The Torah class is held on the upper level of an old synagogue on Bar Kochba
Street, just off Dizengoff Square. On the stairs leading up to the class, a
woman with unmistakably Chinese features sits nursing her newborn.
woman is now known as Ella, a name she chose for herself in the beit din
(rabbinical court) just weeks before her baby was born.
China, Ella completed her conversion to Judaism in Israel, but had already been
in the process for four years in Shanghai when she met her Israeli husband,
Eran. They had a civil wedding in China, and two months ago, following her
conversion, Eran and his heavily pregnant bride were married according to Jewish
law in Tel Aviv’s Great Synagogue. Two weeks after that, she gave birth to their
first child, Shira.
Much of the credit that Eran gives for his own path
toward Judaism goes to Rosh Yehudi, the Jewish center that is hosting the class
on Bar Kochba Street. Eighty people of all ages and walks of life fill the room
to hear the words of Rabbi Uri Sherkey.
The class he gives is on Pirkei
Avot – the Ethics of the Fathers – but he peppers it with anecdotes from
philosophy, history and a host of other subjects.
The audience interacts
with the rabbi, and the questions they pose indicate a high level of intellect
from secular and religious attendees alike.
Yet the atmosphere is
refreshingly free of the snobbery that often pervades any room occupied by a
group of intellectuals.
Rosh Yehudi is just one of many centers for
Jewish learning that have sprung up in recent years in Tel Aviv, ostensibly the
country’s secular capital.
Tel Aviv has approximately 500 synagogues that
are no longer in use, and many of the Jewish centers are using these defunct
synagogues to host their activities. Although they are all geared toward the
same goal of building bridges between the secular and religious communities,
there is a surprising lack of competition among the different centers. Part of
the reason for this is that each center has its own approach, catering to a
specific target audience.
Even though Friday night prayers at Rosh Yehudi
– with over 150 people in attendance – are conducted in the style of Rabbi
Shlomo Carlebach, the center was founded on the spirit and teachings of Rabbi
Abraham Isaac Kook; in other words, in the stream of religious Zionism. Rosh
Yehudi boasts a wide range of activities, including a bar mitzva project and a
newlyweds’ initiative to guide and support those who need it during those
pivotal events in the Jewish life cycle.
In addition to hosting Torah
classes, which are open to the public, it has a seminary for about 30 girls of
varying degrees of observance.
Ze’ev Shlua, the executive director of
Rosh Yehudi, explains that the center’s ideal is to bond and bridge between
different parts of Israeli society by strengthening Jewish
Shlua opines that many people are simply afraid of learning
about Judaism, and Rosh Yehudi hopes to change this attitude by offering a type
of Judaism that is accessible to everyone.
“People are facing all
different types of struggles today, and many feel lonely and lost,” says Shlua.
“Rosh Yehudi’s aim is to provide a non-judgmental, open environment in which
people don’t have to be afraid or apologetic about learning more about Judaism.
We don’t want to be up in an ivory tower – we want to be here, on the ground in
Tel Aviv. There is no replacement for the warm embrace of a fellow
Sherkey postulates that there is a growing trend of people seeking
to carve out their identities.
“There’s nothing more natural for a Jew
than to explore Judaism, and at Rosh Yehudi we try and make it relevant to modern times,” he says, adding that the reason his approach is so
appealing to many non-observant Jews is that he speaks in a “secular language,”
using “secular” concepts and vernacular.
