A Jew grows in Tel Aviv

The White City is experiencing a boom in religious offerings for both immigrants and internationals.

THE AM YISRAEL Foundation takes to the streets to dance and celebrate a new Torah scroll, dedicated in honor of the soldiers who died in Operation Protective Edge. (photo credit: AM YISRAEL FOUNDATION)
THE AM YISRAEL Foundation takes to the streets to dance and celebrate a new Torah scroll, dedicated in honor of the soldiers who died in Operation Protective Edge.
By definition, a synagogue is house of prayer for Jews. But in Tel Aviv, synagogues and their communities have been transformed into the predominant social circles for the city’s growing numbers of young immigrants interested in religious life in the White City.
In many ways, the city’s religious renaissance mimics the style of Judaism common outside Israel, with highly organized Jewish communities centered around a synagogue but supported by shared social activities, education and community activism.
Many of the synagogues and communities seem to thrive on offering a warm, accepting atmosphere for those who might not feel comfortable at an Israeli synagogue – or any religious place at all.
This article highlights just a tiny sample of the religious offerings for olim in Tel Aviv. It hardly even encompasses all of the religious communities (estimated at 12) frequented by the city’s internationals. Nor does it include the myriad of synagogues and Torah learning institutions from all streams of Judaism tailored for Israelis in the city.
This could not have been said just a few years ago. Though the city once had vibrant religious life, most accounts say that things began to change in the 1960s as the younger generation stopped attending. By the time the new millennium came around, most of today’s most popular synagogues were shuttered, others were hardly able to draw a minyan. And a handful were only beginning to cultivate a small community of congregants.
Tel Aviv International Synagogue
One of the places that kicked off the religious reawakening in Tel Aviv was the Tel Aviv International Synagogue, housed at the Beit El Synagogue on Frishman Street. Colloquially, it is known as the Frishman Shul.
The congregation is led by Rabbi Ariel Konstantyn, who made aliya with his family in 2005. Although he had been a rabbi for a decade before moving to Israel, including at The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, New York, he did not intend to remain a pulpit rabbi after aliya.
“I thought there were enough rabbis in Israel,” he told The Jerusalem Post. He recalled being the only active community rabbi in Tel Aviv when he arrived. Many synagogues, he said, did not have a rabbi, while some were opposed to the idea on principle.
Eventually, the desire for pulpit work came back about the same time as the Tzohar rabbinical organization asked if he would take on a leadership role in Tel Aviv. He admits that at first he was not so enthusiastic to “come from New York to go to the New York of Israel.” However, he fell in love with the city, its diversity and the potential for a unique style of Judaism.
“We started building from the ground up,” he recalled, describing the first 20-person Shabbat dinner in 2009.
Services were initially held in the synagogue of a local religious high school, though he yearned for a different space, preferably close to the sea in order to draw in Israelis and tourists alike. Eventually, he became the rabbi of the Beit El Synagogue, which he said “on a good day” was comprised of 12 elderly men.
“Everything was very old-school,” he recalled. Many of the synagogue members were confused by Konstantyn’s decisions to host Shabbat meals. “They didn’t understand what hosting Shabbat meals had to do with the prayer service,” he said. “But then the people who came to the dinners also came to the services.”
The congregation grew under Konstantyn’s leadership as he added more to the shul experience with lively, Carlebach-style singing, champagne kiddushes, world-class cantors and choirs, and even a real red carpet at the building’s entrance. Prayer services, he said, can sometime be a mix of both Ashkenazi and Sephardi prayer styles. “It’s all about inclusion.”
The synagogue now offers daily classes in Hebrew, English and occasionally French. It is also home to a popular conversion program through Nativ.
He estimates about 350 attend services on an average Shabbat, with 500 during the busy summer season. On Purim, it can be hard to get in the door. High Holy Days services can attract about 800 people; around 1,000 attended this year on Yom Kippur.
Konstantyn likens his community’s popularity to its welcoming atmosphere where people can come as they are – even religious-resistant Israelis.
“It took some time to build trust, but they saw the enthusiasm and invited friends as well,” he said. “We started the Shabbat dinners and events that started making shul cool.” He said there is no judgment even for those who come to shul “then go to the club after."
Konstantyn said TAIS started the trend of growing religious life in Tel Aviv thanks to its Diaspora-style atmosphere that makes the synagogue community a hub of Jewish social life as well as religious.
“People see what’s successful,” he said. “God willing, all the shuls in Tel Aviv should be filled.”
