Since Israel’s founding, about 3.3 million people have immigrated to the country, with nearly half arriving in the 1990s. Most newcomers relocate their families to popular cities, with Tel Aviv coming in as the Number One hub to absorb them.
As Israel celebrates its 75th anniversary, I invite you to imagine the country as a quilt, with each patch a completely different fabric than the next. Tel Aviv’s section would likely have a swatch of every color – with immigrants from countless countries around the globe and a large gay community as well.
But there’s one community that is lesser known and perhaps even lesser understood: the exploding conservadox (a cross between Conservative and Modern Orthodox) immigrant communities popping up around the city’s center.
Tel Aviv’s outdated reputation as Sin City (the antithesis to Jerusalem, the Holy City) is no longer keeping young immigrants of faith from moving in. In fact, many are flying to Ben-Gurion Airport in an effort to escape Jewish communities in the Diaspora that are no longer relevant for Jews in their 20s and 30s.
Tel Aviv’s growing population of young people is looking for love, high-paying jobs, beach access, and unlimited nightlife. They’ve created a new brand of Jew, who care deeply about their heritage, but are intent on being freed from the cage of Diaspora Judaism that they grew up in. In the interim, they’ve opened an opportunity for Jewish educators to make an impact on them.
The immigrants to Tel Aviv and their flexible, uncaged Jewish lifestyles
Esti Goldblatt hails from the strong and established Orthodox community of the Five Towns on Long Island, and also spent time as a young adult on New York City’s Upper West Side. She says that when she lived in the US, she felt she needed to fit into a box and define herself religiously in order to make sense of her connection to Judaism. She also related that she found herself making religious lifestyle choices in order that other people would understand who she “was.” It led to her feeling confused about her Jewish identity and her religious observance.
“Coming to Tel Aviv stripped all the exterior judgment away,” Goldblatt said. “The community acts as one entity, a whole, accepting everyone regardless of their religious background, affiliation or religious practice. I finally felt that I can live my life in an authentic way that did not take away from my connection to God but in fact, strengthened it.”
“The community acts as one entity, a whole, accepting everyone regardless of their religious background, affiliation or religious practice. I finally felt that I can live my life in an authentic way that did not take away from my connection to God but in fact, strengthened it.”Esti Goldblatt
She also noted that while Jerusalem is filled with young, religious immigrants scattered throughout a number of different neighborhoods, the Anglo community in Tel Aviv is much more centralized, with young immigrants attending a handful of synagogues in the city center, all of which she finds to be greatly accepting.
“I am beyond proud to be a member of Chabad on the Coast, where I have only felt completely accepted for just being me. I never felt that I was expected to act or look or dress in a certain way,” Goldblatt said.
Mendy, from Crown Heights requested to remain anonymous when discussing his choice to leave behind a Lubavitch lifestyle for a coastal, Israeli one. He says living an observant existence and having specific rules and constraints on how he should live became too much to manage.
While many Orthodox Jews leaving the community often jump ship altogether, Mendy says he was always very connected to his Jewish roots and found Tel Aviv an appealing choice, where he could be free from the rules but remain with his people.
“The fact you can go clubbing during Hanukkah and a rabbi will come in the middle and light candles during a DJ set, is something so beautiful to me.”Mendy
“The fact you can go clubbing during Hanukkah and a rabbi will come in the middle and light candles during a DJ set, is something so beautiful to me,” Mendy said. “I lived in Jerusalem for a while and for me, where I come from, it was still too much for me to be surrounded by that world.”
WHETHER INCHING toward a more Orthodox lifestyle or stepping away from it, most Jewish immigrants in Tel Aviv have moved to the city with a consciousness around their Jewish identity.
Zina Rakhamilova moved to Tel Aviv from Toronto. She says that she struggled to find a community in the Canadian city that fit. She was becoming Modern Orthodox over a slow and long period of time, but her home did not reflect that. She got closer to Judaism through an organization that focuses on bringing Jews closer to the faith.
