On a hot Thursday night, the hall's already mobbed an hour before show time. Waitresses snake between patrons sitting at candlelit, round tables. A selector at the door checks to see if there's still room for latecomers, and extra chairs are brought in. Twenty- and 30-something couples and groups of friends anxiously wait for the star of the evening to take the stage.
Tel Aviv dance club? Nope. Jerusalem jazz spot? Not quite. Welcome to Petah Tikva's Cafe Midrash, a self-described "spiritual bar-cafe," where the tables are surrounded by walls full of religious texts, a holy ark and a memorial plaque, and tonight's star performer is a rabbi who does card tricks, cracks jokes and leads his secular audience to spiritual places most have never been before.
While everyone may not know your name here, there are plenty of regulars, and the team behind the establishment is glad you came, as the secular stop in for a cup of nourishment for the soul, a shot of enlightenment through exploring Jewish texts and a chaser of Torah-based advice that could even help them make things right with their significant others.
Tonight's star of the evening, Rabbi Yitzhak Fanger, who has rapidly created Thursday night fever here, is a Herzliya boy who once, according to an interview in Hamodia, called for running over anyone religious, and was a world Reiki master before giving up a million dollar career for the sake of touching other until now nonbelieving Jewish souls. Even Cafe Midrash - which opened three years ago in the smaller, original cafe, where liquor bottles on shelves stand past a divider, set up to provide privacy for a men's class being held when we show up - evolved from something else.
Starting out as a Minha minyan for employees in the mostly industrial area eight years ago, its dynamic founder Rabbi Binyamin Shachar and his almost all volunteer staff established the Psagot Center for Lectures and Gatherings, and began offering classes on various aspects of Judaism. "To our amazement and joy, people started bringing one and then another" to hear charismatic lecturers like Fanger, with funding from "private contributors," notes Shachar in his office, the crowd still filing into the larger hall now used for study during the day and events like this one at night.
IT WAS three years ago that "people who were coming said there was a large slice of people who would never come to hear a Torah lesson because of stereotypes and fears and all kinds of prejudice, but if the concept was based on a night out - and everyone wants a night out once in a while - and if we can add to it some added value of spiritual content, that could be a catalyzer that would bring them," Shachar says.
The center, which focuses on "the individual's spiritual side," as its Web site declares, also offers more advanced men's and women's study programs. The cafe hosts other nightly events, from separate-sex study of texts to mixed ones on relationships, one on graphology and a mixed one led by Shachar Wednesday nights on "developing your personality," and "dealing with difficulties" all billed as "based on the wisdom of Judaism and our sages." On order are grilled cheese sandwiches, pizzas, salads, baguettes, hot cakes, alcoholic drinks, coffee and more.
Shachar laughs at how a coffee house or beer hall, once forbidden to Jews by the rabbis, has become a center for spiritual growth and the teaching of mitzvot. While such places are off limits to observant Jews if they're meant to just pass the time away, he says, "I've never seen anyone leave our place of entertainment without some kind of internal enlightenment. He feels good, and generally thanks us. I don't drink beer myself, but if God created it in the world, it must also have a spiritual purpose."
The formula is obviously working. A look around reveals men and women dressed for a night out, Tel Aviv style, in the height of "sport elegant," hair well attended to. Shachar describes his clientele as mostly having "no connection to anything Jewish, kibbutzniks, people who come for the good time out." A note left by five women aged 25 to 30 who attended recently read: "This is our first Torah class ever," he notes proudly.
The evening is strictly for secular Israelis, Shachar says, explaining that the observant have other alternatives for learning and that the fear is the secular clientele will be put off by having observant Jews present. Plus, he says, there's just not enough space for the throngs coming, particularly Thursday nights.
"They have everything in terms of material goods, but they're looking for some spirituality in their lives. They feel a need for it, but the existing framework until now was too threatening for them," says Shachar. "But if we succeed in creating a framework that's not threatening... I've seen people searching and they want a package that will be attractive, but also authentic. That is an authentic product in a new package... we're something a little new that isn't that well-known elsewhere."
