Center Field: Jerusalemites shouldn’t be afraid of ghosts

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-21-09

As summer begins, many of Jerusalem’s temporary residents are returning to their apartments. On King David Street, progress continues on three huge luxury developments, as if billions of dollars in wealth had not recently vanished.

If the past is a reliable guide, throughout the summer, various Israeli papers will publish stories about the missing residents in Jerusalem’s various “ghost towns.” Inevitably, the editors will run a picture of an empty street in the swanky David’s Village project. And all will tut-tut about the damage these absentee homeowners cause, with their empty apartments, abandoned neighborhoods and inflated property prices. Perhaps some politician will float another harebrained scheme to penalize these owners with burdensome nonresidents’ taxes.

This whole approach is wrong. Jerusalemites shouldn’t be afraid of ghosts. Instead, these owners should be welcomed, celebrated – and challenged to improve the city.

Let’s be honest, most people buying property in Jerusalem do not get much bang for their (very big) bucks. In the city’s real estate market, you spend a lot more than in most places, and get a lot less. People looking for nice vacation homes are better off buying in Florida or Provence. Most of the much-demonized ghosts of Jerusalem are crazy about the city. They buy in Jerusalem because they love it and want to participate in this old-new adventure regularly.

RATHER THAN picking on them or ignoring them, Jerusalemites – and the city’s leadership – should embrace them. Rather than imposing a nonresidents’ tax, foreign homeowners should be encouraged to pay a voluntary additional arnona (municipal tax). Whereas in the US and Canada, property taxes are assessed based on a home’s estimated value, here they are assessed per square meter.

Here is the one bargain in the Jerusalem real estate game. For example, a $1 million apartment in Manhattan would be assessed more than $12,000 in taxes. A $1 million home in Miami could owe more than $20,000 in property taxes. But a 200-square-meter, $1 million-plus apartment in Jerusalem could cost less than $4,000.

The Jerusalem Foundation or some other reputable charity – able to issue tax deductible receipts in most of centers of Diaspora life – should establish a Voluntary Tax Jerusalem Quality of Life Fund. Nonresidents should be invited to make an additional annual contribution, beyond the arnona, based on their home’s value. This fund should subsidize young married couples from Jerusalem purchasing new apartments in the city. The money should also pay to pick up litter and improve schools in the particular areas the nonresidents live. The mayor and a team of trustworthy residents and nonresidents should administer the fund, ensuring transparency, accountability and much publicity.

To make this work, participating nonresidents should get something in return. Most people who buy in Jerusalem seek a deeper tie to the place and its residents – why not provide that? Currently, you need an Israeli ID card to get a municipality discount card. Why not make these patriotic nonresidents, honorary citizens, with their own special discount card? And why not, once or twice a year, host an evening in the Old City welcoming these honorary Jerusalemites?

IF JERUSALEM’S residents knew their nonresident neighbors were making extra contributions to clean their streets, improve their schools and subsidize their children’s first homes, they might stop fearing ghosts. If Jerusalem’s nonresidents felt more welcome, the chances of contributing to the city, or making a more permanent move, would also increase. If nonresidents felt more a part of the city, other ideas, such as encouraging them to use responsible students as house-sitters for a minimal rent when they are gone, would gain traction too.

More is more. More exposure and goodwill lead to more engagement. Buying a home, even a second home, is a profound sentimental decision. I know of young people currently serving in the army, using their parents’ apartments as temporary bases when they have leaves. I know of families that made aliya after they bought their homes, as the decision to purchase a “second home” in Jerusalem catapulted them toward making it their primary residence.

And the contributions that some generous and visionary temporary residents, notably Charles Bronfman and his late wife Andrea Bronfman, have made to the city are incalculable, both by funding projects and by generating a sense of fun in the city. Welcoming these lovers of Zion, is the right way to go. Encouraging more people to become intoxicated by the spirit of Jerusalem – and engaged with the many necessary efforts to make it thrive – is the best strategy.

Whenever I pass Trump Tower on New York’s Fifth Avenue, I wonder which Saudi princes, British aristocrats, Italian playboys, Russian oligarchs or Hong Kong billionaires can afford to live there. I assume most of the owners are absentee. No one in New York seems to care. True, Jerusalem is smaller and more vulnerable to the estimated 20 percent nonresident owners in its center. But a confident city, like a confident person, embraces rather than chases, encourages rather than compels. Instead of grumbling about greedy, ghostly outsiders, better to brainstorm about how much the estimated 9,200 foreign apartment owners in the city center can give to the city – and get from it.

In Florida, year-round residents call the outsiders who flock south during the winter “snowbirds.” Jerusalemites should start appreciating their non-full-time neighbors as homing pigeons, who, we learn from Wikipedia, “find [their] way home over extremely long distances.” Homing pigeons are also carrier pigeons. In these difficult times, we can use more homing pigeons, drawn to the Jewish people’s eternal capital, to serve as carrier pigeons, spreading the message of Jerusalem’s joys for tourists, regular visitors, nonresident owners and full-time residents alike.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. His splits his time between Montreal and Jerusalem.

