(photo credit: Zev Stub)
When my wife Sara and I were in the planning phase of our 10-day excursion to Tel Aviv, we encountered a fair amount of negativity from our religious friends in Jerusalem. "What are you going to Sin City for? There's nothing religious there." I think it's fair to say that there is a widespread belief among religious Jerusalemites, and perhaps Anglos in particular, that Tel Aviv represents an opposing secular lifestyle with virtually nothing to offer the observant community. But the facts on the ground are much different. The city is at the beginning of a new religious renaissance, being led in part by Anglo immigrants.
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During our five-week stay in Tel Aviv last summer, Sara and I were pleasantly surprised how many options for "blockbuster" shabbat services we had to choose from. Synagogues like Ichud Olam, Yakar, Rosh Yehudi, Aish, and the Tel Aviv Synagogue (TAS) were drawing droves of young people with hip shabbat experiences. Several times, we attended communal shabbat meals in the synagogues themselves, attended by dozens of young professionals from the neighborhood.
Rabbi Ariel Konstantyn, founder of TAS, sat down with me this week in a small kosher cafe to explain the trend. The key, it seems, is community.
Through the 1970s, Tel Aviv had strong religious communities all over the city, but by the 1980's, the shuls had all but cleared out. But a small group came together in 2000 to form the Ichud Olam shul catering specifically to olim, laying the groundwork for future growth. Konstantyn launched TAS just 18 months ago, and now has upwards of 250 attendees at Friday night services. "We offer a champagne reception with drinks and pastries every week after Kabalat shabbat, because a lot of people want to meet their friends in shul," he noted. "We get even more when we have a special program with a well-known chazan or rabbi," which he organizes as often as possible.
A 36-year old Oleh from the US, Konstantyn is refreshingly non-judgmental and non-coercive, perhaps the most important traits for working in his diverse community. "I'm not looking to do Kiruv or change anyone. I just want to care for people," he stresses. He credits the growth of his synagogue and the others to building the community infrastructure to the point where it can grow on its own. "Many olim arriving in Tel Aviv used to find themselves lonely, because there wasn't much of a community. Now there is much more." About 60 percent of his congregants are Anglo olim, and a small but growing number of religious Anglos are moving from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, looking to be closer to work or to just to be in a more open and individualistic society.
Tel Aviv is also more open to Jewish spirituality than in the past,
Konstantyn notes, and there is plenty going on for the unaffiliated. For
examples, he points to the Alma secular yeshiva and a weekly shabbat
service with stories and musical instruments in the Tel Aviv Post that
can draw hundreds. Others flock to a drum circle near the Dolphinarium
beach every week as shabbat comes in. On the other side of the religious
spectrum, Konstantyn smiles as he describes a six-foot tall Chabad
Hasid who rides roller blades down the beach asking men to join his
There is an excitement that can be felt here. Community activists are
involved with organizing shabbat hospitality and weekly rooftop "oneg
shabbat parties" that go into the wee hours of the morning. Children's
[kindergartens] are popping up all over, Konstantyn says, as more
families move in. But there is much more work to be done. "There is a
great need for shlichut here from people with leadership and vision, and
a great opportunity to make a difference," Konstantyn says. If the
community can continue to develop with openness, caring, and
non-coersion at its core, it may one day lead the way for the religious
world instead of sitting on the sidelines.The author runs www.janglo.net, Israel's largest online community for English speakers. firstname.lastname@example.org