Jerusalem, the world's holiest city, is beset by problems of religious tensions and Arab terror – far from the prophetic vision of peaceful Jerusalem. To lead this volatile city takes a special panache, an ability to rise above the fray and connect all disparate elements.
So why was Uri Lupolianski – a modest, Orthodox, father of 12 – elected as mayor of Jerusalem?
Because as the founder and chairman of Yad Sarah, Lupolianski is Israel's most visible symbol of cooperation, unity and caring.
Yad Sarah touches nearly every Israeli home. Its 6,000 volunteers work at 100 branches throughout the country, providing Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druse alike with short-term loans of over 320,000 items of medical and rehabilitative equipment – everything from basic crutches and wheelchairs, to breathing machines and electronic monitors.
An Israeli labor institute estimates that Yad Sarah saves the country's economy $300 million annually in medical costs, by eliminating the need for expensive hospital stays and institutional care.
For this achievement, Lupolianski was awarded the Israel Prize, the country's highest civilian honor.
Lupolianski, too, is a Yad Sarah volunteer. By day, he is a veteran politician. He started out as Jerusalem's director of community and family services under Mayor Teddy Kollek, and then served as Ehud Olmert's senior deputy for a decade. When Olmert took a cabinet position, Lupolianski stepped in as acting mayor.
Then in April 2003, Lupolianski defied the odds and became Jerusalem's first "charedi" (Orthodox) mayor.
"It was never my goal to become mayor of Jerusalem," Lupolianski told Aish.com. "In fact, I did very little to get here. The Almighty simply presented me with the challenge to work on behalf of the city. Life provides us with small windows of opportunity, and I try to never let one pass by."
Lupolianski's reputation for helping others is his biggest source of political capital.
The volunteers at Yad Sarah were certain that Lupolianski would win the mayoral race – even when the polls showed the opposite. They had seen through experience that everything he touched turned out a success.
During the mayoral campaign, there were some voices of concern that a charedi mayor might upset Jerusalem's delicate status quo between religious and secular, Jewish and Arab. But Lupolianski's impeccable reputation – as a builder of social bridges and healer of divides – turned out to be his biggest source of political capital; it is estimated that 25 percent of his votes in the mayoral race came from secular voters.
"There's a lot of misunderstanding on both sides of the fence," says the 52-year-old Lupolianski. "Especially with regard to Jerusalem, it's difficult to strike the right balance, because we're under the world's microscope. But I've gone to Arab villages to help set up Yad Sarah branches, and I've served in the IDF. So I'm sensitive to the different worlds."
Lupolianski brushes aside the notion that a religious mayor might be less responsive to the needs of the secular population.
"Some secular Jews think that religious people don't care enough about them. But I believe the opposite is true. If a Jew eats bread on Passover, he may not understand how that could affect me. But from my perspective, all Jews are one family, responsible one for another. So every Jew affects me. And it's that way of thinking that drives me to do the best possible job serving all sectors of Jerusalem."
Lupolianski spends part of each day receiving foreign dignitaries, delegation of Diaspora Jews, and concerned citizens.
"It's a very challenging job because people's passions for Jerusalem run so high. I was recently discussing a controversial issue with a group of Americans, and one of them disagreed with me and shouted, 'You can't say your private opinion! You must say what the mayor of Jerusalem would say!' I gently told him, 'If I echo the beliefs of someone from Baltimore, that's called "expressing the opinion of the mayor of Jerusalem" – but my own opinion is not?!'"
Politics is politics. Yet when the conversation switches from politics to Yad Sarah, Lupolianski's eyes light up. It is the apple of his eye.
On a shoestring budget of $12 million a year, and with no government funding, Yad Sarah runs 100 branches across Israel and extends a hand – and an encouraging smile – to anyone who needs help.
Yad Sarah's mission is to provide whatever an elderly or disabled person needs to remain independent in their own home as long as possible. The theory is that home care in the natural environment of the family is best for the patient's health, both physical and emotional.
So in addition to loaning hundreds of thousands of medical devices, Yad Sarah delivers meals to the homebound, and volunteers come to take care of everything from home repairs to laundry. There is physical and occupational therapy, a geriatric dental clinic, and legal aid for seniors – all equipped for house calls when needed.
How do they manage to do it?
The secret is volunteers. Yad Sarah's army of 6,000 volunteers put in over one million volunteer hours annually. With a paid staff of only 150, it is virtually a volunteer-run organization, and a paragon of resource efficiency.
Yad Sarah is virtually a volunteer-run organization, a paragon of resource efficiency.
