In Tel Aviv, Israel’s ‘Sin City,’ an Unexpected Religious Revival Takes Root
Synagogues are full and kosher restaurants abound as liberal immigrants, Orthodox singles, and secular Jews come together
On a typical Friday evening on Tel Aviv’s Ben Yehuda Street, this city known for its vibrant nightlife is in weekend mode. Beachgoers walk home as the sun goes down, sandy and tanned, clutching towels and flip-flops. Elegant couples head out for drinks and dinner. Singles gather at pubs and start to make their late-night plans for the biggest club night of the week.
But nearby, at the same time, a very different scene kicks into gear—one that most people don’t associate with Tel Aviv. Synagogues in the center of the city fill up with young professionals. On Frishman Street, just minutes from the beach, a red carpet fit for a Hollywood awards show marks the entrance to The Tel Aviv International Synagogue. Inside the sanctuary, about a hundred well-heeled men and women sing and clap in a scene reminiscent of synagogues on New York City’s Upper West Side. After services, the young rabbi welcomes everyone in a mix of Hebrew and English and invites them for refreshments in the courtyard, where single men and women flirt over glasses of kosher Cava and assorted pastries. Afterward, some head to friends’ homes for a traditional Friday night meal, while others hit their favorite restaurants or bars.
Welcome to the new Tel Aviv, where religious devotion mixes easily with the city’s predominantly secular ethos. Although Israel has become well-known for its religious-secular divide, with few active streams of liberal Judaism, Tel Aviv—long the defiantly secular counterpart to religious Jerusalem—is a study in how this culture may be changing. Attendance at synagogues and religious events in Tel Aviv has been growing for the past few years, and kosher restaurants are on the rise.
Part of this reflects an influx of immigrants, mostly Orthodox and Conservative/traditional, who have instilled a distinctly Diaspora-style, synagogue-based model of community to the scene. Part is also due to more Shabbat-observant Israeli singles moving to Tel Aviv from other cities, in search of a more liberal lifestyle. But part, too, is due to some increased interest in religious activities among Israel’s secular Jews.
Today, the city boasts dozens of active synagogues, social, civic, and religious organizations. Those who get involved in the city’s religious life are primarily single young professionals—a mix of immigrants and native Israelis, traditional Jews of all streams, and some who define themselves as secular.
The trend began about 15 or more years ago with a small group of Orthodox and traditional young immigrants from the United States and Europe, who helped revive some of the city’s largely empty synagogues. Gadi Blumrosen, a biomedical engineering researcher at Tel Aviv University, grew up in Jerusalem and moved to Tel Aviv after graduating from Technion 15 years ago. He remembers when several small groups of young professionals began gathering for Shabbat services, often organized by those immigrants. “I remember in 1998, a woman, an olah [immigrant] from England, approaching me in the supermarket and inviting me to a minyan in someone’s home,” he said. “The olim developed a community in the style they knew. That was new for Israel.” Subsequently, one such prayer group moved to one floor of the Ichud Tzion synagogue on Ben Yehuda and grew steadily. Eventually, the young minyan became known as Ichud Olam, and its 20 members in 2000 grew to hundreds of members by 2008.
The city’s religious involvement continued on an upward trajectory. After the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, active strides were made by some Orthodox organizations to find common ground with secular communities, and they directed efforts at a revival of Tel Aviv’s religious community. By around 2009, numbers had grown enough to warrant new synagogues and learning centers. Today there is a steady influx of observant singles and young couples, both immigrants and native Israelis. While as recently as five years ago many synagogues struggled to find a minyan of elderly residents, today, these same institutions regularly attract hundreds of people of all ages. And in addition to the more traditional options, there are smaller but growing egalitarian/Conservative synagogues, Reform congregations, and services that cater to an LGBT crowd. A Facebook page called Kosher Tel Aviv now offers copious restaurant options in a city once known for the scarcity of kosher dining establishments.
Employment opportunities in the area’s burgeoning high-tech sector have brought many more Shabbat-observant singles to the area in recent years. Hebrew University sociologist Ari Engelberg classified Tel Aviv as the third-largest community of religious singles in Israel, after Jerusalem and Givat Shmuel, in his 2011 dissertation “Religious Zionism and the Problem of Prolonged Singlehood.” Several articles have appeared in the Israeli press in the last few years describing this influx to Tel Aviv and it impact on the city’s culture.
Engelberg believes religious singles are moving to Tel Aviv to enjoy the more liberal lifestyle that a modern urban environment provides and that this trend reflects larger changes in Israeli society. More Israelis of all kinds, including the religious, are delaying marriage and family, he says. Many religious singles in their late 20s, 30s, and 40s are identifying as “Dati-lite,” a term comparable to Modern Orthodox in the United States and a category fairly new in Israel. Dati-lite individuals may dress and socialize like their secular counterparts but are generally Shabbat- and kashrut-observant. “Tel Aviv is the next logical step for Israel’s Dati-lite singles,” said Engelberg. “In Israeli mythos, Tel Aviv represents freedom, a place where anything can happen. It’s like Los Angeles and New York combined.”
