Tel Aviv’s Religious Renaissance

by | in Israel

On the occasion of Tel Aviv’s 100th anniversary, Jewish Action explores religious life in one of Israel’s most secular cities.

imageTel Aviv’s centennial celebrations are in full swing, with parades, concerts, lectures, fireworks and museum exhibitions being held throughout the city. What may come as a surprise to many, however, is that there is much to celebrate with regard to the city’s flourishing religious life as well.

“One has only to look at the streets of Tel Aviv . . . to see a Jewish renaissance,” says Rabbi Avraham Halperin of Congregation Avodas Yisrael, the beit midrash of the Koznitzer Rebbe, located in northern Tel Aviv.

“There is a tremendous awakening of Yiddishkeit in Tel Aviv,” concurs Rabbi Avi Berman, director-general, OU Israel. “People are looking for spirituality.”

Known as the first modern Hebrew city in Israel, Tel Aviv was founded in 1909 by a group of Jewish pioneers seeking to escape the congestion of the adjacent port city of Old Jaffa. They formed Ahuzat Bayit, a society to purchase land north of Jaffa; on April 11, 1909, sixty families stood on empty sandbanks and cast lots for plots of land. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that in just 100 years these barren sand dunes have been transformed into a bustling metropolis of 400,000 people.

The first neighborhood of Tel Aviv was actually built more than two decades prior to the lottery. In 1887, Aharon Chelouche, a religious Jew and successful businessman, had the same vision of creating living space outside the crowded alleys of Jaffa. He founded Neveh Tzedek (Oasis of Justice), and as the city developed, it joined the Ahuzat Bayit neighborhood. Today the Chelouche house is open to visitors, as is the synagogue he built on the grounds to attract religious Jews to the area.

Interestingly, Tel Aviv is the sole large city in Israel that has only Jewish places of worship within its city limits. This factor has drawn many Chassidic rebbes to the city throughout its history. Indeed, in the 1950s and ‘60s, there were close to fifty Chassidic courts in Tel Aviv. Some of the notable Chassidic rebbes included the Abir Yaakov of Sadigura, the Rebbe of Boyan-Leipzig and the Tchortkover Rebbe, elder rebbe of the Ruzhiner dynasty. The Belzer Rebbe, Rabbi Aharon Rokeach, who arrived in Israel in 1944, shocked his followers by refusing to live in Jerusalem. He is quoted as saying with pride, “Der heilige Yerushalayim! Der lichtige Tel Aviv!” (“The holy Jerusalem! The shining Tel Aviv!”) His followers say he opted for Tel Aviv because it did not have any churches, and even in his later years, when he moved to Jerusalem to find more affordable housing for his growing sect, he would sign his name as the “Rebbe of Tel Aviv.”

But over time, the city began to change. While Tel Aviv is still home to a number of large and famous Chassidic courts, such as Breslov and Gur, and to Chassidic shtiebels such as the beit midrash of the Koznitzer Rebbe, high housing prices caused many Chassidic communities to move to Bnei Brak, a suburb of Tel Aviv. Additionally, some of the city’s 500 synagogues saw dramatic declines in membership.

Yet in the past decade or so, there has been a quiet religious revolution taking place throughout this cosmopolitan metropolis. “Orthodox communities in Tel Aviv are growing. . . . Religious people and families are showing a renewed presence on the streets,” says Nomie Perchick, who lives outside Tel Aviv. “More [religious] children are returning to Tel Aviv and finding affordable housing,” she says. “We are . . . beginning to satisfy the needs of the community by opening facilities such as . . . yeshivot, which offer a wide range of shiurim. Tel Aviv is slowly becoming a more ‘user friendly’ place for the Orthodox.”

The religious renaissance is evident in the new and innovative congregations and minyanim springing up as well. Ten Chabad centers are located throughout the city. The Yakar Synagogue in Jerusalem, known for its Carlebach-style minyan, recently opened a branch in Tel Aviv. Minyan Ichud Olam, which opened in 2000, is a Modern Orthodox minyan of professionals and students from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds. Even established synagogues, such as the Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv on Allenby Street, built in 1926, are offering novel programs and shiurim to attract new worshippers.

