Bergenfield residents Shimmy and Evy Stein had visited Jerusalem dozens of times, but it wasn’t until they agreed to host a parlor meeting for the Jerusalem Reclamation Project six years ago that the capital city’s future became their personal cause.
Learning about the project "woke us up," said Shimmy Stein. "Before that, Jerusalem was hotels and restaurants for us a vacation spot. They opened our eyes to its heart and soul."
As a reward for the support the Steins have given the project ever since, they were among four couples honored at a recent Jerusalem Day dinner to benefit the JRP, also known as American Friends of Ateret Cohanim.
At the Jerusalem Reclamation Project dinner are, from left, Evy Stein, Josh Stein, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Shimmy Stein, Ari Stein, and Sari Stein. photo by three star photography/sam shlagbaum
This non-profit organization, established in 1978, works toward re-establishing Jewish communities in and around the Old City of Jerusalem areas whose long-standing Jewish populations were decimated by Arab riots and pogroms in the 19’0s, 1930s, and the War of Independence in 1948. Former Jewish residences are purchased from their current owners, renovated, and put back into use as homes, schools, or synagogues.
When the Steins came to Israel in ’00’ for their son’s bar mitzvah, the JRP arranged a tour for them and their guests. "They walked us around to show us what they had accomplished, and we found it to be really meaningful and worthwhile," said Evy Stein. "As a result, we’ve supported them and have tried to get others involved."
"It’s a bit of a tough sell," Shimmy Stein said. "People often say they’d rather put food on someone’s table, but if there’s no table to put the food on, you have nothing."
Nevertheless, Stein’s two business partners from Emco Plumbing Services in Manhattan got on board after Stein took them on an 11-hour tour of the properties with Daniel Luria, JRP’s executive director. The partners were impressed enough to commit to monthly contributions that have paid for such things as utility bills and security equipment.
"I call him a ‘Jewish bulldozer’ and I mean that in a very positive sense," said Luria. "He’s a doer. The nation of Israel is made up of many people who just sit back and don’t do anything. Not Shimmy. Keeping Jerusalem in Jewish hands is his priority and he manages to schlep others into the game."
The "game" now encompasses 43 properties in the Old City, eight families in the newly reclaimed Yemenite village nearby, 46 families on the Mount of Olives, and half a dozen each in the neighborhoods of Abu Tor and Abu Dis. Generally, the purposeful reestablishment of a Jewish presence in what are now mostly Arab areas is championed in nationalistic, right-leaning circles and considered incendiary and controversial in leftist circles.
The residences that have been purchased and peopled with young Jewish families are far from palatial, Shimmy Stein pointed out. The ancient buildings are often in a state of disrepair and neglect and require heavy security from sometimes hostile neighbors.
Shimmy Stein considers the pioneering families and yeshiva students to be heroes. "We can go stay in the King Solomon Hotel because of these people, because their presence in the Old City is what is keeping Jerusalem ours."
On the Stein family’s most recent tour, during Passover, Evy Stein took particular note of a scene in one of the newest acquisitions, a former small hotel. "Children were playing in what must have been the lobby," she said. "It struck me that these kids had to play inside, behind heavy security at the entrance of the building. It’s certainly not how our kids play here. I think there are many important things to support in Israel, but this really speaks to me."
The Steins, who have lived here for 19 years and are members of Cong. Beth Abraham, are determined to raise awareness for the project, which they described as "swimming upstream" against what they feel is indifference from the Israeli government and from Jews worldwide.
"The problem is, we’ve lost sight of who we are and what makes us who we are," Shimmy Stein said. "We’ve turned Jerusalem into a political issue, but it has nothing to do with politics. This is our history, this is Yahadus [Judaism]."
The dinner at which the Steins were honored was held in June at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York City, and was catered by the Englewood-based Main Event. Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas and a vice-presidential hopeful on the Republican ticket, was the keynote speaker.
The other guests of honor were Robert and Laurie Koppel of Woodmere, N.Y.; Josef Kossov and Dr. Susan Levit of New York City; and Rabbi Daniel H. and Mimi Mehlman of the Lido Beach Synagogue in Lido Beach, N.Y.
"It was truly meaningful to have a man of Gov. Huckabee’s stature grace our dinner," said Dr. Joseph Frager, chairman of the board of the Jerusalem Reclamation Project. To order a DVD of Huckabee’s speech, call (‘1’) ’16-9’70 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org