Sharing art, diversity, creativity in central Jerusalem

Sharing art, diversity, creativity in central Jerusalem

Local donors help Bezalel Academy to move back to city’s heart

The excavation site in central Jerusalem of the future $100 million Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. The building will face the Ottoman-era Russian Orthodox church.
The excavation site in central Jerusalem of the future $100 million Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. The building will face the Ottoman-era Russian Orthodox church.

In about three years, a gleaming glass-walled $100 million home for Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design — Israel’s oldest institution of higher education, founded in 1906 — is scheduled to open in Jerusalem’s city center. It is to be accented with Jerusalem stone and topped by a garden rooftop offering a panoramic view of the capital.

That this long-held dream finally is under construction is thanks in part to two Bergen County donors: the Teaneck-based Russell Berrie Foundation and Englewood residents Linda and Ilan Kaufthal.

Mr. Kaufthal said the location of the future campus is key to his excitement about the project. It sits in the Russian Compound, near the municipal complex (so called because of its Ottoman-era Russian Orthodox Church and former pilgrim hostels). It’s on the seam between the eastern and western sides of the Israeli capital, across from the Old City walls and at the crossroads of secular, ultra-Orthodox, and Muslim neighborhoods.

“The idea of having a creative academy in the urban center, where 2,000 students and 500 faculty members can tap into the creativity around it, is important and inspirational,” Mr. Kaufthal said. “Every time I go there and see the progress I come out energized.”

The 400,000-square-foot structure was designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architectural firm Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates. It incorporates ancient and modern materials in a way that is symbolic of the academy’s vision of bridging old and new. Its transparent walls are meant to convey a welcoming accessibility, the very antithesis of the “ivory tower” notion of academia.

“We wanted the building to be open to the neighborhood, so people walking by can feel they’re inside,” Mr. Kaufthal said, adding that the institute will offer programs for the public.

Originally called the Bezalel School of Art and Craft in homage to the biblical craftsman Bezalel of the tribe of Judah, who created the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary the Israelites carried with them in the desert, the renowned art academy was founded by Lithuanian émigré Boris Schatz, considered the father of Israeli art. Its brief first home was not far from the Russian Compound. Twice, Bezalel closed for lack of funds — in 1917 and in 1929 — but in 1935 it was revived by Berlin print artist Josef Budko, who opened it in downtown Jerusalem on what is now Bezalel Street.

As the institute grew in both size and prestige, it moved to a new building on the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the late 1980s. Only the architecture division remains on Bezalel Street. But the Mount Scopus campus is far from the heart of the city and has isolated the institute from the public, Mr. Kaufthal said.

He and his wife are aficionados of Israeli art and have been deeply involved in Bezalel Academy for the last decade. As chairman of the board of Friends of Bezalel, Mr. Kaufthal has helped the administration search for a way to return downtown.

“About eight years ago, the government granted us a phenomenal piece of land at the Russian Compound big enough to accommodate the entire school,” he said. The site had been a parking lot.

An artist’s rendering shows students outside the Bezalel Academy’s transparent walls sketching the Russian Compound church.

The Kaufthals were moved to donate toward the $100 million cost of construction. With the help of additional donors and the Israeli government, $80 million has been contributed so far. American philanthropist Morton Mandel gave $25 million, and the new facility accordingly will be named the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Campus of Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design Jerusalem.

An additional $10 million must be raised for equipping and moving to the new facility, plus $15 million for a maintenance fund.

The campus will house a library, galleries, workshops, classrooms, studios, offices, auditoriums, a cafeteria, and a shop. The new site is expected to facilitate interdepartmental collaboration among Bezalel’s students and faculty in fine arts, architecture, ceramic and glass design, industrial design, jewelry and fashion design, photography, visual communications, screen-based arts, urban design, and art history and theory.

Mr. Kaufthal said the new location will enable Bezalel to do better at projecting and contributing to Jerusalem’s creative energy and diversity. “For some years now, many students coming out of Hebrew University and Bezalel were moving out of the city,” he said. “Mayor Nir Barkat has worked hard to reverse that process, and he has been incredibly supportive and helpful in moving along the Bezalel project.

“He and his staff recognize that the noise behind their office is a positive noise for the future of Jerusalem.”

The Berrie Foundation’s chief executive officer, Ruth Salzman, said that Mayor Barkat invited her to see the construction site from the balcony of his office in nearby Safra Square. The foundation is contributing $5 million toward the project.

“One of our areas of focus is Jerusalem, and we are committed to a dynamic, pluralistic, global city that is a thriving capital for the state of Israel but is also very connected to the world,” Ms. Salzman said. “Bezalel is an institution that stands for these values.

“We think that moving back to the center of town, accessible to all neighborhoods served by the light rail, will increase Bezalel Academy’s ability to be a hub for the different sectors of the population and the city’s growing infrastructure of startups, social entrepreneurs, and artists. We like projects that make sense on their own and have a ripple effect that connects with other work we are doing.”

Mr. Kaufthal sits on the Berrie Foundation board but recused himself from the vote to donate toward the Bezalel project. “Even without my vote, the trustees decided it was a significant project for Jerusalem and wanted to help make it happen,” he said.

Ms. Salzman said that she has formed a personal attachment to the Bezalel project over the course of several visits. “Everybody we’ve worked with at Bezalel has been so terrific, at the highest level in terms of transparency and communication,” she added.

“The Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design maintains both the privilege and responsibility of developing Israel’s art and culture scene, and this new campus will play an important role in facilitating its growth,” said Professor Adi Stern, president of Bezalel.

“Bezalel has earned an international reputation for innovative art and design, with alumni contributing to Israel’s positive and pluralistic image around the world. Our new campus in the heart of the city is the most significant project being undertaken in Jerusalem today.”

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