In the past decade or so, there has been a quiet religious revolution taking place throughout this cosmopolitan metropolis.

More indications of a growing religious life in Tel Aviv: Some fifty mikvaot are located in the city; there are a growing number of kosher restaurants; the Ramat Aviv mall, the largest mall in Tel Aviv, is closed on Shabbat and there are even signs on Tel Aviv beaches with messages such as “Daven before you swim.”

Perhaps most impressive, however, is that in the last decade or so, outreach centers and institutes for Jewish learning have been thriving in the city, bringing many of the young, estranged Jewish youth of Tel Aviv back to their heritage. While a mass ba’alei teshuvah movement is not yet taking place in the Mediterranean city that never sleeps, there is a slow and steady trickle of secular Tel Avivians who are now open to and interested in exploring their own roots.

Tel Aviv’s Rosh Yehudi Center, for example, a Dati Leumi (Religious Zionist) outreach program, offers daily lessons and Shabbat services at its learning center. Midreshet Aviv caters to young women in the city interested in strengthening their religious knowledge and commitment. And in 2008, Aish HaTorah, an international organization specializing in giving Jews the opportunity to learn more about their heritage, opened a branch in Tel Aviv. Rabbi Ephraim Shore, who oversees the Tel Aviv Aish program, feels that the potential for kiruv in Tel Aviv is great.

“Tel Aviv has more young, unaffiliated Jews in the twenty to forty age bracket than any other city in the world,” he says. “We chose to open in the heart of the city because this is where the ‘action’ is. . . . This area is like the Upper West Side of New York. . . . We are progressing slowly and surely, and becoming a real presence in the neighborhood.”

“A great percentage of Tel Aviv’s residents are secular,” agrees Rabbi Naftali Reinitz, the director of HaMedrasha LeChashiva Yehudit (The Center for Jewish Thought) in Tel Aviv. “But that does not mean that they are not interested if someone approaches them in the right way.” The Center is located on Dizengoff Street, which is named for the city’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, and famous for being the hub of cultural and social activity within the city. While it may appear to be an unlikely location for the Center, which houses a kollel as well as a Jewish outreach center, Rabbi Reinitz hopes it will attract young, upscale educated Israelis who live in the area.

Rabbi Reinitz first became interested in working with the secular population in the city some years ago, when the results of a survey of religious life in Israel were released. In the survey, more than 60 percent of secular Israelis responded that they have a Friday night family dinner of some kind, but that they were not particularly religious during the rest of the week. “[After seeing those results] I decided that there must be a way to reach out to these people and bring them closer,” says Rabbi Reinitz.

The Center offers classes throughout the week as well as a rabbinic program, which trains students in the intricacies of kiruv. Each of the trainees, most of whom come from the nearby religious communities of Bnei Brak and Elad, work with a few secular families. “The [rabbis in training] are taught how to best approach an interested individual, and what to say to him,” says Rabbi Reinitz. “More importantly,” he adds, “they learn what not to say.”

Rabbi Reinitz confides that most of those who attend classes at the center are “people who are afraid to open the door to a shul.” Therefore, he says, “we provide a ‘back door’ to the shul.

“We contact people [and] offer them the possibility of learning parashat hashavua every week with a teacher in their own home,” says Rabbi Reinitz. “I believe that just as a person must eat slowly, digest his food and satisfy his hunger, the soul works in the same way. It is the teacher’s responsibility to work according to the tempo of the individual.”

On Thursday nights—the peak social night in Israel—the Center offers high-quality entertainment, and is often filled to capacity. “Our purpose is to bring those who have drifted away . . . closer to Judaism,” says Rabbi Reinitz. “We appeal to a person’s intellect, but maintain a close and warm connection,” he says. “One never knows when the heart will open.”

