Welcoming Shabbat in Jerusalem with the Brandeis family

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“Here is a place whose atmosphere is peace, where political and religious jealousies can be forgotten and international unity be fostered and developed.”  So reads the quotation, in Hebrew, Arabic and English, at the front gate of the Jerusalem International YMCA, where I spent the afternoon of erev shabbat in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem YMCA CEO Forsan Hussein '00 and Fred Lawrence.

My guide was Forsan Hussein ’00, the CEO, who last Tuesday had hosted me for a welcome lunch and extracted a promise from me to come back for the full tour. It was well worth it, not only to see this extraordinary institution, but also to spend time with a Brandeis alumnus who is making his mark in his native land.

Forsan has been CEO here for two years — the first Muslim CEO of a Y anywhere in the world. Born and raised in the Galilee village of Shaab, he came to Brandeis in 1996 as one of the first two Slifka coexistence scholars. With his Brandeis education as a foundation, he is the ideal leader for this wide-ranging institution: one that is both a for-profit hotel business and a non-profit organization with ambitions for social progress.

Forsan’s vision for the Y is both practical and uplifting. He wants to make the Y’s business side efficient, profitable and service-oriented; and at the same time, he wants to make the Jerusalem Y a hub, both substantively and symbolically, for the development of coexistence in Israel and the Middle East.

In this sense, Forsan’s vision is profoundly Brandeisian. Forsan reminds me of the countless Brandeis alumni I have met who, like Forsan, have mastered the brass-tacks knowledge to run an organization like clockwork, but who see this know-how not as an end, but as a means — a means to realizing the ideals of community, learning and social justice in the most substantive sense. Here at the Y, the landscape is thousands of miles from Waltham but the ideals ring with the same clarion call I hear in students’ voices on campus. I look forward to finding ways for Brandeis students and faculty to connect with Forsan’s work here in the Holy Land.

The 600-seat auditorium, which houses many cultural events.

Ecumenism was woven into every aspect of the Y’s design, as Forsan showed us: windows and trees in biblical numbers of 12 and 40; inscriptions in three languages, extolling the greatness of the Almighty; symbols of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions cut into the light fixtures in the 600-seat auditorium. Founded in the mid-19th century, the Jerusalem Y moved into its current building in the early 1930s — a Byzantine-esque structure, complete with a six-story tower that is now among the city’s most prominent landmarks.

At the top of the tower, I looked out with Forsan over a spectacular vista, the skyline of Jerusalem — in one direction, the storied Jerusalem-stone walls of the ancient Old City; in another, modern Jerusalem’s towers, offices, apartment buildings and parks. In the small space beneath the top of the tower, a group of young visitors sang hymns from different traditions and it felt only natural to join them in song.

As I write these words, I am now preparing for Shabbat in Jerusalem. This day of rest and reflection will be for me a chance to absorb all that I have seen and learned throughout a non-stop week of long-planned visits come to fruition, long-cherished relationships renewed, and new connections built.

Tonight, we will share a Shabbat dinner both with Brandeis faculty and administrators, and with a number of Israeli guests: Mark Regev, spokesperson for the Prime Minister, and his family; Nadav Tamir, former Israeli consul-general in Boston; and a number of Israeli intellectuals. It is especially meaningful to spend a Shabbat here in Jerusalem with my wife Kathy and my son Noah, who has been living in Jerusalem the past several months, working for Kadima Party chairwoman Tzipi Livni. For all these reasons, it will be a fulfilling day of rest here, as I re-charge my batteries for another busy week ahead  — starting on Sunday morning!

1 Response to “Welcoming Shabbat in Jerusalem with the Brandeis family”

  • Thank you, President Lawrence, for allowing your readers to shadow you in Jerusalem. I was personally very moved by this entry, as it speaks to the best of Brandeis in its ecumenism and highlights one of so many alumni of whom the university can well be proud.
    Your joining other visitors in song, across cultures and religions, also touches me personally, as music can so often be a bridge among peoples, an international language.
    Thanks, Fred!

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