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Recently, there was a lively parade in Tel Aviv to celebrate the installation of a new Torah scroll at the refurbished Orthodox Gvurat Yisrael synagogue off Dizengoff Square.
Hassidic music blasted from a float shining with colorful electric crowns symbolizing the crowns of Torah. Hundreds of men in knitted kippas stopped traffic as they danced next to the float from Tchernikovsky to Dizengoff street in a way that would make nightclubs envious. The parade drew stops and stares, cheers and snickers, with some passers-by joining in on the fun.
The parade, organized by the Jewish outreach organization Rosh Yehudi and sponsored by Haim Avrahami, a businessman who donated funds to purchase the Torah, ended at the courtyard of the synagogue, where a Jewish band continued the dancing celebrations. As sponsors of the event, Cup o' Joe was on hand to hand out coffee and snacks.
"Inaugurating a Sefer Torah is a very important event," explains Rav Eitan Hacohen, the gabbai of the shul and organizer of the event. "We feel that in Tel Aviv, the energy of dancing and going a little crazy fits the atmosphere of the city and the community. We want the synagogue to be a place with happiness and good energies. We didn't plan it to be such a joyous occasion - it came from the people."
The inauguration of the Sefer Torah is particularly historic because it marks the revival and rededication of the Gvurat Yisrael synagogue, which was built at the time of the founding of Israel but had fallen into disuse in the past two decades. Rosh Yehudi was founded 10 years ago with a mission to revive Judaism in the city. The synagogue is a symbol of their success.
Rosh Yehudi started its activities with lectures on Torah, Bible and traditional Jewish thought in a small room off Rehov Bograshov.
"We though, with our religious mind set, that Tel Avivians would come to intellectual lectures but that if we encouraged them to come to pray, they'd call it religious coercion," explains Yisrael Zeira, founder of Rosh Yehudi. "We actually found that secular people feel a need to pray in a way that brings them closer to faith - pleasant, relevant, enjoyable and joyous."
In its early days, Rosh Yehudi would recruit men on the street to form a minyan (quorum), but in the past few years the Bograshov quarters could hardly accommodate the growing number of eager participants. They decided to look for a synagogue to house more people. After investigating all the options, they found Gvurat Yisrael.
"We wanted a place that was 'Carlebach' happy," explains Zeira, referring to the type of joyous prayer and religious song inspired by Shlomo Carlebach. "For this we needed to find an abandoned synagogue."
Gvurat Yisrael had been very active in the 1950s through 1970s but became neglected with the increasing secularization of the city. Before Rosh Yehudi took it over, one minyan, composed largely of elderly men, prayed once a week in the rundown hall.
Hacohen was shocked when he first looked inside. "I had the feeling I was in a synagogue after the Holocaust. The place was dirty, dusty and very unpleasant. Broken windows, glass, dust were everywhere."
Rosh Yehudi and its members decided not to hire a cleaning company but to revamp the synagogue themselves. They cleaned and dusted tirelessly to make it as presentable and beautiful as possible while preserving the original architecture and design. The pews, wall paintings, decor, chandeliers and most of the furniture are original.
"One woman went on a ladder and cleaned every glass piece of the chandelier for hours," Hacohen recounts.
A few weeks before Rosh Hashana, Hacohen approached a mother-in-law of one of the congregants to donate some curtains.
Recalls Tehilla Dror, 65, a resident of Dizengoff Towers, "I have lived in Tel Aviv for 18 years, and every shul I went to looked at me funny because I wore pants - and that gave me a bad feeling. Continues Dror, who considers herself a traditional Jew, "For years I didn't go to a beit knesset, not even on Yom Kippur."
But impressed with the openness of the Rosh Yehudi community and Hacohen in particular, she decided not only to contribute to the synagogue but to recruit her family to help clean up the filth. Her grandson brought in his whole army unit to paint the walls and chairs, and her cousin worked a full day to fix the cracks in the walls - all for the 'sake of Heaven.'
"It's such a nice atmosphere that we contributed because we enjoyed it, not to get our name on the walls."
The synagogue was packed during the High Holidays. Its Shabbat services are open to the public, and they are usually followed by a kiddush.
"The vision is to create a community. A beit knesset that isn't only a place of prayer but a home. We want a community that's open enough to welcome many people and many families who are looking for a Jewish place to mark Shabbat and celebrations. It's also a place where people meet. In my opinion, you it's called 'beit knesset' [house of gathering] because it's a place where you gather, not only pray," says Hacohen.
Adds Zeira, "We think there is a thirst for spirituality, and we hope that we will be a serious alternative to answer to this need."
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