For Shlomo Pivko, the Great Synagogue on Tel Aviv’s Allenby Street is more than just where he goes to work. As the synagogue’s president, he is determined to restore the historic landmark where his parents and grandparents used to pray to its former fame and glory by marching it forward in time.
The 2,000-sq.m. ornately designed and decorated synagogue, which can seat some 1,000 people, is located in downtown Tel Aviv, and was once very prominent in the local landscape.
Attended by leaders such as prime minister David Ben-Gurion, who took part in the Independence Day prayers there in 1949, Tel Aviv mayor Meir Dizengoff, and later prime ministers Moshe Sharett and Menachem Begin, it also hosted the inaugurations of Israel’s chief rabbis and the funerals of national icons such as Haim Nahman Bialik and Haim Arlosoroff.
The Great Synagogue “up until today constitutes one of the important symbols of the city of Tel Aviv,” notes Pivko. “It always was and always will be a beacon of religious and communal culture.”
The synagogue recently marked its rich history and national importance in a 90th anniversary celebration, which was especially joyous in light of its burgeoning success in the past year following a long period of hardship and disrepair.
“This place was in such a state that the number of worshipers plummeted to10 people. The synagogue was almost completely closed,” says Pivko. “It was decided to bring in a young and fresh spirit in order to attract a Sacred in the ‘sin city’ young crowd.”
As part of that effort, the 33-year-old Pivko was named the synagogue’s president, and 27-year-old Yitzhak Bar- Ze’ev became its rabbi. A Facebook page and a website were launched, and events catering to a young audience were established. While Pivko, an Israel Police cantor by profession, is careful to praise the hard work and accomplishments of his predecessors, he is full of enthusiasm about the direction the synagogue is now taking.
The shul now boasts a weekly Friday night champagne kiddush – which takes place at the synagogue’s patio opposite the trendy and decidedly secular Port Said restaurant – Shabbat meals, special cantorial and choir services, concerts and different happenings on a regular basis. These are accompanied by the wedding ceremonies, brit mila (circumcision) services and bar mitzvot that the shul hosts. As for the response, Pivko says the local crowd is coming in droves, and the shul goers are as diverse as can be.
“It can be the ‘common,’ secular Tel Avivian, who comes to experience a cantor, and it could be an ultra-Orthodox person from Bnei Brak who comes to see what Tel Aviv is like on Shabbat,” he explains. “We don’t check where anyone comes from,” Pivko adds, noting that while the Great Synagogue is Orthodox, it welcomes people from all walks of life. “On our part, there’s a melting pot here.”
The melting-pot experience was recently enhanced when a Sephardi Torah scroll was brought into the Ashkenazi shul in order to cater to all attendees in honor of the anniversary. Alongside the Sephardi scroll, two scrolls that survived the Holocaust were refurbished and put into use after having been found in a dusty attic room.
“About a year ago we went upstairs and discovered Torah scrolls that had been neglected for years. No one took care of them,” Pivko recounts. “Special scribes were brought in to restore the letters.”
THE SYNAGOGUE owns some 50 Torah scrolls of all types and ages, and while work is needed on some of them, they are kept to honor the donors who contributed them. Of particular importance to Pivko are scrolls that were donated by lone Holocaust survivors in memory of their families and communities that perished in Europe. “It’s important for us to preserve the history and the tradition of these people who died,” he stresses.
The synagogue plans to open up a Judaica museum to display its scrolls and artifacts, but in the meantime will be airing the Torah scrolls during the traditional Simhat Torah celebration.
“Each year, Tel Aviv’s residents and tourists know that the Great Synagogue takes out all of its Torah scrolls,” says Pivko. “It’s a very special simha and a rare sight to see each year.” As for the crowd, it is “secular and traditional people alongside the religious and ultra- Orthodox.”
While Simhat Torah celebrations elsewhere sometimes exclude women, Pivko maintains that no such thing takes place at his shul. “Of course during Simhat Torah women come down to kiss the Torah scroll,” he says. “The idea of hadarat nashim doesn’t exist here,” he explains, referring to the issue of exclusion of women.
“Last year we combined Simhat Torah with a dinner; more than 300 people came,” he says. “We hope to recreate this again this year.”
Expanding on the topic of the regular shul goers, Pivko maintains that new immigrants, especially Anglos and olim from France, are bolstering the synagogue’s numbers.
“In the past year, following the synagogue’s rejuvenation, there has been an arrival of a crowd of new immigrants who came to live here, especially in the south Tel Aviv area,” he says. “They feel part of the community here.”
The synagogue also organizes events for new immigrants, such as a Nefesh B’Nefesh Hanukka candle-lighting ceremony for 600 people, as well as Purim celebrations.
The Great Synagogue is privately funded by donations, and Pivko would like to see increased donations alongside government funding to maintain the huge complex. The synagogue, in his opinion, should be sponsored like other cultural centers in the country, and he is in touch with the Tourism Ministry about its inclusion on a list of tourist sites in the city.
Is Pivko surprised that a synagogue in the heartland of secular Tel Aviv is enjoying such success? “Tel Aviv has become more secular, but it is diverse,” he answers. “On the one hand Tel Aviv is secular, and on the other it has a lot of culture and spirituality.” During the synagogue’s anniversary celebration, he cites as an example, “a secular Tel Aviv crowd danced around with Torah scrolls.”
What would he like to see in the future? “My vision is to see the synagogue fill up its benches,” he replies. “That a young audience, especially one that hasn’t experienced a place of prayer during the year, will come and fill up the benches.
“Our vision is that the synagogue will be filled with young people alongside older ones,” he adds. “That’s my dream and our vision at the synagogue.”