Sea, sun and spirituality

Eilat is undergoing a religious renaissance - minus the riots and sectarian antagonism that are plaguing other cities.

Yitzhak Halevy 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yitzhak Halevy 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There's a sea-change taking place in Eilat. Since it was first recognized as a city in 1959, Eilat, with its glitzy, Las Vegas-like aura, has traded on its world-class reputation as the home of sun and fun. But something is happening in Israel's favorite tourist spot. Within the religious world, Eilat is also becoming a burgeoning center for Torah study. "There's no question about it," says Uriel Cohen, Executive Director of Eilat's Ayelet HaShahar Hesder Yeshiva. "There's a Torani revolution taking place in Eilat. Secular families are moving toward Torah lifestyles, they're keeping Shabbat, learning, studying and growing in religious observance. Religious activities of all kinds are on the rise. "For Eilat, this is completely new. When the first chief rabbi of Eilat arrived in town 45 years ago, he couldn't even find a minyan. Not until he walked down the street to a building site and rounded up nine Jewish workers could he daven mincha. Today, Eilat has 28 active and growing synagogues. "In just our yeshiva synagogue, 40 people come every day and 200 on Shabbat. On Yom Kippur, people lined up outside the windows - the building was packed, and that was as close as they could get. It's not just the yeshiva, either. Other groups - Chabad, Breslov, Shas and several others - are all seeing the same thing. Something is happening in Eilat, and it's all for the good." WHAT'S HAPPENING? Without discounting any mystical explanation, one factor may be that religious activity is approaching critical mass. The first attempts to form religious communities took place a quarter of a century ago, and growth took place all the while. But now, the move toward religious life seems to be tipping the scales. With so many religious communities offering so many classes and activities, the growth is exponential. Cohen thinks of it in terms of "rings of influence," comparing it to a drop of water that lands in the sea. "There's one splash, but the rings move outward. In Eilat, one person makes a splash - but then around him are the rings of people he influences, friends, family and coworkers. They're drawn in, and then go on to influence others. What's happening now is that there's just a lot more rings." Eilat is small enough for that to work. With 65,000 people - up from 6,000 back in 1959 - people tend to know each other. But an even bigger factor is that there are no religious neighborhoods in Eilat. Everyone - religious, secular and in between - lives together, side by side, which means religious influence spreads more quickly. The yeshiva's Rabbi Hillel Rothkof tells a story: "A secular man in Eilat was complaining about his neighbor, a rabbi. 'He's unbearable,' the man said. 'I can't stand it anymore.' 'What's the problem?' the other asked. 'Too many children? Too much singing?' 'No,' the first man says. 'The problem is that on Shabbat I'm used to going to the beach with my children. But just when we're getting ready to leave, the rabbi comes home from shul. He sees us, smiles and waves, gives us a big 'Shabbat shalom!' 'I'm getting too embarrassed to walk out the door!' "There's the whole big secret of Eilat, right there," Rothkof says. "It's how we all, secular and religious, live together. We don't count Jews by seeing if they wear a kippa or [tallit] - that's important, and what will happen, will happen. But we don't judge Jews by what they wear or don't wear, do or don't do. What's important is that we're all together, living like brothers and sisters." No one has worked harder to create that kind of inclusive community than Mayor Yitzhak Halevy. "I'm proud of the growing religious presence in Eilat," Halevy says. "Religious Jews add another dimension to Eilat, something we really needed. All over the world, people recognize Eilat as a tourist paradise, but also as a very non-religious place. So when I see institutions like the Yeshivat Ayelet HaShahar thriving here, what I see is the balance they bring. I'm not ashamed to tell you that I love those yeshiva boys - to me, they're melach ha'aretz (salt of the Earth), the best Israel has to offer." TIME AND again, Halevy has demonstrated his commitment. In September, he'll fulfill one of his own dreams, that of bringing a yeshiva high school to Eilat, something that's never existed before. "The yeshiva high school will open with 25 first-year students," he says. "I've dreamed of having an institution like that here. Without it, we couldn't say that our commitment to religious Jews in Eilat was sincere. The problem is, Eilat is very remote. If we expect to keep a stable religious community here, we needed a place for high school boys to learn without having to leave home. Now, with the school opening, we're proving that we want religious Jews in Eilat. We welcome them, and we're prepared to do whatever it takes to keep them here." The mayor credits Ayelet HaShahar, the hesder yeshiva, as the engine that sparked the growth in religious life, noting the many ways the yeshiva upgrades the city as a whole. "The boys come to learn, but every year, they also contribute thousands of hours of volunteer time. The rabbis and their wives are teachers, medical professionals and work in many other fields, besides which they've established dozens of different community service projects that benefit everyone in the city. My goal is to make Eilat a