Ten years ago, the Mekudeshet summer festival was created as a way to establish Jerusalem as a place of unexpected cultural finds, surprising talent and meaningful performances. To that end, it called itself The Jerusalem Season of Culture.
In latter years, however, it’s shifted toward showcasing the capital’s strong wave of social innovation as locals have taken on all kinds of projects that seek to make the city a better place.
“We first intended to show that there is culture in Jerusalem, and we did,” said Naomi Fortis, executive director of Mekudeshet. “Now we have to show the other things.”
The four-week festival, which begins August 8, is a whirlwind of activities and events in which audiences can walk the rooftops of the city, attend a neon bonfire, break through boundaries by foot or car, participate in a midnight listening experience in the YMCA pool, take part in a ceremony with their eyes closed, run through the city with a local actor, meditate on compassion and acceptance, or hear a mass of musicians of different nationalities performing at the gates of the Old City.
The festival celebrates Jerusalem — but the Jerusalem that Fortis and her team have spent months researching, not the Jerusalem of the news headlines.
“Everyone thinks that Jerusalem is racist, terrorist, too religious, complicated, scary; that’s one truth,” said Fortis. “And there’s another truth, that I know and that everyone at Mekudeshet knows, and that no one talks about. And that’s that Jerusalem is the most amazing social innovation lab. We have lists of hundreds of people who are all doing amazing things in Jerusalem, who are dissolving boundaries.”
At each of the festival events throughout Mekudeshet is hosted by Jerusalemites who are part of the city’s network discovered by the Mekudeshet staff, people whom Fortis calls “role models of social coexistence.”
“There’s an abundance of influencers in Jerusalem,” she said. “And we want our audience to meet them.”
“They may not know it, they may not think of themselves that way, but there’s a potential here that has to be talked about,” added Fortis. “Jerusalem’s problems are so complicated that someone had to find a way out, so they created solutions that preempted everything and that are relevant to everybody.”
Each event, whether it’s a performance, a tour or a gathering, creates a meeting between the audience and these unique Jerusalemites.
“You go up to the roofs, and you’re in the air all of a sudden, and have the orientation of the city,” she said. “And then there’s the actuality of it, walking on the roofs of these historic buildings, from the Histadrut to Bikur Holim Hospital where half of Jerusalem was born, to Jaffa Road, where you walk around this city and see all that is there.”
She noted the Atlantis event at the YMCA, a venerable community center that draws Jews and non-Jews from around the city and then dips them all into the water of its indoor pool in order to show the miracle of this “island of coexistence,” said Fortis. “We’re trying to blur the borders without getting rid of them.”
The audience may not know what to expect when they enter a Mekudeshet event, but they know they want to experience the hidden sides of Jerusalem. Even Jerusalemites who have lived in the city for generations are often surprised by where they’re taken on a Mekudeshet event, being introduced to places and people they didn’t know existed.
“There’s the core of people who love what we do and love art, but we are very demanding, we take walks that can be five hours long, and another one that’s seven hours long, which sold out before we even went online,” she said. “We do so much research before we create something, just thinking of this constellation of people and colleagues.”
The Mekudeshet team commissions every artwork and performance specifically for the festival, never relying on those that artists have developed beforehand — always conceiving of the concept first, and then developing it for themselves.
There’s a long handwritten list in Fortis’ office, scrawled on oversized white sheets of paper, enumerating the dozens of places, events and people that weren’t part of the Jerusalem vernacular ten years ago but are now as much a part of the city scene as the Western Wall, Mahane Yehuda and Ben Yehuda Street. Notable Mekudeshet-inspired achievements range from summertime food trucks to alternative political parties.
“We look at the city and learn it and bring data and draw it all out,” said Fortis. “Our task is always to find the next thing, and then we hand it over to the city. But you can’t remain where you were ten years ago. The city also moves past where it was and on to the next thing.”
Mekudeshet has been led from the start by Fortis, former director of the Batsheva Dance Company and former wife of punk rocker Rami Fortis. She is someone, she admits now, who once spent more time in New York and Europe than in Israel, much less Jerusalem.
She wasn’t quite sure, at first, that it was the right move for her.
“My response at first was, ‘What? Are you kidding? Jerusalem, and all those cliches, it’s Haredi, religious and poor and irrelevant,’” said Fortis.
Ten years later, Fortis is curled up in a corner of the couch in her Mekudeshet office, weeks before the new season is to begin and already working on next year’s season.
She now considers herself an honorary Jerusalemite. It’s not just that she spends much of the summer in Jerusalem. It’s the amount of time and attention she’s given to the city over the last decade, and how she now thinks of this place.
“I say that I am a Jerusalemite, it’s become my city,” she said. “I only think about her, I only talk about her, so can’t I call her my city? I can’t say that I’m from eight generations back in Jerusalem, but still, I am this city.”
She, along with founding art director Itay Mautner, who recently left Mekudeshet, and their team of locals created a festival that was meant to help people rediscover the city. At the time, said Fortis, she needed to be convinced to join this adventure.
“I love tough jobs, and those elements became part of the DNA of this organization, and it’s part of the experience we’re trying to pass on,” she said. “It changed me from start to finish. I came here very sure of myself, I thought I knew a lot, I thought I was very open-minded and liberal, and this city showed me how to take down layers of that, and to change my skin.”
For more information about Mekudeshet events and to buy tickets, go to the Mekudeshet website.