High above the pews of the Great Synagogue a pigeon has made its nest in an air vent.
The bird flutters around on the building’s domed roof on a quite Wednesday afternoon, creating a slight echo that magnifies its presence.
“We don’t have enough money to get rid of it,” Shlomo Pivko, the synagogue’s young president, says with a sigh. Last week the nearly century-old building shut its doors to worshipers for a day, after city hall temporarily seized the synagogue’s assets.
The historic Great Synagogue located on Allenby Street and built in the 1920s, has accompanied Israel through countless historic moments. It is where thenprime minister David Ben-Gurion attended the state’s first Independence Day prayers in 1949 and where the funeral of Israel’s national poet Haim Nahman Bialik was held. Yet now the synagogue faces a crippling debt of unpaid property taxes amounting to nearly NIS 2 million.
“I told them to go pray outside,” says Pivko, 34, who sports a short cropped beard and doubles as the Israel Police official hazzan or cantor.
“At a time when businesses stay open on Shabbat, [Mayor Ron] Huldai is closing a synagogue,” Pivko says in reference to the municipality and a recent High Court of Justice ruling permitting Tel Aviv mini-markets to remain open on Shabbat.
The synagogue’s tax problems stem from a period during 2012-2015 during which, according to city hall, the building functioned as business hosting a number of weddings, bar mitzvas and other events for profit. “Since 2012, property tax payments have not been paid, except for a one-time payment of NIS 10,550 in May 2014,” the Tel Aviv Municipality says in a statement provided to The Jerusalem Post.
Abraham Eisnberg, the synagogue’s managing director, says they started hosting more weddings and bar mitzvas in response to the exodus of members in the 2000s, which led the space to nearly close. “So we starting doing some weddings; suddenly city hall said this is a wedding hall like any other wedding hall and you need to pay taxes.”
Yet according to Eisnberg and Pivko, the synagogue only received a few thousand shekels for each wedding.
They say the Regaim Events company, which facilitated the weddings and received the majority of the profits, should be responsible for paying the taxes, an assertion that was recently dismissed by a municipality appeals committee, leaving the synagogue liable.
“We didn’t have control, we didn’t have the keys to the building,” the company’s lawyer Ronen Nawi says. “The events were only there for around 12 hours a month. It’s impossible that they [Regaim Events] is liable for the city tax.”
According to Nawi, Regaim received about NIS 6,000-NIS 7,000 for matching wedding couples with the location, and additional commissions from caterers and other event planners, who organized the weddings. Regaim received 70% of the fee and the Great Synagogue, which is owned by four trustees, took a third.
The profits, according to Eisnberg were only enough to cover operating expenses.
Pivko, who entered his post in summer 2014, says only a few events were conducted under his administration and he removed the company. Now Israel’s largest synagogue has only NIS 16,000 in the bank.
That sum was seized on Thursday by city hall, but released after an outcry including a phone call from former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar to Huldai, Pivko says.
Intermittent donations and an influx of French and other more religious immigrants to Tel Aviv keep the synagogue afloat. Still, there are no members, as the synagogue is known as a stopover for secular Jews looking for a place to pray during the High Holy Days. At a typical Friday night prayer around 100 people attend, but the space can seat around 1,000.
On a tour through the space, the building’s lofted ceilings and stained-glass motifs betray the warped and chipped pews, which were apparently left outside during harsh weather to make way for the large events.
Pivko’s desk is dotted with past-due electricity and water bills amounting to over NIS 10,000, and visitors are now greeted with a NIS 10 entrance fee.
A meeting is scheduled for May 17 with senior municipality officials, and Pivko hopes an arrangement will be reached in conjunction with a multi-million shekel renewal project the city plans to carry out on the synagogue and surrounding area. “It should be noted that the foreclosure was lifted, but the debt remains,” city hall says in a statement.
“The synagogue will be given the option of reaching a debt payment arrangement as part of the process of preserving and renovating the building.”
Meanwhile, the surrounding neighborhood in the city center is flourishing; on the weekend Tel Aviv’s young and hip smoke cigarettes on the synagogue’s stairs, waiting for a table at the adjacent restaurants.
“Forty years ago it used to be full with people,” says Eisnberg.
“There wasn’t enough room to stand.”