Working for Jerusalem &mdash 40 years and counting

jerusalem | The city has a downtown street named for her great-grandfather, a major pharmaceutical industry founded by her grandfather, and her husband served as a Supreme Court justice for 14 years. Despite the vigorous involvement of her family in Jerusalem, however, Ruth Cheshin’s many contributions to the city of her birth are uniquely her own.

“My grandfather was head of Palestine’s Jewish community under the British Mandate, and we regularly hosted people from Jerusalem’s different ethnic and religious groups,” says Cheshin, whose family has lived in Jerusalem for seven generations. “I grew up with the awareness that many communities call Jerusalem their home.”

This awareness and tolerance has influenced Cheshin’s leadership of the Jerusalem Foundation, which she helped create and has led for 40 years — and for which she was honored on Israel’s 59th Independence Day by being chosen to light one of the 12 beacons on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl.

“It was the foundation that was honored, not me,” she protests.

It’s for the sake of the Jerusalem Foundation that she agrees to an interview. “I’m usually reluctant to give time to interviews,” she says, “but promoting the foundation is important. The better it’s known, the more help it will attract, and the more forcefully it will push Jerusalem’s needs to the forefront.”

In 1966 Cheshin was pulled out of Jerusalem’s Tourism Department by the city’s newly elected mayor, Teddy Kollek, to help establish a committee to work for the welfare of all Jerusalem’s residents.

She and Kollek had already worked together: In the early 1960s, when she returned from study-leave in London with her husband, Mishael, and their infant daughter Efrat, eldest of their three children, she and Jerusalem’s future mayor had set up the City of Jerusalem’s Tourism Department.

But within months of her new assignment, Jerusalem — and the foundation’s role — would be transformed. In June 1967, the Six-Day War was fought and won, and Jerusalem was reunited, in the global spotlight and poised for exponential growth.

“Jerusalem in the mid-1960s was an arid, dusty town, perched on the edge of the desert,” says Cheshin. “We saw the foundation’s role in those early days as turning the city green. We wanted to provide outdoor space for the many families living in small, cramped apartments, and at the same time make the city beautiful. We believed that everyone entering it should ponder its beauty and feel: ‘This is the Jerusalem I’ve dreamed of!’

“And I believe we have succeeded. We’ve built more than 200 parks and made Jerusalem verdant.”

Verdant it may be, but Jerusalem remains insolvent, lacking sufficient budget even to care appropriately for parkland the foundation created. As the years passed, the organization’s focus moved from beautification into projects to promote the city’s economy and bolster education, coexistence and tolerance.

“What’s absolutely clear is that every group that venerates Jerusalem — Jewish, Muslim and Christian — is staying here,” says Cheshin. “No one is bowing out. And that means we must learn to live side by side with mutual respect and without mutual suspicion.”

The Foundation has established a Jewish-Arab kindergarten, summer camps and basketball tournaments. It has a Democracy and Peace Institute, and the campus of a Hebrew-Arabic school is under construction. It has inspired arts festivals and hosts an International Book Fair every two years. There are hot meals for the elderly, outreach to the city’s Ethiopian youngsters, and a long school day in needy neighborhoods.

Today a grandmother of six, Chesin remains active in many foundation initiatives, serves on numerous arts organization boards, and is a director of her late grandfather’s business, Teva Pharmaceuticals.