A day before Succot, a bunch of 18-year-old girls and boys sat on a lawn under the trees in south Tel Aviv to study Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), the book traditionally read on Succot. They had started the class inside a makeshift classroom at the Shapira community center, the temporary campus of the new Secular Yeshiva in Tel Aviv but moved outside to enjoy the inspiration of the fresh air.
The teacher was commenting on the nature of happiness as described in Ecclesiastes through a look at excerpts from such thinkers as John Stuart Mill and Ahad Ha'am. Students were engaged in unraveling the wisdom wedded in the Jewish canon.
The idyllic scene of Israelis studying Torah may seem out of place in Tel Aviv. The urban center of Israel is known more for its industry, entertainment, culture, bars and restaurants than for its yeshivas and synagogues. But in the last decade, centers for Jewish learning have been growing and thriving in Tel Aviv. That Tel Aviv is one of the most secular cities in Israel has actually made it an experimental and fertile ground for Jewish outreach and education.
"I think Tel Aviv is the capital of secularism because it's also juxtaposed against Jerusalem," explains Benjy Maor, director of resource and development of the Secular Yeshiva. "We decided to establish a secular yeshiva in Tel Aviv for that reason. If you create a framework that's relevant for secular Israelis, you have to do it in the heart of where it is."
The Secular Yeshiva, a project of the Bina Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture, aims to give young secular Israelis the opportunity to study Jewish texts from a humanistic perspective. Many of the participants, who come from all over Israel, weave their yeshiva studies into their pre-army or post-army track. The curriculum combines community service in the Shapira community, among the poorer in Tel Aviv, as part of the program's emphasis on social action.
Maor, who made aliya 23 years ago from Los Angeles, has observed how young secular Israelis are often alienated from Jewish sources. He attributes this, in part, to their inability to see Judaism's relevance to their lives and values. Many of the students come into the secular yeshiva program associating Judaism with stringent Orthodox practice or politicized religion, with a general aversion to both.
Maor notices an upward trend in pluralistic Jewish learning throughout Tel Aviv. "Relative to 10 years ago, there's no question that if you look across Tel Aviv from south to north, Jewish pluralism is on the map. There are activities of all kinds."
The Secular Yeshiva is refurbishing its new campus in a building donated by the city, which has expressed support for the project. The city subsidizes its own center for Jewish culture at a state-of-the-art building located off Ibn Gabirol on Zeitlin Street. The Brodt Center, built three years ago, conducts programs, activities and courses for non-affiliated Tel Avivians. Its goal is to connect Tel Aviv residents to their heritage and roots through contemporary Jewish culture. The city's active involvement in Jewish learning reflects the growth of interest in the city, says Shira Sivan, director of the center.
"When you do things that are fitting for a young, non-religious crowd, there is demand."
One of the pioneers of the revival of interest in Jewish sources among secular Tel Avivians is Ruth Calderon. While she bears no formal affiliation to the Secular Yeshiva, she regards it as a welcome participant in the same endeavor as the educational institute, Alma, which she founded 10 years ago. Alma is a "center for Hebrew culture" where "Hebrew" does not refer to the language but to the integration of Judaism and modernity.
"I think we should redefine 'secular,'" says Calderon, an active figure in Jewish education throughout Israel. "Tel Aviv non-rabbinic Jews respect culture very much; when we offer them an entrance into Judaism as scholarship or classic narrative culture instead of halacha, it is surprising how much hunger and openness you can find in Tel Aviv."
Calderon grew up in a "very Jewish" secular home, but when she sought to study classic Jewish texts and spirituality, she had trouble finding a non-affiliated educational framework in Tel Aviv. Alma is the culmination of her vision to create what she felt was missing in the city.
"Alma was founded in the hopes of building a home for Hebrew culture - a center of study, ritual, celebration of the Jewish calendar for the non-affiliated majority in Israel and the world."