Opening up the hearts and minds of young searching Israelis is one of the key missions of OU Israel. Recently, it redirected its six-year-old kiruv program, Lev Yehudi Yisraeli, aimed at bringing the vibrancy of Judaism to small communities throughout Israel, to concentrate solely on the Tel Aviv metropolitan area (known as the Gush Dan area).

“Resources are limited,” says Rabbi Berman, who is the energy behind OU Israel. “We realized that we could offer families in the Galil or the Negev incredible Torah classes and lectures,” he says. “But when those adults or children go home and watch TV, they are influenced by the country’s decision makers who live in Tel Aviv—a population we were not reaching.”

Confident that live role models would have the greatest and most lasting spiritual impact on communities in these areas, Lev Yehudi Yisraeli turned to the Dati Leumi families living in Beit El, Shilo and Jericho, among other yishuvim, and urged them to relocate to areas such as Ramat Hasharon, Ramat Gan, Raanana and other cities in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. For many years, the Dati Leumi community had concentrated its energies on settling Judea and Samaria. “We told these young families: ‘It’s great you have an amazing life in a frum community,’ ” says Rabbi Berman, “but Tel Aviv is dying.” The true frontlines, it seems, is the Tel Aviv area, where the country’s elite secular and politically left-wing intellectuals live.

Lev Yehudi Yisraeli currently provides training and support to more than 250 Garin Torani families—religious families who have settled in secular neighborhoods around the country to spiritually strengthen the local populations. These families reach out with Shabbat invitations, offer Bar Mitzvah tutoring and organize holiday programs and weekly Kabbalat Shabbat services followed by a community seudah. OU Israel also established ten Batim Yehudim (Jewish centers) throughout the Tel Aviv area, which serve as vibrant hubs for these activities.

Responding to the thirst for Torah learning, Lev Yehudi Yisraeli conducts thought-provoking adult education programs out of Beit Reuven, its center in Ramat Hasharon, for example. According to Rabbi Berman, the centers are often packed. “We’re catering to people who are searching for meaning in their lives,” he says. “Half of them are divorced and their children show them no respect. We’re giving them classes about parenting and relationships from a Torah perspective and they’re devouring it.”

The program also capitalizes on the Israeli public schools’ mandated “Jewish hour” by sending educators to teach the students about their heritage. One of Lev Yehudi Yisraeli’s pilot programs, Shvil HaTanach, has volunteers dress up as Torah figures to literally bring the Torah to life. “Instead of learning Tanach from a teacher who really doesn’t know, understand or like Tanach,” says Rabbi Berman, “we offer students Yom Tanach, a special day when we teach Tanach through plays.” During Yom Tanach, children get to witness scenes from Tanach up close as volunteer actors reenact the various stories—replete with scenery and props. They may get to experience Avraham inviting guests to a meal in his tent, or Shlomo Hamelech displaying his wisdom from upon his velvet throne, or Moshe and Aharon telling their story as they stand before Har Sinai. “We make learning Torah fun, attractive and dynamic,” says Rabbi Berman. “It’s teaching Judaism with love.”

Lev Yehudi Yisraeli also opened Nehora Café, located in the heart of Ramat Gan, where one can enjoy a salad, a coffee and a shiur in Chassidut.

Lev Yehudi Yisraeli is fast winning the hearts of the city’s staunchest secularists. The mayor of Ramat Hasharon, who was once virulently opposed to the program, now admits to being smitten with it. According to Rabbi Berman, at a recent event held at Beit Reuven, the mayor suddenly stood up and announced, “Ani chiloni, I am a secular Jew. When you [Lev Yehudi Yisraeli] tried to come into the city, I made phone calls to sabotage your coming. I said: ‘These guys are really religious and we have to be careful; they are going to destroy the city.’ I was not successful. Now, after I’ve seen the impact you’ve had on our educational system . . . how you touched parents and helped our children at risk, if you tried to leave the city, I would make sure you wouldn’t be able to.”

Sarah Hershenson is a freelance writer who made aliyah from New Jersey with her family eighteen years ago. She lives in Netanya.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Fall 2009.

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