Gil Troy: Happy 100th Young Judaea

Center Field: Happy 100th Young Judaea

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-9-09

One hundred years ago today, 50 activists meeting in New York established Young Judaea, which became America’s largest Zionist youth movement. The movement’s centennial occurs in rough times. Hadassah, its generous sponsor since 1967, is cutting back. Membership is down. Many consider youth movements outmoded in the Internet era, and Zionism itself passé.

Nevertheless, Young Judaea’s glorious history illustrates why the movement must not die. We need Young Judaea to thrive as an altruism incubator, a community builder, an identity enhancer, providing an inspiring model of 24-7 Judaism while molding a Zionist response to today’s challenges.

I first entered the “Z-House,” Zionist House, Young Judaea’s Queens regional headquarters in 1975. I was a very serious, very square 14-year-old, sporting Poindexter glasses, dragging a big black briefcase as a schoolbag. Young Judaea liberated me from being so conventional and conformist. Unlike many movement friends, I liked my parents, my synagogue, my Jewish day school education. Still, the movement added edge, zest, passion, wrapped up with many of the best friendships I would ever make – and still enjoy.

AS REGIONAL LEADERS and through the movement’s senior camp, Tel Yehudah, my friends and I joined a nationwide network of people who cared about Israel, Judaism, and the world. We believed ideas counted. We believed Arik Einstein’s song “you and I will change the world.” We debated issues constantly, from the morality of playing American rock music or using blow dryers in a Zionist camp to the compatibility of a Jewish state with universal values.

We were blessed with extraordinary madrihim, leaders, who took our ideas seriously while making education and activism fun. To single out some risks slighting many. Still, I appreciate how my witty, wry, delightfully-tortured, super-smart club leader Greg Musnikow; my reedy, exuberant, deeply intellectual and compellingly spiritual camp unit head, Steve Copeland; and the gruff, charismatic, hard-hitting, fast-talking, substantive but endlessly entertaining pied piper of Tel Yehudah, Mel Reisfield, each shaped me as a thinker, an educator, a Jew, a Zionist, an historian, a human being, a friend, even a parent decades before I married.

The movement gave us a community, what we call today a platform, for learning, leadership, identity-building, social-activism, maturing experiences and fun. I still quote insights I learned at camp about the clash between tradition and modernity in the 1800s that created Zionism and shaped today’s world. I remember the first time I took 40 campers hiking, suddenly realizing I was in charge and personally responsible for their safety.

AS JUDAEANS, we translated our formal and informal Jewish learning into vital modes of Jewish living, rooted in our history and traditions, influenced by Western values and sensibilities, enlivened by song and dance, perpetual laughter and occasional tears. We fought to free Soviet and Ethiopian Jews, to defend Israel and save the environment, to help kids with special needs and remember the needy, all through the movement. Amid this serious work, we bonded. We questioned and quarreled, paired off and broke up, giggled and pranked. We lived large.

These experiences taught us that Zionism was more than pro-Israelism, that Zionism was not just the Jewish national liberation movement reestablishing our homeland but was a vehicle of individual liberation fulfilling big dreams, personally and collectively, Jewishly and universally. Our Zionism was subversive. It began by critiquing American Jewry and modernity, repudiating the materialism, vulgarity, emptiness and ignorance warping so many Jewish – and American – institutions. We examined the Jewish community, American life, Israel itself, as they were – and said, “We expect more, we demand more”: more justice, more ethics, more intimacy, more safety, more dynamism.

As general, nonpartisan, pluralistic Zionists, we valued klal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people, over the partisan rivalries plaguing the Jewish world and Israel. Most Judaeans were liberal and nonobservant. Nevertheless, we observed Shabbat publicly, served kosher food exclusively and prayed daily. This openness enabled religious and nonreligious Jews, liberals and conservatives, to talk together and, of course, argue together.

ALTHOUGH THE MOVEMENT did not save the world (yet), it produced extraordinary alumni. So many movement graduates went into helping-professions, communal leadership, intellectual pursuits, that if ex-Judaeans established a church, it would be called “Our Lady of the Social Workers and the Educators, the Community Leaders and Philanthropists.”

I could boast about my superstar friends in America and Israel, describing their impact on campus and in communities, in the music business and the coffee business, in virtually creating the Israeli environmental movement while keeping the Zionist flame burning in both countries. I could boast about how the movement kibbutz, Ketura, unites religious and secular Israelis, keeping kibbutz ideals alive today, thriving as a community based on altruism not selfishness.