The effort here is to light a spiritual "spark," without any form of coercion, he insists, adding: "I'm surprised every week by the power of this. I myself didn't understand how far things would develop."
THE NORMS, Fraziers and Cliffs, or their Israeli equivalents, are as proud to be here as Shachar is to have them. Comments from customers while they wait for the evening to begin indicate they're hungry for much more than what's on the menu, and find it at Cafe Midrash.
Eva Eliasoff, 25, from Petah Tikva, who now attends the Psagot women's classes regularly, had just returned from Thailand about a year ago when she found a flyer about the place in her mailbox. "I came to the cafe and fell in love," Eliasoff, who's from a nonreligious home, says.
"Today's generation likes to go to pubs, clubs, to play pool, bowling or other forms of entertainment, another dance - but it's empty. You come home with an empty feeling inside and you can't explain it to yourself." Instead, she started coming to hear Fanger, Shachar and others talk "with a sense of humor and with a good group and a cup of coffee and cake, where actually the real food, for me, was not the toast but the spiritual food we got. Suddenly I realized that I was thirsty for something spiritual that I wasn't getting."
"A cup of coffee and a lot of love" turned her life around, she says.
The same tone is heard even from those not already attending classes at Psagot, which Shachar admits is the next step they would like to see the secular patrons take along with taking on more and more mitzvot, but without coercion.
Yafit Cohen, 31, of Ramat Gan says; "I'm here because I'm tired of my life just being filled up with the daily routine. Our lives lack depth and meaning. I'm here because it will give me new energies for the week ahead." She adds that the speakers "talk about beautiful things. They may be things related to the Torah, but I think any person who came here would enjoy him- or herself much more than just channel surfing on TV for hours and not finding any satisfaction."
"I came here because I get answers to questions, a way of understanding, a different path of life which changes everything for me. It opens doors for me that I didn't think existed," says a woman who gives her name only as Dikla.
"This is the best idea I can think anyone could come up with for this generation," says Einav Cohen, as her friends nod in agreement. She thinks there should be such places "set up in Tel Aviv, and then they would see that instead of wasting time dancing under a spotlight and other such silliness, in a cafe like this - which is also a sort of in place to be, but also has an element of modesty and holiness - they present a rabbi in an atmosphere that brings people more into their religion."
Manny Yosef, 29, of Petah Tikva, hair slicked back and who's been coming for half a year, echoes that feeling. "This is the only place that I come to where I enjoy myself and wake up the next morning feeling full and not empty. I was in Goa, I was in Thailand, I was a combat soldier. What does it give me? It's simply the most appropriate connection for me, the best kind of spirituality. I don't mind hearing such a talk in a yeshiva, but when it's at the cafe, it becomes more like a night out, entertainment."
He also notes another reason why he and other couples have come to hear Fanger talk. "I came with my girlfriend and it happens that we come in after an argument and leave having made up. Apparently it has an impact on one's soul."
Shimi Masas, 27, and Shira Yitzhaki, 21, have come from Jerusalem, at her insistence. "I'm looking for something that will connect me to Judaism, to religion, to my original values," he says. "I'm looking for a connection to my roots that I blocked till now, and she's one of the reasons why I'm here. It's important for me to see what she sees in it."
A call back a week later reveals he found the evening "incredible, really. Let's just say that I'll be back next Thursday. The concept is a smart one, and Rabbi Fanger's informal approach helps too. He comes from the world you know."
THAT'S EVIDENT from the moment Fanger hits the stage. Standing outside the hall, he says those waiting inside "are looking for true spirituality. They want to come home to their roots, to be happy in their paths."
His goal, he says as the crowd buzzes upon his arrival, "first and foremost is to bring them close to each other. Then they will see that they all come from the same source, Judaism, and then we can all come home together." The coffee house "is the thing that works today," he says, "and we have to give them what they want, what they're looking for and use their own devices to bring them home."
