The Jerusalem International YMCA, with its elegant arches, domes and 152-foot observation tower, is a city landmark. It is acknowledged as a center of cultural, athletic, social and intellectual life in Jerusalem, fostering harmony and building the spirit, mind and body.
Founded in 1878 in a bookstore by Jaffa Gate, it moved from one location to another until the organization purchased a small building near Damascus Gate in 1909. Its first president was George Williams, who had founded the first YMCA in 1844 in London.
During the First World War, the Jerusalem building was closed by Turkish authorities, but it was later reopened by the British, and provided services for soldiers as well as city residents. In 1920, Dr. Archibald C. Harte became general secretary of the Jerusalem YMCA. His efforts to make the institution a center for people of all faiths and nationalities inspired the generous support of James Newbegin Jarvie of Montclair, New Jersey, USA, enabling the construction of a beautiful new complex.
With the aid of donations from the United States and Manchester, England, a plot of land was purchased from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, and in 1928, the cornerstone was laid by Lord Plummer, the British High Commissioner for Palestine. On April 18, 1933, the new home of the Jerusalem YMCA was dedicated by British General Edmund Lord Allenby. The neo-Byzantine-style complex was designed by Arthur Loomis Harmon, architect of the Empire State Building. It is a sermon in stone, rich in symbolism.
The YMCA triangle is evident throughout the complex. The concepts represented by the three sides – a healthy spirit, mind and body – are the themes of the building's three main areas: the central tower, with its noble carillon bells and three chapels (spirit); the intricately ornamented auditorium (mind); and the gymnasium and pool (body).
Decorative elements represent the three monotheistic faiths. The 12 cypress trees in the garden, for example, signify the 12 tribes of Israel, the 12 disciples of Jesus and the 12 followers of Mohammed. This theme is repeated inside the auditorium and gymnasium, with 12 windows lighting the domes and 12 stone arches rising above the balconies. The 40 columns in the courtyard symbolize both the Children of Israel's 40 years of wandering in the desert and the 40 days of the temptation of Jesus; their capitals are embellished with images of the flora, fauna and people of the land.
Three inscriptions, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, are engraved on the building's façade: "The Lord our God the Lord is One," in Hebrew, on the right; "I am the way," in Aramaic in the center; and "There is no God but God," in Arabic on the left.
The YMCA's leadership and staff reflect the diversity of the Holy City's population, and its programs serve the entire community. For its efforts in promoting peace, unity and the dignity of humankind, the Jerusalem International YMCA was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.