Jerusalem’s Secular Revival

This article was first published in The Jerusalem Report.

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Hatnua Hayerushalmit CEO Rabbi Uri Ayalon (left) and Hitorerut Chairman Ofer Berkovitch at The First Station in July. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

For many, Jerusalem’s newly restored train station is a sign that the city is getting back on track. Located adjacent to the trendy German Colony and Baka neighborhoods, and the bustling Emek Refaim Street, and a center for food, culture, and entertainment, The First Station, as it is called, has a good chance of being successful no matter what. But what’s bringing it both intense attention and strong attendance is the fact that it is open on the Sabbath—not something that’s business as usual in Jerusalem.

Those who have been working for the past five years (since before the last mayoral elections that brought the non-Haredi Nir Barkat to power) to restore religious pluralism, tolerance and openness to an increasingly ultra- Orthodox Jerusalem, see The First Station as an important sign that their efforts are paying off.

Others, although pleased that The First Station is a popular destination, are wary of declaring it or other such achievements as signals that large parts of the Orthodox community have internalized “the hard but essential price of Jewish sovereignty,” as Yossi Klein Halevi, senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, wrote recently in The Jerusalem Post – namely “the need to respect the primacy of democratic rules in the public space, even if that means restricting how one’s notion of Jewish law should govern that space.”

“Who will come to shout, ‘Shabbos!’ when thousands of people are here?” Rabbi Uri Ayalon counters. Ayalon is CEO of Hatnua Hayerushalmit (The Jerusalem Movement), an NGO of religious and non-religious Jerusalemites working to improve the quality of life for all of the city’s residents and to combat extremism and discrimination in the public sphere.

Ayalon speaks to The Jerusalem Report while sitting one fine morning at one of the cafés at The First Station. It happens to be Landwer Café, a non-kosher establishment that stays open on Shabbat. All around are visitors who have come to shop, eat at one of the station’s seven restaurants and food outlets, view on-site exhibitions, check out the children’s area, or partake in one of the many activities offered at the station, like Segway tours, concerts and zumba dance classes.

An open air, musical Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday evening draws an average of 400 people, and according to spokesperson Noa Berger, all aspects of The First Station remain open and active on Friday nights and Saturdays, save for the kosher dining establishments and the retail shops.

With all the buzz, it is hard to imagine that the building stood empty and boarded up for 15 years, until its renovation was completed last April. Even before its official closing in 1998, the train station hadn’t been very busy, with demand for the rail route between Jaffa and Jerusalem having drastically fallen off in the latter part of the 20th century.

The rest of this article, which appears in the September 9 issue of The Jerusalem Report magazine, is not currently available online. A pdf copy is available upon request.

© 2013 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

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