In Hebrew, Shai Doron’s names – both his first and his last name – mean “gift,” and as he goes from one successful post to the next, perhaps he feels that in the matter of careers, he has been doubly gifted. Currently the chief executive officer of the Jerusalem Zoo, Doron in September will begin service as president of the Jerusalem Foundation, an organization that raises funds and awareness for the City of Jerusalem and its cultural attractions.
So, a luncheon at the San Diego Zoo on Wednesday, August 1, was a sentimental occasion for Doron who recalled that in the 18 years that a San Diego group supporting the Jerusalem Zoo has been in existence, numerous programs have been funded with the net result that the Jerusalem Zoo – also known as the Biblical Zoo – has become a top tourist attraction in Israel, drawing more visitors, even, than the mountain top fortress of Masada in the Judean Desert.
Each summer the Jerusalem Zoo sends six young volunteers to San Diego, on a familiarization tour in which they are introduced not only to the San Diego Zoo but also to other tourist attractions in San Diego County. The youngsters from Israel and the Palestinian territories are joined on this familiarization tour by San Diegans of the same age, whose families often serve as hosts. This year, Doron enthused, the delegation from the Jerusalem Zoo reflected an important Israeli reality that one doesn’t find in the headlines. Of the six members of the delegation, two are Palestinians, one is an Ethiopian immigrant, another is a Russian-speaking immigrant, one lives in the “settlement” of Ma’ale Mikmash, beyond the Green Line, and one is a native-born Sabra. “They all get along wonderfully,” Doron told San Diego Jewish World. In a short speech to a luncheon crowd, he expressed the hope that such diversity and good will feelings will come to normally characterize the City of Jerusalem.
Doron likes to joke that the animals and visitors to the Jerusalem Zoo both have many interesting things to see. For the visitors, there are animals from all over the world—as well as those from the Middle East that are mentioned in the Bible. The animals, meanwhile, can watch people in various costumes passing their enclosures. There are Arabs in headdresses; ultra-Orthodox wearing streimels; kibbutzniks in shorts; “settlers” in knitted kippahs; immigrants from such varied countries as Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union, the United States; and tourists from all over the world.
Doron and the luncheon’s emcee, Judge Victor Bianchini, heaped credit on such San Diegans as Ellen Barnett; Robert and Allison Price; and Arthur and Jeannie Rivkin, along with the local development director for the Jerusalem Zoo, Helena Galper, for funding many of the Jerusalem Zoo’s successful programs. These included a sister-zoo relationship with the San Diego Zoo, represented at the luncheon by Douglas Myers, its chief executive officer. Staff members of the Jerusalem Zoo often come to the San Diego Zoo to learn not only about zoo keeping, but also marketing, security, financing, and other aspects of running a large non-profit visitor attraction.
In a brief interview, Doron noted that the Jerusalem Zoo recently had added an aquarium to its grounds, which it cleverly named the “Wet Side Story.” Every time that the people at the Jerusalem Zoo think they are beginning to catch up with the San Diego Zoo, he said, the San Diego Zoo adds another colossal attraction. “Truly,” he added, “it is the best zoo in the world.”
Since its opening in 1993, the Jerusalem Zoo has been participating in global conservation efforts by attempting to breed endangered species and preaching the message of conservation to its visitors, Doron said. Conservation education classes are conducted not only in Hebrew but also in Arabic, so that students in both language groups become familiar, and hopefully advocates for, conservation, recycling and environmentalism.
An Animal House Classroom, largely funded by the Price Family of San Diego, was established to cater to children with special needs, for whom exposure to animals can be important therapy, Doron said.
There is a Zoomobile, donated by Ellen Barnett, that takes the message of animal conservation all over Israel. One of the original donors to the Zoo, Barnett also has a lake at the Zoo named in her honor.
As Doron showed slide after slide illustrating San Diego-financed projects, he explained that one reason the luncheon was such a sentimental occasion for him was that the next time he comes to San Diego—which he hopes will be relatively soon—he will come in a different capacity, as president of the Jerusalem Foundation. As many thoughts he has about that organization, and the position he is soon to take, he said he wants to remain focused on the Jerusalem Zoo until that job has been completed.
Attendees at the luncheon gave Doron a standing ovation.