Over the past few years, the community has begun to diversify as it continues to grow. Moise Javedanfar, 31, who moved with his family to Tel Aviv from Iran when he was 9, grew up traditional but committed to observing Shabbat while traveling and volunteering in South America and Canada after his compulsory army service. Upon his return to Tel Aviv, he began attending Ichud Olam and enjoyed a sense of community there. But one Saturday, he was asked to help make a minyan at the North Central Synagogue, also on Ben Yehuda, and that led to his involvement there. Together with a friend, Javedanfar began an effort to revive this once-active synagogue, which had dwindled to just a handful of elderly members. “When one of the congregants had to use the bathroom,” he recalled, “we would all have to take a break because we had only 10 members, the minimum for a prayer quorum.”
Slowly but surely, attendance grew at North Central. In 2009, a synagogue member named Natan Bashevkin participated in Israel’s version of the reality show Survivor. He vowed to give a huge sum of cash to his synagogue, if he won. He did, and the ensuing press led to more interest in the synagogue. Next came community Friday night dinners and a weekly kiddush featuring homemade cholent. By 2012, the once-empty sanctuary and social hall were routinely filled, sometimes jam-packed, with 250 people at an average kiddush. Today the synagogue is one of the “in” places to pray, as well as to see and be seen. In addition to immigrants, it attracts a significant number of religious and formerly religious Israeli singles from all over the country looking for something homey and familiar in the big city. But Javedanfar shrugs at mention of the synagogue’s popularity: “There was a need and we were there at the right time to fill that void,” he said.
Javedanfar is especially proud of the fact that the older congregants still feel welcome, despite the massive growth: “We don’t start the kiddush until all of the veteran members have entered the social hall.”
One North Central Synagogue congregant, Eytan White, a 29-year-old originally from New Rochelle, N.Y., helped take the nascent Tel Aviv religious community a step further. White found a job in Tel Aviv in 2010, shortly after his compulsory army service. The Modern Orthodox White was less than excited about the prospect of living in the country’s party capital “Everyone said it was a bad idea,” he told me. “Some called it ‘sin city.’ ”
At first unable to locate a community of like-minded types, he’d leave the city on weekends. But eventually, he discovered a small but growing community of other Shabbat-observant singles in their 20s and 30s at the North Central Synagogue. “I was hosting a ton of meals on Friday night and Shabbat lunches,” he said, “mostly English-speaking immigrants and whoever I got friendly with at synagogue.” With demand growing for such Shabbat meals, White, together with friend Deborah Danan and others, compiled a database of emails, gathered volunteers, and created White City named for Tel Aviv’s distinctive white Bauhaus architecture. Today, it hosts monthly Friday night meals attended by about 300 people, in addition to holiday parties and other events for young professionals. At first, the meals were just an alternative to “heating up pasta on a Friday night,” said White. But they have grown into something else.
The monthly meals attract a regular group of visitors from Jerusalem and other cities as well as those temporarily in the country for Masa Career Israel, a five-month internship program for college graduates and other such programs. Israeli soldiers who are new immigrants living far from their families, called “lone soldiers,” attend for free. The meals, which take place at the historic Goren Synagogue and are produced in partnership with Golan Winery, have become increasingly elaborate and also feature special speakers and entertainment. Israel’s former and current chief rabbis have been guests, as has Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai. Next up in 2014 is a try at breaking the Guinness Book of World Records’ record for world’s largest Shabbat meal.
Although the atmosphere is traditional, with strictly kosher food and blessings over wine and challah, it is also cosmopolitan, said White: “At least half of the people who come to our events are not Orthodox. People regularly go outside to answer their cellphones on Friday night.”
According to White, that’s part of the unique White City vibe. “There is no outward conflict. People get along or do what they do,” he said. “As organizers of White City, we’ve always been consistent that there is no specific religious agenda. If someone comes to our meals and decides they want to come to shul, that’s great. I’m happy. That’s beautiful in my eyes. But, is that what we are pushing? No, no.”
A similar approach is favored by Rabbi Ariel Konstantyn, who received his ordination at Yeshiva University and became the rabbi at The Tel Aviv International Synagogue–Beit El several years after moving with his family to Israel in 2005. A former associate rabbi at the Hampton Synagogue, Konstantyn was originally tapped by Tzohar, an organization providing religious guidance on life-cycle events, to help revive religious activity in the area. But the rabbi had a larger vision: He wanted to create a community centered at an old but stately synagogue on Frishman Street, near the beach. The services would serve as a base for educational and social programs aimed at locals and would also be attractive to those vacationing in the area.