place where they can prosper in every aspect of their lives." For the yeshiva and other religious institutions, encouraging volunteerism and community service serves two goals. First, helping the less fortunate is part of the mission. But second, by establishing outreach centers of all kinds, they increase their visibility in the community and attract new people into the fold. There's little doubt that the multiplicity of all the outreach activities accounts for a big part of Eilat's religious resurgence. The yeshiva itself offers more than a dozen such programs, everything from single-family parenting classes to food for the needy. After three yeshiva students fell during one catastrophic week during the Second Lebanon War, three new major outreach centers were created in their memory: The Yonatan Soldier Center, named after Yonatan Einhorn, which offers Torah classes to all soldiers in Israel's South; the Yehuda Soup Kitchen, named for Yehuda Greenfeld, which serves thousands of meals a month to the needy; and the Noam Family Center, in honor of Noam Mayerson, which provides support and counseling for parents, engaged and married couples. Because Eilat has the country's highest percentage of single-parent homes, the Noam Center serves an otherwise neglected population. It's not only the at-risk population, either. In addition to their own 160 students, the yeshiva also sponsors an ulpana, a girls religious high school, where 100 girls study, and the Midrasha for Jewish Education, where 3,000 students in public schools are taught Torah every week. PERHAPS THE biggest impetus for Eilat's religious growth is the dozens of public education classes taught by the yeshiva's rabbis. Many of the people who've found their way back to Judaism came by virtue of one of these outreach classes. Orna Sher is typical. "I grew up in a very secular neighborhood in Tel Aviv where there was a very clear dividing line between religious and secular. You were one or the other, and you lived among others like you. That's not how it is here in Eilat. We're completely integrated here, in everything. We live side by side, we attend classes together, and we spend time with lots of different kinds of people. Every day we're exposed to religious ideas in many different ways." Sher's story reinforces Cohen's "ring of influence" theory. "I've been in Eilat for 22 years," Sher says. "We never planned a return to Judaism - not at all. But my husband has a friend who began attending the yeshiva's classes. My husband kept hearing how interesting it was, and soon he started going, too. Then he'd come home and tell me about it, and before long, I was going myself. "It wasn't that I'd been anti-religious in any sense. It's just that growing up as I did, it seemed to me that religious people thought they were better than the rest of us. That conflicted with my own worldview. I see the world as one, with all of us united together. That was one of the things that surprised me when I started going to classes. The room was filled with all different kinds of people - some very religious, others not at all. But everyone was sitting and learning together. I felt very comfortable in that setting. It seemed right." The acceptance of a Torah lifestyle was gradual, Sher says. "First I went to one class a week, then two. But nothing really hit me until one day when I was in a class on the Kuzari, a 11th-century text. Something about that book grabbed me, made me see things in a way I'd never seen them before. What amazed me was that the issues I'm concerned with today are the same things that concerned those people 900 years ago. We're all asking the same questions." For Sher, the most important part of this transformation is the impact it will have on her children. "The next generation is what's important. Growing up, I didn't have the right education. Now I see my obligation as giving my kids a better chance. They're 11 and 22 now, and I'm almost 50. Whether I become religious or not isn't the issue. Instead, it's that my children will understand their heritage and be able to make intelligent decisions about their own lives." Sher says her new lifestyle didn't cost her any friends. "This is Eilat! We're all on our own paths here and we accept where everyone else is. I made lots of new friends but didn't leave any old ones behind. Sure, now that we keep kosher there are some homes where we don't eat anymore, but that's accepted here. No one is offended." Even telling her boss she'd no longer work on Shabbat didn't cause a ripple. "I'm in tourism, marketing and arranging flights to Eilat," she says. "I didn't plan it out, but one day there was a project that would have required me to work into Shabbat - it wasn't unusual, that happened all the time. But this time I just said no. 'I can't do this,' I told my boss. 'I don't want to work on Shabbat.' My boss said, 'Why?' and I answered, 'Just because. It's a decision my husband and I made. We're not going to work on Shabbat anymore.' My boss just shrugged and said, 'Okay.' That was it. No big deal." SOME OF the classes Orna Sher found so compelling were offered by the yeshiva's sister organization, El Ami, which was the first of the religious organizations founded in Eilat. "You wouldn't recognize the Eilat I came to 25 years ago," says El Ami's founder, Michael Avramovich. "The Timna Mines had just closed and Eilat was in total economic collapse. There was no work, tourism was very basic and people were leaving. Everyone was asking why I was coming now, when everyone else was going. But then, as now, Eilat's mayor liked the idea of establishing religious organizations, so we came. "Buildings were up for grabs - everything was empty. 