Conservative Movement hopes to build Tel Aviv center

Tel Aviv's once famous cafe will come to life as the Shechter Institute

tel aviv build 224 (photo credit: Haviv Rettig)
tel aviv build 224
(photo credit: Haviv Rettig)
A ruin stands at the corner of Eilat and Shlush streets in Tel Aviv's picturesque Neve Tzedek neighborhood. Mud and rust cling thickly to every surface and broken tiles stack haphazardly throughout a series of interconnected rooms in the building the once housed once of Tel Aviv's liveliest meeting places, the Lorenz Café remembered in S.Y. Agnon's Tmol Shilshom. The building is boxy and simple from the outside, with ornamentation centering around dirty window panes and no evidence of life within. The heavy metal gate sealing off the courtyard opens to reveal open staircases, terraces, a garden and a small stage. Even in its current state, abandoned for over three decades, the closed shell of the broken-down building hides an inner world of old-fashioned beauty. Now, if Tel Aviv's Rabbi Roberto Arbib gets his wish, the former café-theater-soldiers' mess will once again brim with life, this time with deep and creative Jewish life in the heart of Tel Aviv's gentrified, artistic and most secular district. Some two-thirds of the $3.2 million cost of construction have already been raised, and the project, the 1,300-square-meter Schechter Institute Neve Tzedek Center, should be ready for the public in two years' time. The building will be the fulfillment of Arbib's years-long aspirations to make a deep footprint in Israeli culture - not only to create a religious community of Conservative Jews, but to help develop a whole new Israel. The center will not be a synagogue - Arbib is already rabbi of Congregation Sinai on Bograshov - but a "cultural-spiritual center of Judaism that can serve Israeli society in all its sectors," he said on a recent visit to the site of the new center. A quiet and polite man, Arbib gushes with excitement about the building's future. "A person will be able to do something minimal, to come in, drink an espresso in the café, and then take a class on some Jewish topic. Or they can stick around for an entire day of study, and leave the children in the adjoining kindergarten. There will be klezmer bands in the evenings. It will overflow with people coming for the theater, for the music, mothers with their children, people sipping coffee." One wall facing the courtyard from the street will be transparent - either glass or a latticework design - in order to make the place more open and inviting. "It will be for the public, not for our personal use," Arbib insists. After sixteen years as a rabbi in Tel Aviv, Arbib has a clear notion of what the new center he will be heading will be. "We're going to create culture here," he says, explaining that it will be a place for engaging - for many Israelis for the first time - with "the richness and delight of the Jewish bookshelf." The new expansion for the Conservative, or Masorti, stream in Israel, is part of a visible change that has overtaken the very center of urban, secular Israel, its beating heart in economic and cultural terms. "In 1991, when I moved here, Tel Aviv was a desert," Arbib recalls in amazement. "Rabbi Avidor Hacohen took me to meet the deputy mayor, who told me flat out, 'we don't need you.'" He wasn't hearing anti-religious prejudice, believes Arbib. The deputy mayor simply couldn't imagine what a rabbi would be doing in secular central Tel Aviv. "But five years later, the same man was already asking me to develop activities. People in Tel Aviv are learning that you can taste Judaism without it being all or nothing, that you can come to synagogue on Yom Kippur, even if you're standing in the courtyard talking, instead of sitting at home in front of your television." Now Arbib's Kehillat Sinai and Midreshet Iyun sees hundreds of Israelis flocking to his small shul on Bograshov Street. Few Anglos are part of Sinai, whose congregants are mostly native-born Israelis. "We have 40 bar mitzvahs a year now," Arbib boasts, or three Shabbats in each month. Now the center, in large part funded by the Masorti-affiliated Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, will allow for that interaction, the increasing Israeli discovery of the spiritual side of Judaism, to sink ever deeper roots into Tel Aviv society. As Arbib sees it, "I didn't think we needed another synagogue in some religious ghetto, in a corner where you go for bar mitzvahs." The center, he hopes, will have joint programs with the Bat Sheva Dance Company and the neighboring Suzanne Dallal performing arts center. It will offer study not only in Talmud and the Jewish bookshelf, but also theater and music and will feature a gallery of Israeli and Jewish art. The small but growing spiritual awakening of central Tel Aviv comes partly in the meeting of Israeli and American Jews through the partnership of Tel Aviv and Los Angeles, Arbib says. Some 20 Tel Aviv schools now have sister schools in LA, and the physical meetings on trips and exchange programs over many years have fed a growing awareness among Israelis of the more personalized spiritualistic Judaism of America. But Arbib is not American. The son of a Roman rabbi, Arbib came to Israel from Italy at age 15. Though he feels a cultural link to Italy, Conservative Judaism's spiritual leader in this particular neighborhood is not an American transplant, but in every way an Israeli. His congregants, too, have not experienced the American Conservative movement. Nor is he looking to the US for a model for this new kind of Jewish center. "There is a real thirst for spirituality, for culture, in Israel. Just look at the growth of Israeli theater. There's a sense that what's happening in local culture is interesting and deep enough that we don't have to go looking outside." The new center, he says, will be a completely Israeli creation. The fact that plans call for a mix of café, theater and study center offering music classes and a kindergarten shows that Arbib seems to know his audience. Indeed, the new center will joint the quiet revolution that is already underway in Tel Aviv, evident in institutions such as Yakar, Bina, Alma College, the Secular Yeshiva, Reform Judaism's Beit Daniel, and Arbib's own synagogue and midrasha, which are sprouting up and steadily expanding throughout the city. The new institutions, says Arbib, "understand that changing Israeli society won't happen in Jerusalem, but in Tel Aviv, and not politically or through coercion, but spiritually. Israelis are more open to this than ever."