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Jerusalem Foundation head envisions city as cultural hub

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Yohanna Arbib and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat
Yohanna Arbib and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat

Yohanna Arbib, the new president of the Jerusalem Foundation and a woman who has made Jewish activism a priority in her life since she was a teenager, was in Toronto last week to introduce herself to current and potential donors.

The Italian-born and raised Arbib immersed herself in Jewish leadership when she was just 16, with Keren Hayesod, Israel’s central fundraising arm.

“Israel has always played a major role in my life since I was a child. My family had left Libya in 1948. They left because the situation for Jews wasn’t as good as it used to be and I think throughout my family history, I realized that Israel is the centre of Jewish life and Israel is the only country that can guarantee the future of the Jewish People,” Arbib told The CJN during her visit to Toronto late last month.

“Having understood that, and I’m a very passionate person, I realize that what I wanted to do in life is to be a part of the history of the Jewish People and to play my role and my part in making Israel relevant, strong, and in unifying the forces of Am Yisrael around the world.”

After years of serving a number of roles in Keren Hayesod and making a name for herself as a Jewish leader, in 2009 Arbib became the youngest chair of the organization’s world board of trustees.

Turning Jerusalem into an “attractive place for tourism”

She has held top leadership roles with other organizations including Aleh, an Israeli organization that serves the disabled, as well as the Jewish Agency for Israel, before being named as Jerusalem Foundation’s president earlier this year.

Arbib, a businesswoman and philanthropist, said she is eager to leave her mark on the 50-year-old organization that has, to date, raised more than $1 billion to develop museums and film festivals, commercial development and scientific discovery, as well as promote civil society and social justice in the Old City for people of all ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds.

“We want to create the circumstances in Jerusalem whereby Jerusalem becomes an attractive place for tourism. Clearly culture plays a big role and the museums and the cultural centres we support as a foundation make Jerusalem an important cultural hub in Israel, but also internationally,” she said.

During her two-day visit, Arbib met with donors and volunteers of the foundation’s Toronto chapter, and invited them to be part of the 50th anniversary celebration and campaign planned for next year.

Arbib said part of her mission is to raise awareness about the work the foundation does for Jerusalem, which, in turn, benefits Israel, and the Jewish community around the world. “We feel that the foundation has a unique role in making Jerusalem a city that is for the well-being of its citizens – to attract international tourism, to be the home and centre of Jewish life, but also to be a city of peace and serve as a model for humanity as a whole,” she said.

“All Jerusalem residents need to be given opportunities for a better life”

She said the current wave of terror Israel is facing doesn’t inhibit its efforts. Rather, it strengthens the mission of the foundation.

“The foundation caters to the entire population of Jerusalem, from the ultra-Orthodox, to the Arabs, to the secularists, to the religious. What we’re dealing with today actually strengthens the mission of the foundation because it underlines the fact that all of the Jerusalem residents need to be given opportunities for a better life.”

She said the foundation aims to cater to all of Jerusalem’s diverse needs.

“Culture, together with education, with heritage, with taking care of the vulnerable and the economic instability – these are the areas where the foundation is present. Cultural institutions in times of crisis can work as a bridge to try to lead a normal life,” she said.

“We see the situation… since the Paris attack, we see what is happening in Europe – in France, in Belgium, in Italy. People are very scared and they don’t know how to tackle the situation. I think the resilience of the people of Jerusalem during this wave of terror, they understand how to tackle a situation of emergency, and their answer to terror is that life must go on,” she said, adding that the foundation started an emergency campaign to support underprivileged youth and cultural institutions that suffer most during tense periods.

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