But my Judaean friends’ greatest collective accomplishment is the honorable, ethical lives they lead, their rich Jewish family lives, the noble values they fulfill daily. A recent Hadassah survey showed – surprise, surprise – that movement alumni were much more likely to marry Jewish, light Shabbat candles, contribute to community, move to Israel. I can add that my Judaean friends are much less likely than others to divorce, neglect their children, indulge in pathological drug and alcohol use, forget their obligations to others, even as many personally prosper.

With Israel established and thriving, Soviet and Ethiopian Jews freed, American Jews feeling thoroughly at home, many pronounce Zionism irrelevant. But Israel still needs defending and perfecting, and American Jews desperately need education and inspiration. Young Judaea’s constructively communal countercultural sensibility, its vision of Zionism as a moral system and source of hope, is needed now. The Birthright Israel identity-building revolution through Israel experiences of the last decade reflects a Judaean sensibility applied on a mass scale. Young Judaea never was and never will be a mass movement. But the movement could nurture a committed cadre of this next generation’s Zionist dreamers and doers – as it has been doing for the last hundred years.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. He divides his time between Montreal and Jerusalem.

Education cuts are hasty and shortsighted

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 6-10-09

In July, 2007, amid much fanfare, the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Board of Jewish Education became the Centre for Enhancement of Jewish Education, widely called the Mercaz – Hebrew for “centre.”“The name says what the priorities are,” the Mercaz chair Lou Greenbaum exulted. This spring, less than two years later and amid much less fanfare, the Mercaz was abruptly downsized and thus marginalized, shedding at least 10 full-time jobs.

What happened in Toronto is happening throughout the Jewish world. The last two decades’ gains in Jewish education and identity-building are disappearing as quickly as people’s net worths have plummeted. The legendary Boston Board of Jewish Education recently lost 80 per cent of its funding and will likely close. Birthright Israel, perhaps the most successful Jewish program of the 21st century, has turned away thousands of applicants this year because of limited funds.

These cutbacks are dangerous. Capitalism is cyclical – economic busts are usually followed by economic booms – but education and identity-building are more linear. Opportunities missed are rarely recovered. Children uneducated frequently remain ignorant. Young people turned off are rarely turned back on. Jewish leaders in Toronto and elsewhere can’t afford to be shortsighted. We must continue investing in education and outreach programs that foster Jewish pride and knowledge.

During the last two decades, Jewish education and identity-building boomed. Philanthropic visionaries such as Charles Bronfman, Michael Steinhardt and Lynn Schusterman made funding Israel trips, initiating teen programs, and even building Jewish day schools sexy.

They understood – as did many other generous donors and passionate professionals – that anti-Semitism doesn’t pose the greatest threat to this generation of thoroughly North Americanized Jews that it did to the immigrant generation. In fact, Jews today risked being loved to death by intermarriage, especially after having been bored to tears by so many initial encounters in synagogues, Jewish schools, and youth groups. The writer Leon Wieseltier adds that this generation’s great crime is not intermarriage but ignorance – most are extremely educated in secular subjects and appallingly uninformed Jewishly.

These insights – backed by sobering demographic studies – galvanized the community. Birthright Israel, which has brought more than 120,000 18-to-26-year-olds on free 10-day trips to Israel, has been the flagship program, generating the most buzz. But Birthright’s success reflected a broader reorientation toward education and identity building, accompanied by massive investments in teachers, teacher training, curricula, programs, infrastructure and central educational agencies such as the Mercaz.

I recall that in Montreal, as we planned our own massive, ambitious “Gen J” program to invest in our kids’ future, Toronto’s 2007 launch of the Mercaz inspired us – and made us feel a tad inadequate. We wondered whether our community could mobilize similar support for Jewish education. At the risk of feeding the Toronto-Montreal rivalry – although all of us should compete regarding who cares most about Jewish education and identity – so far Montreal has kept Jewish education front and centre, despite the economic downturn.

In fairness, Toronto continues to lead North America in providing tuition assistance, fostering quality Jewish day schools, and identity building. Still, shrinking the Mercaz is a big blow. Boards of Jewish education such as the Mercaz serve essential roles in professionalizing teachers, coaching administrators, providing quality control, nurturing reforms and upholding city-wide standards.

“I have always felt that the Mercaz did very important work and made significant contributions to Jewish education in Toronto,” Prof. Martin Lockshin of York University told me via e-mail. “They were, for example, indispensable for us at York in making our Jewish teacher education program work. They also provided indispensible services to many day schools and many teachers, particularly new teachers. I am very worried about how this gap will be filled. From conversations that I have had, I sense that my concerns are shared by many respected educators here in Toronto.”

The financial crisis is forcing Jewish communities worldwide to clarify their priorities, abandon unnecessary projects and focus on initiatives that work. Such retrenchment, while always painful and involuntary, can be constructive, resulting in more focused and effective communities. But hasty and thoughtless cutbacks can be particularly destructive, dooming this generation to ignorance and apathy.