift in emphasis and priority," Krakow told Anglo File. "Where up until now, the counseling services were provided to the general public, we're now going to be providing those services with the first priority being Young Judaea movement and program participants."
Krakow said there will be "staffing changes that reflect the change within Merkaz Hamagshimim," but said it has not yet been determined whether staff members will be let go or moved to a different position within the organizations.
Josie Arbel, director of absorption services at the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, said she was sorry about the news. "AACI worked together harmoniously with the Merkaz on various projects over the years, and I greatly valued our collegial relationships," she told Anglo File.
Recent immigrants, too, regretted Young Judaea's decision.
"When I heard that the Merkaz was closing down I was deeply upset. There is no other organization out there that was as dedicated to the young immigrants in Jerusalem," said Molly Livingstone, who moved here from Boston in 2005 and lived, volunteered and performed at the center. "The Merkaz was a home, a community center, activity center and the first and most important stop for many of us on our aliyah path. The Merkaz is where I met my friends, connected me to other new immigrants and eased me into Israeli society. I think Hadassah is making a huge mistake by closing its doors and if I had the money I would not only keep it open, but expand it to reach out to immigrants all over Israel."
Seattle native and Jerusalem resident Abe Katsman said he liked having Merkaz Hamagshimim in the city and regrets its demise. "I think it takes away a piece of the cultural landscape for Jerusalem Anglos," he said.