Am Yisrael Foundation
The Am Yisrael Foundation, an umbrella nonprofit organization, encompasses the North Central Synagogue (known by many as “126” after its address at 126 Ben-Yehuda Street), White City Shabbat and a slew of other Tel Aviv initiatives. The foundation has played a significant role in making Tel Aviv a more appealing city for young Jews of all stripes to meet, make friends and make their homes.
An average Shabbat kiddush at 126 draws hundreds of young people to enjoy a hearty cholent, jahnun, salads and sometimes a spirited drink after a morning full of prayer.
It is quite a contrast to the crowd Jay Shultz, president of the Am Yisrael Foundation, discovered when he moved to Tel Aviv from New York in 2006, he recalled to the Post. A few of his friends banded together and started hosting Shabbat meals – since there weren’t enough religious families living in the city. These meals grew into larger, catered affairs and eventually became White City Shabbat.
In 2010, the same group of friends started praying with a small, elderly group of mostly Holocaust survivors at the 126 Ben Yehuda synagogue.
“They were so appreciative that young Jews wanted to come in and revive [the synagogue],” he remembers.
Shultz said before that, they often struggled to gather the 10 men necessary for a minyan.
The number of synagogue and White City Shabbat attendees grew as more people saw that it was possible to have a strong, young religious community in Tel Aviv. Shultz estimated there were about 200 internationals living in Tel Aviv when he arrived and that it has grown to about 20,000.
His Tel Aviv Internationals community, he said, is a mix of olim from all over the world, visiting internationals and sabras from all over Israel. With this growing community, the synagogue was able to hire Rabbi Shlomo Chayen, 126 Ben-Yehuda’s first rabbi in 30 years.
Today, the Am Yisrael Foundation’s activities include volunteering initiatives with Holocaust survivors through Adopt-A-Safta, lone soldier dinners with White City Shabbat, night trips to volunteer in the periphery through the Shomer Israel Fellowship, art events through its Tel Aviv Arts Council, a speakers’ forum called the Tel Aviv International Salon, Zionist day trips with JNFuture, as well as regular Torah classes and a special series in partnership with Hineni Israel, the arm of the organization founded by Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis.
The foundation’s success, he said, comes from taking “modes of Diaspora Jewish community” and applying them in Israel. He also credits an increase in Tel Aviv-based year programs for young internationals through government- subsidized Masa Israel programs. The hi-tech boom in the central Gush Dan region has also made the region the country’s innovation and job center.
Each organization that AYF founded, Shultz said, deals with the many facets of Zionism in different ways, but all have “the single thread of the young community banding together, doing it for themselves. Not waiting for permission or support from the government or relying on fund-raising.”
He is proud of AYF, which he said was built and sustained “almost exclusively [through] grassroots young leadership.” Shultz himself remains a pure volunteer 10 years on, alongside his full-time job in “business entrepreneurship.”
Shultz said another facet of the Tel Aviv draw is the city’s community has “far fewer boxes” than other Jewish communities. By coming here, he said, Jews aren’t required to affiliate with a certain movement, nor be defined by the kind of kippa they wear.
“When we did the Guinness World Record’s Largest Shabbat Dinner,” he recalled, “we brought together 3,000 people from over 30 different communities and organizations that span from religious to secular, haredi [ultra-Orthodox] to Reform, all in the same room under the banner of Shabbat with kosher food and a Shabbatobservant atmosphere in Tel Aviv. Only in Tel Aviv could you do that. We’re not trying to make Tel Aviv Jewish. It’s already one of the most Jewish places in the world. We’re trying to reveal that Jewishness and make it relevant to young people today.”
One of his most moving moments of the past year, he said, was when the synagogue inaugurated its new Torah, written in honor of the 70 soldiers killed during Operation Protective Edge in 2014. It was a moving experience for Shultz, as he recalls being surrounded by Chayen, Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and crowds of people.
Shultz hopes there will continue to be a focus on education by providing more classes taught by both male and female Jewish educators. They are currently vetting new rabbis and their families to become part of the Tel Aviv international community, with the requirement that they would have to live in Tel Aviv. “Not just dropping a ‘Torah bomb’ on the community and running back,” he quipped. They have received more than 100 applicants.
The community’s demographic is also continuing to change as more members meet and marry. 126 Ben-Yehuda, is now actively trying to fund-raise to build a kids’ room.
Lev Israel
The French community in Tel Aviv has experienced a tremendous surge in aliya in the past several years, creating a great need for religious services for the community.