"For many of our volunteers, working at Yad Sarah is a rehabilitative experience in itself," Lupolianski explains. "Some volunteers are retired, others are moderately disabled – people who could easily be on the 'receiving' end of the services they supply. Other volunteers are elderly Russian immigrants, skilled technicians unable to find work in their field. So they repair and maintain our medical equipment – as volunteers."
A centerpiece of Yad Sarah's modern, 6-story Jerusalem headquarters is the national emergency alarm system. Thousands of Israelis have been supplied with alarm buttons for their wall or their wrist, and with a press of the button they are patched into Yad Sarah's 24-hour response center. Recently, Yad Sarah has installed alarms in kindergartens and nursery schools, free of charge, to allow for emergency contact in the event of a terrorist attack.
Yad Sarah's "mobile home for disabled children" traverses the country lending out special toys, games and books. Disabled children can also visit the rehabilitation playground at Yad Sarah headquarters, with special features like a "wheelchair swing set."
Yad Sarah's commitment to helping every human being is a reflection of its gentle, modest founder. Lupolianski was a young high-school math teacher with a growing family in 1976 when he lent a vaporizer to a neighbor for a sick child. Discovering that such machines were in high demand, he bought a few more to lend out.
"Before I knew it," Lupolianski says, "people started giving me items they had bought but no longer needed – crutches, walkers, vaporizers, even wheelchairs. Our small apartment was overflowing."
Around this time, Lupolianski's father sold his small shop, retired, and used the money to buy more items for loan. Yad Sarah was officially born, named after Lupolianski's grandmother, Sarah, who perished in the Holocaust. (The Hebrew word Yad, literally "hand," also means a memorial.)
Yad Sarah has earned an international reputation, and regularly receives delegations from foreign countries interested in replicating these efforts. In fact, Yad Sarah has expanded outside Israel, and now provides home care services in the United States and the FSU. The organization recently donated 100 items of phased-out equipment to the government of Cameroon, and a team of Yad Sarah workers recently traveled to Angola to help establish a warehouse for repairing and lending medical equipment.
And today, one of Yad Sarah's 100 branches is still located in Uri Lupolianski's apartment.
Mayor Lupolianski (center) with Aish.com editors Shraga Simmons (left) and Nechemia Coopersmith
Aish.com asked Lupolianski: How does being mayor of the holiest city in the world differ from any other mayor?
"Of course, every mayor has an administrative role, like making sure the garbage is collected on time, and generally creating a high quality of life," he says. "But Jerusalem is unique in that everything must be viewed against the backdrop of 3,000 years of Jewish history, with the sense that Jerusalem is the capital not only of the State of Israel, but of all the Jewish people. That's an enormous challenge."
With the deep Jewish significance of Jerusalem, it makes sense to have the advice of a Torah sage.
Lupolianski regularly confers with Israel's preeminent rabbinic authority, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliyashuv. And while some have the perception that a rabbi's sole realm is religious matters, Lupolianski also seeks advice on leadership issues.
"Judaism is much more than religion. Judaism animates every aspect of one's life," Lupolianski explains. "Rabbi Eliyashuv has a worldview that is extremely wise and uniquely Jewish. He has the ability to isolate a single point that gives me a far deeper perspective. And with the Jewish significance of Jerusalem so enormously deep, it makes sense to have such wisdom for living. It's invaluable for our city and our nation."
World of Kindness
Lupolianski's personality and philosophy permeate everything his organization does. The growth of Yad Sarah shows how one person, translating the most sublime values of Jewish life into deeds, can capture the imagination of thousands, galvanize them into action, tap their deepest resources of love and goodness – and make a difference.
"From the start, our guiding principle has been to help everyone who needs help. Judaism teaches us to respect and care for every human being, created in the image of God. But the Jewish concept of chesed goes beyond that: We should actively seek out ways to help."
Yad Sarah is "light unto the nations" in its fullest expression
When a foreign dignitary comes to visit Yad Sarah – the largest organization of its kind in the world – one gets the sense that this is "light unto the nations" in its fullest expression.
Lupolianski explains: "King David declared that Olam chesed yiban'eh – 'the world is built on kindness.' I'd like to think that our Jewish organization – in the Jewish capital founded by King David – exemplifies this idea."
Lupolianski rates Yad Sarah as a greater personal accomplishment than becoming mayor of Jerusalem. Working side by side, people from all walks of life and different ethnic, religious and social backgrounds are united in the common goal of assisting others in need.
For Uri Lupolianski, this dream has become reality.