The rabbi shuns the term “kiruv
rehokim” (drawing people into a religious lifestyle) as being the primary aim of
“Kiruv rehokim is a problematic term,” he says. “It has
connotations that bespeak superiority – ‘I got here and you need to be here,
too.’ That’s not it at all. ‘Kiruv levavot’ [connecting hearts] is a better
term. Secular people have much to learn from religious people, sure. But it’s a
two-way street. There is so much that religious people should learn from secular
people, such as basic intuition, freedom of thought, spontaneity, the autonomy
of humanity, and sensitivity to more pragmatic issues like caring for the
ANOTHER CENTER that has breathed life into an obsolete
house of prayer is Merkaz Shamayim in the Sheinkin area. Founded by Nurit and
Roni Ayalon 12 years ago under the name Shorashim, the center was the first of
its kind in Tel Aviv. The classes that Shamayim offers have a slightly different
approach in that they include a strong emphasis on hassidism and Jewish
mysticism. Eight hundred people pass through Shamayim’s doors on a weekly basis,
many of them having dabbled at one time or another in Eastern philosophies and
Having traveled extensively in the Far East prior to becoming
religious, the Ayalons are no strangers to the phenomenon of soul-searching in
far-flung corners of the globe.
“I didn’t understand how I was a Jew, yet
I knew so little about Judaism,” says Nurit. “Even though I didn’t even fast on
Yom Kippur, I always spoke to God – I just didn’t know how to name
The Ayalons, like the center they run, have many different facets.
They are Belzer Hassidim living in the heart of secular Tel Aviv, and on the
surface their hassidic appearance may seem incongruous with what they have
achieved in all aspects of their lives. A mother of eight, Nurit is a lawyer,
while Roni is a practitioner of Chinese medicine as well as a mohel and a
reserve soldier for the IDF’s General Staff Reconnaissance Unit.
gives a series of lectures based on the Matrix movie trilogy, called “The Matrix
According to Hassidism.”
Like Roni, most of the lecturers in Shamayim are
ba’alei teshuva (returnees to the faith). Nurit says that people are more
amenable to listening to those who have undergone their own process of
“If the rabbi or speaker is not constantly searching
inside of himself, or if he just speaks in a dogmatic way, no one will buy it.
Tel Avivians especially can identify falsehood from afar – and that’s part of
the reason I love living here,” she says. “At Shamayim, we look for speakers who
have a truth and authenticity that is so tangible and who aren’t afraid to voice
their own fears and suspicions, or even to talk about their own
They are totally without pride or ego, and they speak to our
audiences on their own level.”
She stresses that “our aim is not to
provide proofs pertaining to Judaism.
We don’t hold lectures that prove
that ma’amad Har Sinai [the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai] was indeed a
historical event, nor do we try to prove the existence of God. We want people
who come to feel it. And everyone does that in a different way.
everyone becomes observant, but they are able to become better people, more
sensitive people who work on improving their midot
Shamayim, which like the other learning centers is for both
men and women, has a sister organization for women called Ashira. The websites
of the two groups combined receive close to a million hits a month, making them the country’s largest online
resource for Judaism.
RABBI DAVID Ziering is the founder of Aish Tel
Aviv, one of the few centers that have opted out of utilizing neglected
synagogue space; instead, it has its own state-of-the-art venue in a prime
location opposite the marina.
Offering sushi and champagne means that
Aish is able to attract the crème de la crème of those seeking to sharpen their
knowledge of Judaism.
Explaining his reason for opening a branch of the
international outreach organization in Tel Aviv, of all places, Ziering says
that although Jerusalem may be the country’s political capital, Tel Avivians see
their city as the country’s spiritual, economic and social center, an attitude
reflected in the Hebrew name for the region around Tel Aviv: the Merkaz
Unlike its counterparts in Jerusalem and the Diaspora, Aish Tel
Aviv is geared mainly toward secular professionals, aspiring to connect leaders
in the fields of politics, business and media to their roots in Judaism. One of
those leaders is Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who participates in
Aish’s havruta (study session) program.
“There are many people in places
like Tel Aviv who feel that the ideals of Zionism are a thing of the past. We
hope to show them that these values are still valid,” Ziering
ANOTHER PURPOSE-BUILT center is Hamakom, which was founded four
years ago by Ariel Dorfman.
