Requiem for a Swimming Oasis

JERUSALEM (PJV) – By Ilan Chaim 

The  State of Israel’s capital has just won the distinction of being the only world capital without an Olympic-size, 50-meter length swimming pool. After extended court battles, Jerusalem’s swimmers have lost their oasis of the past 59-years to real estate developers.

Contrary to the outline plan for Jerusalem, established by Keren Kayemet, the public will be deprived of its statutorily guaranteed public pool for at least four more years of construction on a high-profit housing complex.

Full discloser: I have been swimming at Breichat Yerushalayim on Emek Refaim Street, since the summer of my freshman year in 1968, when it had two diving boards and a deep end of four meters.

Jerusalem Pools’s outdoor pool with slides.

Over the years I have taught my four children to swim and dive there and recently set a new record for water slides (11) with the oldest of my seven grandchildren on my lap. It looks like we’ve had our last slide.

But it didn’t have to be this way. It is our misfortune to have a mayor who favors running and car racing, but apparently doesn’t care about swimming – let alone the Talmudic value of teaching one’s children to swim.

This is not to suggest that the municipality has been entirely idle in this regard. It has been reported that another Olympic-size pool is planned for the capital, whose foundation was included in the planning for the recently opened Pais Arena in Malha. In fact, until recently a municipal website featured a computer-generated depiction of its entrance – complete with the name of the donor.

As a dedicated swimmer and responsible journalist, I went to the arena in search of the graciously donated pool and was turned away with the news that it doesn’t yet exist. If this were a movie, we might think Salah Shabbati is in town (millennials may want to Google if they are not familiar with the Israeli classic). The Jerusalem Sports Authority told The Jerusalem Post that these plans have been suspended.

Jerusalem’s largest pool was built amid great but expected controversy between the capital’s ultra-Orthodox and secular residents. When it opened in 1958 as the result of an initiative by hotelier Chaim Schiff and Moshav Shoresh, haredim demonstrated in the German Colony’s streets against the heretical proposition of men and women swimming together. The fact that it was proudly open on Shabbat only added to the heresy.

An old friend from a religious family recalled that on her first visit to the pool in 1960 at the age of 10, she had to hide the embarrassing fact from her schoolmates. The religious opposition peaked when the haredim performed the Kabbalistc ritual of Pulsa Dinura on February 14, 1958 to curse the pool.

While the pool’s management eventually compromised with female-only swimming on Monday evenings and male-only swimming on Wednesday nights, the Jerusalem Pool remained open for mixed swimming at all other times, from 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. – the only pool in the city with such convenience.

There is something profoundly missing in a country’s culture that is known for its  variety of  swimming venues and water sports, but neglects to teach its children how to swim. This is our birthright – though, ironically, most of the hundreds of thousands of American Birthright participants come here knowing how to swim as the result of the nationwide instructional heritage of the American Red Cross.

Transparency alert: I happened to benefit from growing up in Pittsburgh, where my progressive elementary school, Colfax, boasted a swimming pool. From first grade, we progressed through the system, learning the skills that gave us our neat little cards that certified and encouraged our aquatic progress from beginner to swimmer.

As time went on, I graduated to teaching swimming classes, ranging from three-year-olds to adults in the US and could only look on in disbelief at the number of unnecessary drownings in Israel each year due to the lack of basic swimming education.

Jerusalem Pool. Photo courtesy: Janglo

The fact that the Jerusalem Pool had one evening a week restricted only to male swimmers and another evening only to women swimmers just highlighted this appalling lack. On Wednesday evenings, boys from several yeshivas would take over the pool for undisciplined play without any instruction, in direct violation of the religious obligation to teach one’s children how to survive in the water.

This lack of instruction is reflected by other faithful pool users from the local Arab community, whose children also may be seen enjoying themselves at play in the Jerusalem Pool without actually being able to swim using any recognizable technique.

While nobody in their right mind would want Jerusalem to hold an Olympics – and one Olympic-size pool wouldn’t be enough anyway – the fact is that in Israel’s modern, neo-Hellenistic capital, the Greek marathon is a valued sport. This certainly leaves room for a decently sized pool, unlike the cheaper 25-meter half-size pool recently opened in East Talpiyot.

The venerable swimming pool at the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus is a compromise 33.3 meters long, requiring the numerically challenged swimmer to count to 15 in order to swim half a kilometer, rather than 10 laps at Breichat Yerushalayim. Old swimmers will have to learn new tricks, but also find new pools to swim in.

Such notable venues as Ramat Rachel and the YMCA have undergone seemingly endless renovation. This has left prospective Jerusalem Pool refugees scouring the city in search of alternative sources of chlorinated water.

There is apparently one last hope, however: the rumor that a new Olympic-size pool will eventually be completed under the Pais Arena in Malha. While the illusive new Jerusalem Olympic pool has since disappeared from the municipal website site,  its eventual completion may soften the sadness at the demise of its forerunner.





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