Konstantyn got his chance in 2009, but at the time, his vision of an elegant synagogue with attractive surroundings and a more formal air than is common in Israeli synagogues seemed unlikely. “The place was a in a shambles, a mess, crumbing with junk everywhere and barely a minyan on Friday night,” remembered Konstantyn. In addition, he had to contend with community elders, who were excited to see progress but also suspicious of change.
The rabbi gathered with a core group and brainstormed. Although they had limited funds, the synagogue instituted a wealth of activities: Friday night dinners, champagne refreshments after services, services with well-known cantors and choirs, programs for “lone soldiers,” and weekly study sessions on Jewish topics—including conversion classes. In addition, the rabbi instituted a new, exciting style of prayer: lots of singing, hand-clapping and the occasional mid-prayer leap in the air, in the Carlebach style. Today, The Tel Aviv International Synagogue welcomes up to 500 people on some Shabbatot, with 700 on the High Holidays. The rabbi estimates that about 70 percent of congregants define themselves as secular.
He explains that Israel lacks the style of synagogue-based community familiar to many immigrants from the United States and other Western countries, so people who had a Reform or Conservative background move to Israel and don’t find liberal communities. “They say: Oh, I guess I’m secular, so they go to clubs on Friday night, even though they were traditional before their move,” said Konstantyn. “Many were more Jewishly connected outside than inside the Holy Land.”
Konstantyn is committed to providing a place for everyone to worship comfortably. Although Orthodox in affiliation himself, he explained: “I don’t believe that everyone has to be the same. I’m interested in presenting Jewish experiences and letting people choose how to connect.”
Jessica Fass, 30, a web content editor and video curator at AOL and the CEO of Fass Pass to Love, a matchmaking company for Israel’s immigrant community, came to Tel Aviv from Los Angeles for a Masa program and ended up staying on for close to three years now. “I sometimes go to Friday night services with friends at [The Tel Aviv International Synagogue] or other synagogues where they speak English,” said Fass, who defines herself as “definitely a Reform Jew.”
“I also sometimes go to the Shabbat dinners for olim, the White City Shabbat events. I love the sense of community that you get in Israel at Shabbat dinners,” said Fass. “I love that in Tel Aviv you have the freedom to be whatever kind of Jew you want to be, and I don’t feel that either the religious people are looked at in a bad light or the secular people.”
It feels like “we are all one big, happy, yet slightly dysfunctional, Jewish family,” said Fass.
The trend toward tolerance described by Fass can be seen also in the fact that secular Israelis in Tel Aviv, born and bred in the country, are less averse to attending religious events than would have been the norm some 15 or 20 years ago. Curious about their roots and eager to socialize, a handful of secular locals attend the White City Shabbat meals and even go to Shabbat services. A popular event for both religious and secular is the Wandering Jew Shabbat, which takes place several times a year at the homes of different individuals. Friday night communal prayers, often taking place on a rooftop overlooking the Tel Aviv skyline, are followed by a big, friendly potluck and social. And today, you are as likely to see secular Tel Avivis as Orthodox types at higher-end kosher restaurants like Blue Sky or Goshen.
Even those institutions with a more strictly Orthodox bend have maintained a uniquely Tel Aviv flavor. The Deborah Hotel on Ben Yehuda Street, built in 1964, has since the late 1980s also functioned as the headquarters of an active center for Jewish learning, with a men’s kollel yeshiva and twice-weekly study groups in English, French, and Hebrew. According to Rabbi Zvi Knoll, who received ordination from the haredi Hevron Yeshiva in Jerusalem and is the head of the center as well as owner of the hotel, the classes are growing in attendance and attract both observant and secular participants. The rabbi believes it has to do with emphasizing the positive in teaching Torah. “It’s like a mirror, like a reflection in water. If you show hatred, you will get hatred reflected back, and if you show kindness, the same will happen.”
Knoll tells of a recent incident in which he wore his tallit while walking in Tel Aviv on Shabbat. He ended up in a long religious discussion with passersby who were curious about the traditional dress. “People are more interested in their Jewish roots than one would think from the media,” he explained.
Blumrosen, who regularly hosts dozens of religious and secular people for Shabbat meals at his Tel Aviv home, agrees. “There is a great desire for spirituality in Israel today. You see it in all kinds of things—the popularity of yoga, meditation, a vegan lifestyle, a green lifestyle. You also see it at the synagogues and Jewish gatherings in Tel Aviv.”
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
An ancient principle of Judaism, debated at length in the Oral Law, is that it is a sin to count Jews—or is it?