For more than two years we’ve been using deliberative democracy methods to foster a sense of community and belonging among Jerusalem’s diverse populations, thanks to the generous support of the UJA-Federation of New York. We’ve been working with a number of Jerusalem neighborhoods, from Gilo and Baka’a to Romema, Kiryat Hayovel and Rehavia, as well as in regional (Jerusalem Railway Park) and citywide initiatives (training of community workers).
The latest neighborhood to embark on this process of empowerment is the City Center. As part of a community-building process that began in March of this year, on December 1, 2014, some 200 residents squeezed into the gymnasium at the Experimental High School in downtown Jerusalem for a town meeting based on Open Space Technology. The group was incredibly diverse – Ultra-Orthodox, Secular, Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, immigrants from all around the Jewish world, and even a few asylum seekers from Eritrea! Three elected City Council members, one of them a Deputy Mayor, joined the group and later joined the task teams. All came to discuss issues in the neighborhood that they were passionate about finding solutions for. For the first time, residents were excited to finally be able to give voice to their everyday concerns, and meet other people who were potential partners in finding solutions. Examples included noise, sanitation, parking, quiet on Saturdays, improving safety, the elderly, growing plants in the city center, ecology, and more. These 200 people split up into different task teams, and we will continue to mentor them to ensure that the issues are advanced.
According to the residents, this is the first time ever that residents have been led in any community-building process in the downtown Jerusalem. Until now, many felt that they were “transparent” in relation to the business-owners in the city center, and that their needs were secondary to the businesses’. They’d tried to organize themselves around different issues (planning Nevi’im Street, the pedestrian malls, and more), but there was never an organized, long-term process that allowed residents to have their own say in the future of their neighborhood. We see this as just the beginning, and are going to help the groups that were formed to continue to work and impact downtown. We truly believe that this is a new beginning for the residents of the City Center.