Located just off Sderot Rothschild, Alma has expanded its activities to include Haifa and has established Alma New York. Alma Tel Aviv offers full and part-time tracks that combine the study of Bible and Talmud with literature, poetry, philosophy and the arts.
Calderon believes the time is ripe for Tel Aviv to live up to its potential as the "Hebrew city" envisioned by Tel Aviv's cultural founding fathers, Ahad Ha'am, Joseph Haim Brenner, and Chaim Nachman Bialik. While Judaism is often not expressed through halachic observance in Tel Aviv, Shabbat and holidays remain "different" from the rest of the week, and the special Jewish atmosphere is present in the many expressions of Hebrew culture in the city. True Hebrew culture, however, comes from the meeting between the creative arts and Jewish sources.
"Our vision at Alma is to become a meeting place between the talented creators of culture in Israel and the wonderful heritage that belongs to them, to which they were never really introduced." To facilitate this meeting, Alma has tailored a beit midrash program for television script writers and musicians.
While institutes such as Alma and the Secular Yeshiva are providing Jewish learning pathways for secular Israelis who would automatically reject Jewish learning in an Orthodox framework, Jewish learning from a traditional and halachic perspective has also been making headway in the city.
Rosh Yehudi, whose headquarters is off Rehov Bogroshav, is geared toward individual secular Tel Avivians seeking meaningful spiritual outlets. Its sign reads "Center for Self-Awareness."
"I couldn't stand the idea that in the center of culture in Israel there didn't exist the most 'banal,' true, simple alternative, which is the true culture of Am Israel, the culture of the Torah: Judaism," explains Israel Zeira, who founded Rosh Yehudi 10 years ago. "In Tel Aviv we have all the cultures, all the avodot zorot (idolatries) in the world - everything you want, but no Judaism."
Like Calderon, Zeira is concerned that gatekeepers of culture are often disconnected from their Jewish identity and texts. "When you go to Tel Aviv you see that all creative Israeliness happens here - journalism, communications, television. It's amazing that the city that creates Israeli culture lacks Jewish identity."
In its early days, Rosh Yehudi's staff had to stand outside and recruit passers-by for a minyan or weekly class. Today, the classroom is packed every week with men and women ranging from ages 20-50, wearing shorts, jeans and tank tops, who come to listen to the weekly Torah portion, biblical commentary and traditional Jewish sources on happiness and the meaning of life. While its orientation is Orthodox, there is no political agenda or religious coercion. People are encouraged to come, wearing and asking whatever they want.
"It's clear that no one likes to be forced into something they don't understand. Man is a free person, and freedom is a very important virtue in the Torah," says Zeira.
Rosh Yehudi recently expanded and refurbished an old synagogue on Bar Kochva. The synagogue had not been used for years, but a crew of volunteers worked hard to get it cleaned up in time for the High Holidays. All its seats were filled on Yom Kippur.
The growth of traffic in the classroom and synagogue rivals the growth of interest on the Internet. In the "Ask the rabbi" section, more and more people turn to Jewish wisdom on a variety of topics. But Zeira sees this growing interest as an outgrowth of increasing dissatisfaction with nihilist or hedonistic secular culture.
"In the past few years there has been more interest perhaps because the public is coming to the conclusion that there are no real answers to life and that life has lost its zohar and beauty. People are looking for hope, light, direction. And there is no direction."
Community-geared yeshivas with a religious Zionist orientation have sprung up across the city to heal the divide between Judaism and mainstream secular Israelis. Their approach is to situate themselves within a certain community and create a significant, traditional Jewish presence.
Across the street from the temporary grounds of the Secular Yeshiva (which is building its permanent home nearby) is Yeshivat Orot Aviv. Founded six years ago in the Shapira community, it has a non-secular orientation, teaching Torah Judaism not as Hebrew culture but as an integral way of life. Identified with the religious Zionist camp, it combines full-time traditional yeshiva learning and community programs. "Seed families" with husbands who study there, live among the residents to infuse traditional Jewish life into south Tel Aviv.