'Take what you want,' the mayor said. There was only one religious school in Eilat then, with eight students spread over 12 grades. We poured energy into that school, and when people saw what we were doing, the enrollment grew. It wasn't that people were religious, just that it was a good school." Today Eilat fairly brims with school-age religious education. "We have 300 students in our elementary school, grades 1 through 6," Avramovich notes. "We also have a secondary school with another 150 students. There are two more religious elementary schools with an additional 500 students. But we also teach Torah to students in all the secular schools too, 80 different classes every week. The level of education here in Eilat is very high, it's very accessible, very welcoming, and people are interested." Another of El Ami's outreach programs is giving tours to Eilat school kids. One of Eilat's most persistent disadvantages is how isolated it is from the rest of the country. Traveling from Eilat to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem is an expensive five-hour bus ride, something many families can't afford. "We take 200 kids a year and show them Israel," Avramovich says. "We go to the Kotel, something few have ever seen. A while ago we took a group of sixth graders and one of the mothers came along. When she saw the Wall she burst into tears. She's 40 years old, lived in Eilat all her life, and never had the resources to visit Jerusalem before. The sad thing is, she's not unique." El Ami works tourism from the other side, too - offering all kinds of services to people visiting Eilat. "A significant number of the tourists who come to Eilat are religious, many of them from Europe. All hotels in Eilat are certified kosher and there are all kinds of kosher lamehadrin restaurants. Hanukka is a big holiday for us - it's warm and sunny here, so at least a thousand hotel rooms are occupied by religious Jews." OTHER FORMS of outreach have that only-in-Eilat feel, like Beit Yahudi, run by Rabbi Uriel Weinberger, who ran a similar establishment in India. "My wife and I lived in Gush Katif, then went to India," Weinberger says. "Our goal was to spread Judaism, so in India, we opened our home to anyone who wanted to talk about Torah or Judaism. When my brother was getting married we came back to Israel and were looking for a way to do the same thing here. One day Rav Yossi, the rosh yeshiva, called to invite us to Eilat. 'Eilat?' I said, 'Are you crazy?' But we came. This is exactly what we wanted." One of the things Weinberger does is to pitch a tent on the beach and welcome everyone. "It's great," he says. "We get local residents, university students, tourists, disaffected teenagers - it's quite a mix. For a lot of young kids trying to escape, Eilat is the destination of choice. Many of them come from religious families. First we feed them, then we make ourselves available to explore whatever might be troubling them. We bring them back into the system, little by time." Even life in laid-back Eilat can be overwhelming, so another segment of locals use Torah classes to gain some breathing room. "Sometimes I feel like I'm living in a crazy world," Anat Kaufman, an art teacher, says. "But Torah classes are like being in Noah's Ark - it's a safe, protective environment. They say a light surrounds you when you study Torah, and I feel it. It's funny, but when we come to class, we each walk in with our own issues and problems. But as we sit and learn together, that all disappears. We become attuned to each other, more understanding and accepting." Kaufman is typical of many of Eilat's Jews when she says, "I'm not religious" in the same breath as she notes that she keeps kosher and doesn't work on Shabbat. "I pray, I study Torah, I say the blessings before I eat," she says. "But to religious people I'm not religious, and to secular people I'm not secular." "Look at me," she laughs. "Pants!" But again, this is Eilat, where even dress codes are relaxed. Even Rothkof nearly misjudged someone. "My wife was about to give birth," he says. "It was Friday, 10 minutes before Shabbat. I was all dressed and ready, and needed to get to the hospital right away. I took a taxi, but as I climbed in, I felt guilty. The driver would drop me off, but then he'd be driving the taxi back on Shabbat. As I was thinking about that the driver asked, 'When is Shabbat?' I looked at him, and he didn't look very Jewish - an earring and all. I told him when Shabbat would start, but I was thinking, 'Why does he care? Maybe he charges double on Shabbat.' I guess he saw me thinking because he said 'Don't look at me like that! I don't drive on Shabbat! When the sun sets, wherever the taxi is, I turn the key. That's it. I go home to spend the day with my family.'" PART OF this relaxed attitude may stem from Eilat's isolation. Those four hours of separation - there's only one road into or out, with Beersheba the nearest major city, an arduous and often dangerous drive - make community building difficult. The most obvious problem is convincing people they should move to Eilat, even if there is a good religious community. Almost everyone started out with doubts. Cohen originally hails from South Africa. "I was seven years old in 1975 when we visited Israel," he says. "We got here and my father announced, 'That's it. We're not going back.' We lived in Jerusalem. I went to yeshiva, did army service, studied mechanical engineering at Tel Aviv University, then began working for a great hi-tech company. I had a car, a great job and I was on the way up. "My friend Mickey Avramovich, who founded El Ami, moved to Eilat years before, but I was a little surprised when he called one day. 