Hamakom doesn’t label itself as a center for
Jewish learning; instead it uses the tagline “center for culture and
According to Dorfman, the chief challenge that his center
aims to combat is ignorance. To this end, Hamakom’s main tactic is simply to
Different factions of Israeli society are by and large
completely segregated from one another, which means that ignorance regarding
“the other” is rife.
Dorfman says that this phenomenon is true of both
secular and religious Israelis.
His center is about providing people with
a forum in which they can become exposed to new ideas and gain a taste of
Judaism in a fun atmosphere, while also being accepted for who they are. He
wants to see people becoming more connected to themselves, and by doing so
becoming more connected to each other.
“A person who doesn’t accept
himself or love himself can’t give to others,” he says.
In the Diaspora,
secular Jews are often more likely to know more about their faith than their
Israeli counterparts. But this was not always the case. As the Hamakom founder
points out, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion – a definitively
secular man – always walked around carrying a copy of the Tanach (Hebrew
“In recent generations, Judaism has become something negative,”
says Dorfman. “Factors including failures within the education system have led
people to believe that the Tanach is all technical and not at all relevant to
That is not the attitude that the rest of the world has to the
Bible, and it should not be the attitude here, either. In Hamakom, we try and
show that the Tanach is very relevant to people’s lives.”
vision is for a united Israel working together to build the land and to continue
Ben-Gurion’s legacy of connecting the Jewish people to a Jewish identity.
Hamakom strives to forge the path toward building a nation based on a culture of
giving, accepting and loving one’s neighbor. This time of year in the Jewish
calendar is particularly pertinent to furthering that end.
finished marking the death of 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples who died because
of their baseless hatred,” he says, referring to the first part of the Omer
period, between Passover and Lag Ba’omer.
“Today, we need to make sure to
eliminate that – not to have two separate states, the state of Jerusalem and the
state of Tel Aviv.
Unification is key.”
Furthermore, he points
out, “Shavuot marks the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. It was not
given in Israel; rather, it was given in the desert. The desert is a place that
belongs to no one, and as such the Torah is not the property of one group over
another. Judaism is relevant to everyone.”
It was a conscious decision
not to host Hamakom’s activities inside a synagogue. Dorfman believes that doing
so would turn many people off from entering.
“Sadly people feel that a
synagogue is only the domain of the religious, so we decided to build this
beautiful building that reflects a spirit of mutual respect,” he says.
echoes Sherkey’s sentiments that the secular and religious communities have much
to learn from one another.
“The havruta [study partner] that I learned
most from was a secular person.
Through watching him experience his first
encounter with the Tanach, I was able to draw lessons from his free thinking and
the questions he asked,” he recalls. “Being a good person is not connected to
whether you are religious or not. It is connected to humility, to being aware of
how you conduct yourself toward your family and towards
According to Dorfman, “the prevailing question 30 years ago of
‘How can I give to the state?’ has since turned into ‘How can the state give to
me?’” He is hoping to reverse this trend by encouraging people to nurture a
culture that combines all aspects of life as a Jew.
To achieve this,
Hamakom hosts a series of workshops and lectures, including musical workshops
run by Evyatar Banai and workshops on the Yemima method for
What sets this center apart from some of the others is
that the activities aren’t run exclusively by religious people. Famous names
like Dudi Levi, Gil Kopatch, Dov Singer and Kobi Oz have all given workshops
there, including overseeing workshops on the Talmud. Berry Sakharof and Ehud
Banai have also given performances in the center, which is close to the Carmel
Hamakom has even invited religious people who had no prior
contact with secular people to come to Tel Aviv and get to know other types of
“We’ll bring over girls from ulpanot [religious girls’ high
schools] or yeshiva boys – some of whom have never even been to Tel Aviv – and
we’ll send them out on the street with secular people. They’ll have a personal
conversation that lasts hours, and that way, the religious people who have led
somewhat sheltered lives are now able to see how the other sees life. It breaks
down stigmas and barriers. I have religious people coming back to me and saying,
‘What an amazing nation we have, it’s such a shame we never interact with one