"It's important for them that there are religious families in Tel Aviv," says Merav Monsonego, who runs the office.
The yeshiva is situated in an old synagogue that used to serve a once-active Jewish community in the area. During Succot, the yeshiva organized events for kids in and around the succa. On Simchat Torah they walked around the entire city with a Sefer Torah to raise the holiday spirits of the secular city. During the week they run weekly classes for women, as well as bar-mitzva training for boys.
"We try to make an atmosphere of Judaism in the community," says Monsonego. "Ha'rav Mishael Cohen, the rosh yeshiva, conceived of this idea. He understood that for Am Yisrael to be connected to Torah, the religious communities can't live isolated from the rest of Israel. Tel Aviv is the heart of Israel."
Yeshivat Ma'ale Eliyahu, located behind Ichilov Hospital, is a yeshiva of higher learning also affiliated with the religious Zionist community. It runs programs and events open to the public to infuse Jewish learning and identity into the city through an approach that applauds and adheres to Jewish law.
Rav Uri Sherki, who teaches Bible at Rosh Yehudi, has high hopes for Tel Aviv: "It is the most spiritual of cities because here they are searching. They could reach a great high or low - but they are in a search. The search is always a safe ground for spiritual ascension."
How Jewish are they at Jewish Princess?
In Israel, only a bar in Tel Aviv would have a wall relief designed with laser cutouts of Kama Sutra positions. Only a bar in Tel Aviv with such a wall relief would call itself "Jewish Princess."
While not necessarily the intention of the owners, the satirical name represents the playful disdain often associated with Tel Aviv and Judaism. To discover whether or not this stereotypical aversion to Judaism exists in Tel Aviv, Metro met with a few bargoers at Jewish Princess on a busy Thursday night to find out the extent of their connection to Judaism.
Limor, 32, embraced her Jewish identity more in the US than she did in Tel Aviv. "In New York they respect it more. Here it's taken for granted, and you don't have to deal with questions about Jewish identity."
Assaf, 32 from Givatayim, was proud to say, "I'm a Jew." Barak, having a beer next to him, was much more positive toward Judaism and religious people. "When I'm around religious people, I respect them as I do all religions." He argues that Tel Aviv is more religiously tolerant than people give it credit for - it goes along with the do-whatever-makes-you-happy ethos.
Hadas, 31, who lives in Tel Aviv, finds value in Judaism, although she doesn't actively practice. "I'm a Jew and I believe in God. It expresses itself in everything I do. I always ask if what I do is okay." But she doesn't see any proclivity of Tel Avivians to Judaism. In fact, she sees the opposite - a mocking, purposeful desecration - that's what Tel Aviv is for, she says.
Yair, the son of parents who left the haredi fold, represents one of the more extreme anti-Jewish attitudes. "Judaism is not relevant," he says. "I'm a human being. In the Diaspora, Judaism has a different meaning. Here we are the Jewish state. I don't feel a need to be Jewish."
Among those interviewed, there was one woman studying Judaism at the Kabbalah Center, attracted to the mixture of Judaism and mysticism. "It's in my language," she said. She thinks more Tel Avivians should embrace Judaism as a path to spirituality.
Guy, her friend, said, "I fought in Lebanon. That's the most Jewish I can get."
Where to go
The following is a partial list of institutions with non-academic Jewish education programs and activities in the Tel Aviv area:
4 Bezalel Yafe
Beit Daniel, the Center for Progressive Judaism
Bnei Dan St.
Bina Center for Jewish Identity and Hebrew Culture
1 Hayasmin, Ramat Efal
Brodt Center for Jewish Heritage Studies
The Kabbalah Center
Tel/Fax: (03) 525-5355
Yeshivat Aviv Hatorah
Yeshivat Ma'ale Eliyahu
Yeshivat Orot Aviv
23 Rabbi Yisrael Misalant, Shapira