Rakhamilova describes spending Shabbat lunch with a particular educator who was happy for her to take her time, unlike the other employees. That educator also put an emphasis on maintaining relations with individuals and married couples who had not yet become observant, which in the world of Orthodox Jewish outreach, can push such a person off the priority list. Ultimately, that employee was fired.
“For a year and a half, I would go to her place [for Shabbat meals] and then go home and turn on the lights,” Rakhamilova said. “It was disappointing that someone who brought so much value to my Judaism had to suffer the consequences for not forcing or pressuring me to fit the mold and agenda. It’s a business at the end of the day. They have an agenda and numbers...”
Today, Rakhamilova says she’s finally found her place on the Judaism spectrum – and for her, Tel Aviv makes sense.
“So many of my friends come from Jewish homes but no longer fit the mold. We aren’t practicing Judaism the way we grew up. Tel Aviv fits them,” Rakhamilova said.
Rakhamilova also discussed how, because she lives in a Jewish country, she feels she has to “work less” to maintain her Jewish identity, which has actually caused her to relax in her practice.
Rabbi Ariel Konstantyn, of the Tel Aviv International Synagogue, is creating an environment for people like Rakhamilova. He began tending to the needs of Tel Aviv’s growing international population more than a decade ago. Many consider him a founding father of Tel Aviv’s Modern Orthodox community, with faith-based organizations like Chabad on the Coast, Tribe Tel Aviv, Inspired Tel Aviv, Kerem House and JLTV following and subsequently forming individual communities within the immigrant collective.
Konstantyn said his synagogue provides a fresh perspective of traditional Judaism and a broadminded approach to Jewish thought. He hopes to enable the modern mind to connect more deeply, noting that Tel Aviv’s big-city anonymity, pulsing energy, surf, sun, and hi-tech are all components that make the city a place that works for newcomers.
“When I founded the Tel Aviv International Synagogue in 2009, there were few kosher restaurants or synagogues with a minyan. There was also often a general antagonism against Jewish life and observance,” Konstantyn said. “But over the years, along with the growth of our synagogue and community, Tel Aviv has become a city bursting with Jewish life, with an abundance of kosher food and multiple thriving synagogue communities. Today, many are flocking to the city in order to enjoy the best of both worlds.”
When Konstantyn opened the synagogue, he had what he called “12 grumpy men” on a good day for Shabbat prayers. Today, Friday night services attract 350 to 400 people, with 500 to 600 in the summer, and 150 to 200 on Shabbat mornings.
Along with the impressive number of people coming for tefillot, Konstantyn finds that he is also dealing with the community’s emotional needs. Many people, he noted, say they feel lost and lonely in their early months of aliyah. He also pointed out that some people in his community admit they felt more Jewishly connected in the Diaspora than in Israel. This, he maintained, is primarily because most synagogues in Israel are not run as communities and are not interested in catering to a wide and diverse spectrum of Jewry.
Rebbetzin Sara Naiditch, of Chabad on the Coast, said that the need comes from Jews in the Diaspora being used to a community feel – whether they went to the local Jewish Community Center for Shabbat meals, a Chabad house, or were a part of a vibrant synagogue.
She and her husband, Rabbi Eli Naiditch, opened their Chabad community in Tel Aviv in 2015. At first, they could not pull a minyan together and had less than 20 participants each week. Members would grab people off the street and ask them to help reach a quorum of 10 men. But by 2021, the couple had 100 young people arrive for Shabbat prayers each week, with seating in their humble location hard to find; many people couldn’t even “get through the door.”
The demand increased to the point that they had to take a larger space in a synagogue on Tel Aviv’s Hebron Street. Today, 300 people arrive every weekend for services, meals, and perhaps even more popular – the mingling scene on the steps outside.
“I think the community was here, but it wasn’t activated,” Rebbetzin Naiditch said. “We secured a bigger building. It’s a home for every Jew. And that’s why it keeps growing.”■