His popularity, he says in English and with characteristic modesty, is "beginner's luck," admitting "it's a bit frightening to feel such a sense of responsibility. It's the fear that if God gave me the ability, perhaps, God forbid, I shall misuse it."
Not tonight. Part stand-up comic, pitchman, sage, marriage counselor and pop psychologist, Fanger - who'd missed his appearance the previous week - settles onto a high stool behind a lectern, a cup of lemonade at his side, adjusts his mike and starts by asking: "Did you miss me?" drawing an affirmative roar from the room.
He suggests the crowd "take a few deep breaths," then launches into a card trick, pulling one out and handing out others to see if anyone can balance one absolutely still on the back of his or her hand. Fanger masters it after a few tries. "The secret of life is that everything needs to have a center," he notes, launching into some Kabbala and reminding the audience that our sages sought for us "to straighten out our heads, whether it be in business, or in our relationships, or health."
Much of the evening is devoted to relationships, with Fanger promising it's possible to find happiness with any person, under certain conditions, the first "to have the willingness and readiness to change." The couples in the audience are transfixed, then hysterical as he conjures up the image of the average male who wants to marry someone like his mother, "only slightly upgraded. But he's got it wrong because that's not the way his mother was when she was 20, or when she got married."
Citing the weekly Torah portion, Mesilat Yesharim and other sources, he soothes his rainbow-chasing audience by promising that "man will not lack that which has been apportioned to him. You'll get what you need, just remember to leave the door open to receive that which God wants to give you."
Mixed in are jokes about vampires, stupid Hizbullah members, and one about a shepherd watching his flock who's given two NIS 1,000 fines by inspectors, one for feeding them grass and one for feeding them mice. When a third inspector arrives and asks what he feeds them, he replies, "I give them NIS 20 and let them choose whatever they want." Roars from the crowd.
From accepting car thefts or breakups as God's will to imitating the knock young women are convinced their prospective groom will make on their door, to jokes even involving smoking marijuana, his belief-based banter wins them over easily.
AT INTERMISSION, his DVDS and CDs sell briskly outside, and audience members line up to ask him questions. Yehuda Aton, in his late 30s, dressed in a white hat and T-shirt and who says Rabbi Fanger has drawn him closer to religion, is one of them. Aton, divorced and the father of two, says he got Fanger's number and plans to call him. Reflecting his trust in his new-found connection, Aton says: "What he advises me, I will do... he'll know what's right for me."
Back inside for a shorter, second segment, Fanger stresses condition 2 for getting along with a potential spouse: the desire and willingness to give. "But you need two to tango," he adds, drawing knowing looks and nods around the room. His advice that "sometimes God wants us to change our direction" must have resonated with those just laid off from work. In roughly an hour's set, he's offered practical advice and religious direction backed by Jewish sources that has clearly won over the crowd. His message to those seeking the answers abroad, as he did once on a journey to the Far East, is simply: "Before you go off on a journey, check what you have at home."
The crowd files out, with Shachar hopeful that exposure to people like Fanger will not only benefit the cafe, but bring secular and observant Jews closer together. "Absolutely, we break stigmas," he says. "That is, sometimes the abyss that exists between the two sides stems from a lack of knowledge; they simply aren't familiar with the wonderful world of Judaism. When they get the knowledge they've been missing, then this abyss ceases to exist."
Heading home, Yafit Cohen agrees. "When you talk about religion, that word scares people. But it's not, and if [secular Israelis] would just see what they talk about here, it's not like they're trying to turn you into a newly observant Jew. They talk about subjects that are so nice and moving, and that leaves one feeling spiritually strengthened."
Says Liran Shikartzi, who works at the cafe, "People leave here with ideas and understanding they can use in their daily lives. People keep coming back and coming back. They tell us that they experienced the kinds of challenges the rabbi talked about, and were able to handle them."
Indeed, says Shachar of his innovative innkeeper's approach to drawing people closer to religion, his patrons "leave saying to us: 'You gave me... something that I'm taking with me forward in my life'; better control of their anger, better relationship with their spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend. They say: 'I left feeling that I had been filled up spiritually.'"