Tel Aviv, central district cities launch Shabbat public transit

“Rabbi Israel Salanter said that when Jews disparage Judaism in Kovno, a Jew in Paris converts [away from Judaism],” said Lau on KAN Moreshet radio.

A bus travels along Hayarkon Street, Tel Aviv (photo credit: BORIS BELENKIN)
A bus travels along Hayarkon Street, Tel Aviv
(photo credit: BORIS BELENKIN)
The Shabbat public transportation service for the Tel Aviv and broader Gush Dan region set off Friday night and Saturday, and proved to be a roaring success with large numbers of enthusiastic residents flocking to the bus stops to use the new system.
The roll-out of the new service constitutes a groundbreaking point of departure in Israel given the ban, on religious grounds, for Shabbat public transit services in most of the country which has been in place since the establishment of the state, a 71-year ban which has long been a severe point of contention in religious-secular relations.
Passengers eagerly hopped on the minibuses used to operate the service in order to get to Friday night meals at parents and grandparents, as well as visit friends and relatives in hospital. Others headed into town Friday night to eat out, have a drink with friends and kick back after a long week, or headed off for various activities, excursions and trips out on Saturday morning to enjoy their weekend.
Demand for the new service was so high that the 19-seat minibuses were frequently jam packed and unable to pick up commuters who were patiently waiting at the bus stops in the hope that the next minibus would have room.
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai hailed the service, and argued that the “status quo” on religion and state affairs, under whose banner public transport on Shabbat has been banned, is no longer relevant to modern life in the Jewish state.
“The concept of the state quo is already not a concept any more. It doesn’t exist,” Huldai told KAN Radio on Sunday morning.
“The world has changed… Everyone uses this concept how they want to, but the status quo doesn’t exists any more in public life.”
Huldai said he was opposed to commerce and the opening of malls and shops on Shabbat, but insisted that it was the right of all citizens, whether or not they own a private vehicle, to go to the beach, visit relatives and enjoy their Shabbat as they wish.
Chief Rabbi David Lau was unsurprisingly of a different mind.
“Rabbi Israel Salanter said that when Jews disparage Judaism in Kovno, a Jew in Paris converts [away from Judaism],” said Lau on KAN Moreshet radio.
“Everyone talks about making compromises. Compromises with who? The Shabbat is being trampled everywhere. Shabbat desecration is only increasing. Before people come to us [the religious establishment] with demands, let us ask them what kind of Shabbat they are willing to respect,” demanded the chief rabbi.
While non-religious residents of many cities in central Israel, as well as secularist activists, have campaigned for years for a public transit on Shabbat, it has remained largely prohibited throughout the country, with a few exceptions.
This has proved to be a source of resentment of non-religious Israelis towards the religious establishment and religious political parties who have stymied efforts to bring such a system about.
But several cities have in recent years pioneered alternative forms of transportation which circumvent laws banning public transport. Tel Aviv, along with other participating cities, is the latest municipal authority to get onboard with the idea.
The new intercity minibus service comprises six routes along 300 km. and include over 500 stops linking Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Givatayim, Kiryat Ono and Ramat Hasharon.
The buses run every 30 minutes between 6 p.m. on Friday until 2 a.m. on Saturday morning. Service resumes from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Saturdays. Every third bus, arriving every 90 minutes, is accessible to people with disabilities.
Efforts are underway to add more cities to the venture with the goal of improving accessibility and to reducing citizens’ dependence on private cars.
The annual costs for running the weekend transportation system is estimated at NIS 12.5 million. That budget would grow if other cities join the Shabbat transit revolution.
Currently rides on the minibuses are free, a key detail since charging passengers for their rides as they board would define the system as a true form of public transportation and make it illegal.
Costs could be recouped by requiring users to form an association with a monthly or quarterly membership fee.