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St. Petersburg conference spotlights needs of Jerusalem and Newark, N.J.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, left, with Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker at the Jewish Funders Network convention in St. Petersburg, says jobs and housing are needed in his city.

GIL LAVI | Special to the Times

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, left, with Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker at the Jewish Funders Network convention in St. Petersburg, says jobs and housing are needed in his city.

If someone asked you to name two cities with a lot in common, the first pair to come to mind probably wouldn't be Jerusalem and Newark, N.J.

Yet both are poor. Both have seen dramatic drops in population. And both have energetic young mayors looking everywhere they can for help, including private philanthropy.

That's why Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and Newark Mayor Cory Booker shared the stage last week at St. Petersburg's Vinoy resort, site of the annual Jewish Funders Network convention. An international organization that encourages philanthropy "through the lens of Jewish values,'' it is open to individuals and foundations that give away at least $25,000 annually.

Jewish philanthropy has been a key factor in Israel's development, with rich U.S. and European donors funding schools, hospitals and parks. Now more then ever, Barkat told the audience, private money is needed to solve the problems plaguing Jerusalem, Israel's poorest city and one that is losing 17,000 residents annually due to the shortage of good jobs and housing.

"If we continue to lose 1 percent of Jews every year, by 2035 we won't have a Jewish majority in Jerusalem,'' said Barkat, 49, a wealthy venture capitalist who takes no city salary. "It is the heart and soul of Jews."

But Jerusalem is also sacred to Christians and Muslims. The latter complain that Barkat and other Jewish mayors have stinted on city services to Arab East Jerusalem, denied building permits to Palestinians and ordered the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian homes in an effort to reduce the Arab population, now about a third of the 720,000 total.

Even a Jewish member of the Vinoy audience wondered if the "destruction of Arab homes is not particularly helpful to bringing peace to this region.''

Barkat's response: Jerusalem has also condemned scores of illegally built Jewish homes as it tries to remedy decades of "horrific'' planning. And his push to turn the city into a major tourism center — it now gets 2 million visitors a year to Paris' 40 million — will benefit Arab businesses as well as Jewish ones.

"We need 30,000 new hotel rooms, and a lot are going to be in East Jerusalem,'' he said. "It's a classic win-win.''

Like Jerusalem, Newark (population 281,000) has lost tens of thousands of people — many of them Jewish — though its decline stemmed from the 1967 riots between black residents and white police. "Newark used to be the city where they manufactured everything, now it's the car theft capital of the world,'' its most famous son, author Philip Roth, wrote in 1997.

Newark began to turn around that year with the opening of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Public-private partnerships have since helped to revive the city, which like Jerusalem is looking for cash and creative approaches to urban problems.

"How do you find islands of excellence and make them hemispheres of hope?'' Booker asked. "We're trying to find the best examples for Newark.''

The son of African-American IBM executives, Booker, 39, grew up in New Jersey's affluent Bergen County, but became a community activist in Newark after graduating from Yale Law School. He lost his first mayoral bid in 2002 because he was considered a "carpetbagger'' and "too white.'' Shortly after winning office in 2006, he was the target of a foiled assassination plot by gang members angered at his hard line against crime. (Newark's murder rate dropped 30 percent last year.)

Booker, a Christian, told the Vinoy audience that he has admired "Jewish values'' ever since he was on a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University and wandered into the room of an Orthodox student.

"It looked like a scene from Yentl,'' he said, "with men wearing black hats and strings hanging out of their pockets. I sat down next to a guy who in every way was different from me, and he introduced me to the study of Judaism.''

With that, Booker gestured to the audience member who invited him to St. Petersburg — the same Orthodox student he met 17 years ago. He's now Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, one of Booker's best friends.

Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at susan@sptimes.com.

St. Petersburg conference spotlights needs of Jerusalem and Newark, N.J. 03/28/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 28, 2009 7:01pm]

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