For this reason, Lev Israel came to the city in late 2013 to cater specifically to the needs of French olim. It is the Israeli branch of a Jewish outreach organization in France headed by French Rabbi Elie Lemmel. The first location was in Neveh Tzedek, but in just a few years it has already opened two additional sites.
Eitan Galam, director of the Rabin Square location, said the young, single French population in Tel Aviv has steadily grown in the past decade. Galam made aliya from Paris by way of New York about eight years ago, with his wife, Joy, who also works with Lev Israel. Though at first they mainly hosted Shabbat meals with the city’s young professionals, the needs of their congregants have changed.
Galam said over the past two years especially, more and more French families with children have moved to Tel Aviv. This has put a focus on creating education needs.
A kindergarten was opened at Lev’s Yona Hanavi Street location, which was previously an abandoned building filled with homeless squatters. The Rabin Square branch is now home to a beit midrash for learning Torah. On top of that, activities in the city include regular Torah classes, prayer services, yoga classes, a women’s theater group, children’s choir and even parenting classes.
He estimated the community currently consists of about 1,000 people, 95% of whom are French and come from all levels of religious observance. Galam said the organization aims to impart Jewish values in an open, respectful way that will make French olim feel at home.
“We try to organize anything [that can] bring the community together and [allow people to] make friends,” he said. “Even though they are in the heart of Tel Aviv, people are looking to have meaning to their life, have stability and build families.”
Galam also spoke about efforts to protect defunct synagogues in the city from being sold to real-estate developers, especially due to the high price of land.
“Clearly, we are opening more synagogues, but it’s a fight,” he said. In one case, that he described, the fight was lost when a former synagogue on Nordau Street was turned into a gym. He described the absurdity that synagogues are forced to rent out business space for their activities while businesses buy out old synagogues.
Chabad on the Coast
The most recent addition to the Tel Aviv religious scene has been Chabad on the Coast, the only Tel Aviv branch of the hassidic group dedicated to the English-speaking community.
It is run by Rabbi Eli and Sara Naiditch, who arrived in Tel Aviv with their young family from Safed, just weeks before Rosh Hashana 2015.
Though Chabad is an Orthodox organization, they surmise that much of the community is not. They credit an open, comfortable atmosphere as being one of the things drawing in a wide variety of Jews.
The Naiditches were inspired to move to Tel Aviv after years of running programs at Ascent of Safed.
“We’d met a lot of people who would come from Tel Aviv to Safed, saying they were there to have a spiritual Shabbat experience,” said Eli.
“We kept meeting a lot of English speakers who said they were looking for an English-speaking Chabad House... We came to create a Chabad House that has that international feel, where you’d feel comfortable walking into.”
Prayer services are based out of a small synagogue at the corner of Bar Kokhba and Bograshov streets, founded about 80 years ago. It had been closed for most of the past 15 years after the number of congregants dwindled. Right before their first Rosh Hashana last year, however, Eli happened to meet the synagogue’s former gabbai, 92-yearold Pesach Steiner, who agreed to let them use the synagogue. The Naiditches and a group of volunteers arrived to do a massive clean-up.
Eli recalls that though they were hardly able to get a minyan for Rosh Hashana 5776, they already had about 150 people at their Succot festivities weeks later.
“We went from a very small group of people to where our shul was packed for [2016’s Rosh Hashana] services,” Eli said. “Literally a full shul.”
Now beginning their second year, the Naiditches estimate they have a combined network of hundreds who regularly attend classes, prayer services and festive holiday meals and parties.
They frequently host Shabbat meals at their home, as well as Torah classes. Sara is a teacher for brides-to-be and hosts a monthly women’s event to celebrate Rosh Hodesh, the new Jewish month. Over the summer, Eli taught a sixweek course called “How Happiness Thinks.”
They are also starting up a volunteer initiative for men and women to bake and donate halla together, as part of the global Shabbat Project on November 11.
“One of the most beautiful things is when we see someone’s birthday on Facebook and you see birthday wishes all from people they met together at our Shabbat meals or other events,” Sara said, speaking of the community that has come together. “They have a Jewish home here.”
In the coming year, they hope to find a larger and more permanent space of their own, since they have had to rent out spaces around the city to host events aside from prayer services – a challenge since their community is dependent on private donations.
What keeps them going, though, is “love for every single Jew,” according to Eli.
Sara said she is inspired to be part of the Tel Aviv community because of the idea that “every single Jew, wherever they are, is part of the Jewish people.” She said that the Jewish people are strongest when they are united. “I want to be a part of that.”