'Come to Eilat for Shabbat,' he said. 'Bring the whole family.' We went, and I absolutely couldn't believe what I was seeing, all the opportunities for religious life here. I saw the yeshiva, the school, the shuls, everything. I went back and told my boss, 'I'm taking a job in Eilat.'" Among other things, isolation means sky-high transportation costs. "One of our big expenses is bringing rabbis in to teach," Cohen says. "If the yeshiva is going to rank among the best in Israel, we must bring in rabbis, men who aren't able, for whatever reason, to move here. We bring in four rabbis a week, some of them twice a week. Paying for transportation is part of the cost of success." It's also a consideration in attracting students. "We'd like to buy a bus," Cohen says. "For a student, deciding to come to yeshiva in Eilat means he pays a penalty, too. When family events take place in the center of the country, he won't be there for many of them. The trip takes too long, the bus is too expensive, and hitchhiking isn't a good idea. If we had a bus, we'd take segments of our students up to the center a couple of times a month. A bus would make our yeshiva a more viable option." SEEING EILAT'S remoteness as a problem is one way to look at it. Seeing the isolation as having positive value is another. Prof. Shaul Krakover, Dean of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev's Eilat campus, arrived in Eilat in 2007 and discovered positive aspects, as well. "Believe it or not, some students want to put a little distance between themselves and their parents," Krakover says with a laugh. "If they live in Tel Aviv and study at the Beersheba campus, their parents say, 'But you're only 90 minutes away! Why don't we see you more often?' But if they're in Eilat? They're five hours away. That's not so easy." Krakover knows all about the changes taking place in Eilat. "I visited Eilat many times over the last 20 years," he says. "In the early days, I had to really search for a kosher restaurant. Today, life here is good, with lots of good kosher places and many shuls. I'm a great observer, so I like to rotate among five or six shuls in my neighborhood, two of them just down the street. I'm impressed not only by the number of people who come to daven, but the variety of yarmulkes I see. "Eilat used to be highly secular, free from any Jewish symbolism at all, but not anymore. What happened? I'm guessing, I haven't done any research, but maybe it's part of a national trend to be more religious. Or maybe in Eilat it reflects a disappointment with the emptiness of beach life. It is for sure that the yeshiva, with its constant outreach to everyone in the community, has played a big part. "There'll be another big jump forward when the yeshiva high school opens," Krakover suggests. "One of Eilat's long-standing problems is the highly transient population. People come, stay awhile, then leave. Our BGU campus offers one anchor, an inducement for people to stay. The yeshiva offers another, and the new high school will add one more. The more anchors a city has, the more stable the community becomes." EILAT SHARES one characteristic with other "sin cities" like Las Vegas or Reno. While the most visible element are the tourist spots, places to have fun, what makes that possible is the permanent residential community, which tends to be quite conservative. Is there any danger that the religious community in Eilat will drive out the tourists? "None at all," Cohen says. "That's the essence of life in Eilat. However religious Eilat the city becomes, it will always be a live-and-let-live place for tourists. We aren't into protesting when someone does this or that. One of the key attributes of Eilat is its tolerance for other views and lifestyles. That won't be disturbed." Having been in Eilat since 1997 when the yeshiva was founded, yeshiva head Rabbi Yossi Rodriguez knows the changes in his city firsthand. "Back when I first came, the religious group was very small. Now of course it's much bigger. But Eilat has always been unique. Here you can feel the holiness all over - it's not just the yeshiva, it's this whole community. Eilat is a very special place." The most difficult part of being a Rosh Yeshiva in Eilat, Rodriguez says, is trying to convince people what Eilat has to offer. "You have to prove that what's happening here is really happening," he says. "You can't just tell them. You have to show them. People think of Eilat as a place to come and have fun - which it is. But now Eilat is also a place of Torah and serious learning." Rodriguez tells about a trip he made up to the center of the county. "I'd told someone I met when I was there to bring some yeshiva students home," he says. "So the man asked me, 'Where are you from?' 'Eilat,' I said. 'Wow!' the man said. 'If you're going to be bringing yeshiva students down to Eilat, that must mean the Moshiach already came!'" "It's a challenge," he says, noting that Eilat is close to Aqaba, which - like the Hebrew "akev" - means "heel." "Sometimes I feel like I've got the whole country on my shoulders," he laughs. "But I know we're doing something good when I see all the people who come to us to study and learn. Then I see our yeshiva boys go off to the army, taking the spirit of the yeshiva with them. Then I know we're succeeding." Eilat is synonymous with sun and fun. But if you're looking for some place to bring heaven down to earth, it's a great place to start.