YMCA celebrates 130 years of open doors in Jerusalem

By Ecumenical News International
July 18, 2008

The Jerusalem International YMCA is this year marking the 130th anniversary of when it first opened its doors in the back of a Christian bookstore inside the Old City's Jaffa Gate during the days of Ottoman rule in 1878 - writes Judith Sudilovsky.

It is also celebrating its 75th anniversary in a landmark building, which was completed in 1933 on the prestigious King David Street, across from the hotel of the same name. The building receives more than half a million visitors a year.

The YMCA building was designed by Arthur Loomis Harmon, the architect of the Empire State Building in New York, and it has three inscriptions - Jewish, Christian and Muslim - engraved on the building's facade: "The Lord Our God the Lord is One," in Hebrew, on the right; "I am the Way," in Aramaic, in the centre, and "There is no God but God," in Arabic, on the left.

From the beginning the YMCA mission statement emphasised that it would not be a source of proselytising, allaying fears some Jerusalemites had in the early years.

In fact many religiously observant people - notably Jewish and Muslim women - make use of the YMCA's facilities, especially the pool, because it offers separate bathing for men and women.

"Throughout its history, the YMCA in Jerusalem developed as an open venue supported by Christian hospitality with open doors to people of all faiths who check [leave] their politics at the entrance," said the Jerusalem International YMCA director general, Norris Lineweaver.

He said the YMCA was severely affected by the second Intifada, an uprising by Palestinians that resulted in many Christian institutions in Jerusalem being closed due to a sharp decrease in tourism.

"There continues to be a need to give space to strengthen the voices of moderation that encourage prosperity and peace accessible to all over the voices of extreme violence and hatred from a few who are without hope," noted Lineweaver.

Financially the Jerusalem YMCA - which receives 42 percent of its budget from overseas partners - is on target for its 2008 budget, said Lineweaver, though it has to reduce its operations budget by more than US$350 000 and hopes for savings of more than $500 000 in 2009, he said.

Currently the American YMCA is looking to bringing in separate strategic partners to run the hotel and restaurant as a way to reduce the budget, but former director general Rizek Abusharr has apprehensions about what this will do to the character of the Jerusalem YMCA.

"I have a gut feeling this is the end of the YMCA as I know it and built it up to be," Abusharr said.

However, Lineweaver said he believes strategic partners will strengthen the ability of the YMCA to stabilise income to advance its mission.

"It does not matter that the YMCA is getting out of the hotel and restaurant business," said Lineweaver. "What really matters is that the YMCA focus more strategically on its mission to serve the needs of communities in Jerusalem and the Lower Galilee Region."

For the Jerusalem YMCA, the needs include programmes which bring people of different backgrounds together for concerts, plays, classes, clubs, summer camps, holiday parties and children's programmes, including a peace pre-school where Arab and Jewish children learn and play together.

"Children who learn to have fun today have no fear of the other as they mature into productive lives," said Lineweaver. "It is our investment in the future."

Moshe Golan-Golanti, a religious Jew, has considered his second home since he was 13 years old to be the Jerusalem International YMCA, an institution that grew out of the Young Men's Christian Association. As a youngster he and his friends, who lived in the nearby poor neighbourhood of Musrara where the homes had no heating, would come to the YMCA to escape cold Jerusalem winters.

Half a century later, at the age of 64, Golan-Galanti continues to meet friends at the YMCA's swimming pool and gym several times a week, although he now lives about 12 kilometres away and could easily join a gym closer to home.

"We like to start our day with exercise," said Golan-Golanti, with a burgundy yarmulke perched on his shock of white hair. "Here we have friends of all races and religions, male and female. We all respect each other. Politics does not exist for us here. Hopefully we can learn to live like this outside the YMCA walls too."

Until the 1960s the YMCA had the only swimming pool in Jerusalem, and it can now be so crowded that Elis Sapira, 72, who like Golan-Galanti continues as a member of the association, doesn't even try to get in for his early morning swim.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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