JERUSALEM — Eight years ago young people from the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood in southwestern Jerusalem began leaving in droves. The area was rundown and aging, and its population was becoming increasingly haredi, or fervently Orthodox.
It was a familiar pattern in Jerusalem, where secular and Modern Orthodox residents had begun to fret about the “haredization” of a city they knew as one that was diverse and tolerant of various lifestyles.
A year before, Hebrew University students and business representatives banded together to fight the trend, and to preserve the qualities that made Jerusalem an attractive place to live for people from a range of backgrounds. Calling themselves Ruah Hadashah — New Spirit — they began encouraging students to move into Kiryat Yovel. The group began holding holiday and Shabbat celebrations and built a youth center. Weekly meetings were held in homes where young people could socialize and study Jewish philosophy and Israeli society.
“It brought so much life to the neighborhood,” said Noa Afik, a social worker who helped establish the youth center. “We were bringing something that still exists to this day. It really feels like home.”
Many from that original group have stayed in Kiryat Yovel, starting families of their own and engaging in social and community projects that have added new life to the neighborhood.
“People feel they belong to this place, said Sivan Vardi, deputy director of New Spirit. “This is what New Spirit is all about. We really want to make Jerusalem an economic and cultural center and pluralistic.”
The organization also attracted support from the Diaspora, including the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, which offered a $35,100 grant from its Outreach and Engagement branch. Support for New Spirit continues from the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, which was formed earlier this year with the merger of the Central and MetroWest federations. For 2012-13, the New Spirit program was allocated $17,500 hrough the federation's annual campaign.
Sitting in the living room of her apartment, Afik, now pregnant with her second child, recalled how she heard of the group through friends. She decided to take a chance even though Kiryat Yovel was on the other side of the city from the university, the Old City, and hipper neighborhoods around Emek Refaim Street.
She began immersing herself in social projects and activities “and before I knew it the people in the community became my best friends,” she said.
The eight friends in her circle have been having a “baby boom” of late with 10 born in the last two years. “Now we have to meet in the day because it is too hard at night,” she said.
They are now planning to find apartments so they can live together with their expanding families; Afik herself will be moving to one in November.
There is also outreach to haredi neighbors, and social service projects as initiatives continue to bring students to the neighborhood.
“We did a good job,” said Afik. “We didn’t make a fuss about being secular. We came in as neighbors and citizens.”
Vardi said the group has also changed the image of Kiryat Yovel from that of a poor neighborhood to one “where young families want to come and live.”