The Israeli capital city appears in the center of the historic Jewish homeland, but it is also the frontline of Jewish restoration efforts that require great personal and financial sacrifice, security risk, political will, and faith. “The former mufti of Jerusalem looked me in the eyes, man to man, and said that the Temple never existed,” said Fox News Channel host Pete Hegseth at the American Friends of Ateret Cohanim / Jerusalem Chai annual dinner in Midtown Manhattan last Thursday.
The dinner serves as the main fundraising tool for the organization, which provides support to Jewish communities in Eastern Jerusalem as a way of securing Israeli control of the city and preventing diplomatic efforts to divide the city. The Israeli Ateret Cohanim was founded in late 1977 by Moti HaKohen Dan with the goal of rebuilding neighborhoods that were Jewish prior to the Arab revolt of 1936 and the Israeli War of Independence. The nearly 1,000 Jewish families benefiting from Ateret Cohanim receive support for after-school programs, rooftop playgrounds, security guards, property acquisition, and legal representation.
Hegseth emceed the event, at the invitation of American Friends of Ateret Cohanim President and Queens Jewish Link columnist Dr. Joseph Frager. Hegseth presented an excerpt of his television special, “Battle in the Holy City,” where he ascended the Temple Mount amid tight security, toured the Western Wall Tunnels, and met with the brave Jewish families residing in Kidmat Zion, Maale HaZeitim, and the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. Hegseth spoke to Kidmat Zion resident Ofir Genut, and featured an interview with Issam Akel, the Arab American citizen arrested by Palestinian police and sentenced to life imprisonment for selling his Jerusalem property to Jews.
“I was introduced to this organization by Joe Frager and I’ve seen the incredible work that you do,” said Hegseth. “At Fox News, it’s America first, Israel strong, and Jerusalem forever. I’m going to go back to Judea and Samaria for another documentary.”
The location and décor of the event matched the distinguished honorees and speakers of the evening. Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, the Chabad shaliach in Poway, California, survived a gunman’s bullets at his synagogue only 30 days before the dinner, inspiring his congregants, meeting President Donald Trump, and speaking to the audience on the common threat facing Jews in America and in Israel. “The brachah She’hecheyanu has a very different meaning today. For me, it was a matter of seconds that I faced a terrorist, eye to eye,” said Rabbi Goldstein. “I thought of our brothers and sisters in Yerushalayim who face terrorism every day.”
Rabbi Goldstein spoke of the meaning of the last day of Pesach, when he usually recites the haftarah and was preparing to do so when the gunman burst into his synagogue. He gave a detailed account of that fateful day, when longtime congregant Lori Gilbert Kaye was killed while shielding the rabbi, his words of inspiration to other shul members, and his subsequent meeting with the President. “Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein is a true hero,” said Ateret Cohanim Executive Council member Dr. Paul Brody. “So, too, are the residents of the Muslim Quarter, formerly Kotel Quarter, of the Old City of Yerushalayim, who every day exhibit great courage just by living there, under the auspices of Ateret Cohanim.
Guests of Honor Aviva and Paul Gross received an award in memory of Ateret Cohanim founder Joseph Mermelstein, respectively her father and his father-in-law. Described by the dinner’s organizers as one of the great activists of the Jewish People in the last 50 years, he was deeply involved in pro-Israel advocacy and the movement to free Soviet Jews. He provided support to Benjamin Netanyahu as he rose to power, and fought for Natan Sharansky’s release from a Soviet prison camp, among other causes that made the news. “He was the chairman of the board of American Friends of Ateret Cohanim for well over 25 years,” said Frager. “He purchased Beit Mermelstein in the heart of the so-called Muslim Quarter when very few even dreamed of doing so.”
Rabbi Meir Melnick, president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America, accepted the Rabbinical Leadership Award, in recognition of his advocacy for Ateret Cohanim within his organization.
Brooklyn resident Willy Pilku took Ateret Cohanim trips and appreciates visiting its old-new Jewish communities from his position as CEO of Core Scaffold Systems. As he became more familiar with observant Jews, he was invited to see Israel. The connection eventually led him to Ateret Cohanim and its developments in Jerusalem. Pilku spoke of having his scaffolding on the Third Temple, when that time comes. His award was followed by Michael Celler, Inna Vernikov, and Estee Wald, young professionals who took the Ateret Cohanim tour and saw the rebuilding of Jerusalem firsthand.
The organization’s ability to attract young philanthropists comes from its tours that give a close look at new Jewish homes in majority Arab neighborhoods that have Jewish history beneath the layers, and the opportunity to build and secure these homes. This is how the Old City becomes new again.
By Sergey Kadinsky