Bridging Jerusalem’s Cultural Divide

Jerusalem’s cultural programming should be viewed as a laboratory where questions of shared identity can be explored; tolerating one another does not create shared experiences, and our city of gold deserves better.

Jerusalem’s municipality would do well to ponder the Greek saying of Delphi, “Know Thyself”. It is simultaneously a call for both humility and uniqueness, touching upon a huge challenge that faces this city - the challenge of finding its contemporary cultural identity.

The capital’s failure to rise to this challenge was painfully evident with the misfire of the Mamilla Beach Party planned for the Old City walls. In this almost comic plan, the city was to import sand by the truckload and convince people to come play bikini beach ball. Not only was the location in questionable taste, but the event was to take place during the Three Weeks - in which our people mourn the destruction of the Temple.

The party was relocated once the Haredi warning bell was sounded, further highlighting the superficial vision the municipality has for our city and addressing the problem with short-sightedness in a bid to maintain tolerance and co-existence.

Tal Cohen

This failure does not rest on City Hall’s shoulders alone. It is a symptom of the serious questions that arise when we consider what elements of our Jewish identity are still shared by most of our people, and our lack of desire to seriously explore answers.

These questions emerge in the news on a national level almost daily. When we have to give communal voice to our pain over our lost soldiers do we evoke God in prayer, or should our words turn toward the nation alone? What defines us as a people and what is a valid conversion process?

Jerusalem’s cultural programming should be viewed as a laboratory where these questions of shared identity can be explored in relative safety. Tolerating one another does not create shared experiences, and our city of gold deserves better.

It is the moderate intellectual and religious leadership who should pave the way, serving as a bridge to explore connections and boundaries between the different communities in the city. The goal should be to create events, festivals and programs that are rooted in our heritage and which create the broadest shared experience possible.

This would open a path to national dialogue, not only between Jews, but also between Jews, Muslims and Christians. There is no doubt that knowing yourself is crucial in knowing the other, and that the opposite is also true. It is fitting that Jerusalem is well suited for all these encounters.

As we move through these Three Weeks commemorating the first and second commonwealths of our people, we should be mindful of the historical teaching that baseless hatred between Jews is what led to our fall. This is a lesson about the need to engage the other, to listen, to be heard, and to find shared meaning in our shared reality. These are the building blocks of Jerusalem and Israel‘s future.

This is a call to my fellow Jerusalemites. We are a special breed, connected to everything this city symbolizes in a deep way. We do not need to be defined by the schisms that limit our country, and we can begin to take the next step. It is not an easy task, but it is one we are called to, by virtue of living here, and more importantly, by virtue of living here together.

Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz is Founder and Dean of HaOhel Institutions (Sulam Yaakov, Ashrei, Shirat Devorah, and Threshold) in Nachlaot, Jerusalem.