Jewish life in a secular city

Tel Aviv has long stuck to its non-religious image, but a Jewish mini-renaissance is underway.

Yisrael meir lau 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Yisrael meir lau 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
On Independence Day eve, a group of young people was happily celebrating the holiday at a popular bar on Sderot Rothschild. Sipping imported champagne and nibbling shrimp tapas, religious worship was the last thing on their mind. Suddenly, they turned their heads hearing loud music coming from outside. They went out to see what the noise was and ran into a group of Chabad yeshiva boys singing and dancing to the sounds of religious techno music coming out of the speakers of a van parked on the opposite side of the street. They joined them in their joyous worship and for the rest of the evening divided their time between the two sides of the street, oblivious to the gulf between them. Residents of Tel Aviv enjoy its reputation as a liberal city, open to radicals, outcasts and minorities. The city styles itself as a cosmopolitan metropolis, a place where everyone can do as they please and there are few taboos. Novel ideas are celebrated and expressed in every imaginable artistic manner. Human differences are rejoiced. The only lifestyle that seems at odds with this Tel Avivian zeitgeist is the religious way of life. And so, for many years, Tel Aviv stuck to its staunch secular image. Religion was swept under the table and the good times rolled. But in the background, slowly and quietly, a mini reformation has been taking place. People from across the spectrum of Jewish belief are meeting in coffee shops and parks, in halls and in basements, in soup kitchens and in synagogues. And when they meet, they talk about values and morals and beliefs. They talk about history and legacy and traditions. They talk about life and death and love and hate. They talk about making the world a better place and helping the needy live with dignity. Some believe in God, some don't. Many probably aren't sure what they believe. This blending of ideas and opinions may eventually give rise to a new and distinctly Israeli Jewish way of life. "The voice of prayer hasn't ceased in the city, from its founding till this day," says Chaim Gellis, who worked and led the Tel Aviv Religious Council for 30 years, knows the city's religious history and is eager to talk about its rich heritage. "At its height in the 1950s and '60s, in a space of 1.5 square kilometers, there were nearly 50 hassidic courts in the city," he says, pointing to a photocopied map. Gellis, now retired, leads groups on tours of the city's spiritual byways for the city's tourism department. He says that for many, Tel Aviv is even holier than Jerusalem, because of its exclusively Jewish origins and the absence of any non-Jewish places of worship. TEL AVIV Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau says people from out of town are always surprised when they hear how many synagogues are active in the city. "When I ask a Jew from New York how many shuls he thinks there are in the city, he says, 'Ah, Tel Aviv is a secular city.' When pressed for a number, he'll throw out 30 or 50 at most." Lau says visitors are dumbfounded when they hear that Tel Aviv has 544 active synagogues with prayers held three times a day. Lau stands at the head of the city's religious council, the municipal body in charge of administering religious services. The council is the arm of the Religious Services Ministry in the city and its membership is split between appointees of the ministry and of the city council and its budget is derived in the most part from municipal taxes. Lau points to a gulf between the city's ultra-secular image and reality. He describes two separate and distinct Tel Avivs, the first being the city of its 400,000 permanent inhabitants and the second of its larger number of daily visitors from out of town. "Tel Aviv's rich cultural life, with its myriad of theaters, operas and concert halls, its sports clubs, its beaches and hotels, its restaurants and night clubs, is a magnet for a large population and it is they who create the reputation of Tel Aviv as a city that never sleeps and also of a distinctly secular city." Lau says that the image created by the visitors often overshadows the real character of the city's inhabitants, but thinks that the residents are actually more religious than people might think. Using voting patterns as a rough indication of people's leanings, he points out the fact that out of 31 city council members, six belong to distinctly religious parties like Shas, Agudat Yisrael and the National Religious Party. Lau, who raised eight children in Tel Aviv, says it is definitely possible to live as an observant Jew in the city, but indicates three areas where he sees real problems. The first is a shortage of synagogues in the city's new neighborhoods. The second is a decline in the number of functionary rabbis - a drop from 48 to 14 over the last 12 years. And the third is the desecration of Shabbat. Lau says that the city does not do enough to enforce the bylaw prohibiting the sale of goods on Shabbat and pointed to two retail chains - AM:PM and Tiv Ta'am as the main offenders. He concludes by sending out a request for people to respect and uphold the city's historical heritage, before he rushes out to attend a mezuza affixing ceremony at a local Toys'R'Us store. BUT RELIGIOUS life in Tel Aviv is not restricted to upholding the city's rich Jewish history. Today, Tel Aviv is bustling with religious and spiritual activity. From the 600-strong Hassidei Gur Yeshiva in the north to the large Progressive educational center in Jaffa, people from all across the religious spectrum are finding ways to incorporate Judaism into their lives. One of the most successful endeavors of the past 20 years is the establishment of the Reform movement in the city. "Although the movement has been present to some extent for decades, up until 1991 it was hidden away, operating out of basements, bomb shelters and kindergartens," recalls Rabbi Meir Azari, executive director of the Daniel Centers for Progressive Judaism. Progressive streams of Judaism are not recognized by the religious council, are not counted in its statistics and do not receive a budget. "After 25 years of legal and political battles, we opened Beit Daniel, a large and impressive structure in the north of Tel Aviv," continues Azari. He says this led to a "total upheaval" of the whole movement in Israel. "We decided, in a move that from our perspective was historic, to break away from the dues-paying membership mode of operation practiced by Jewish communities outside of Israel... We decided to open the doors of Beit Daniel to the general public. Beit Daniel would be a home that would invite as many people as possible to take part in a spiritual and cultural Jewish experience." Since then, Beit Daniel has become one of the largest synagogues in the country in terms of volume, boasting thousands of attendees, 400 weddings and 200 bar and bat mitzva celebrations every year. "I think our success has been that we have become the Jewish home for the secular Jewish family in Tel Aviv," says Azari. "There are those who come once a year for Yom Kippur and those that come once a week for a Talmud lesson. I'll see someone attend his son's bar mitzva, then, three years later, he'll come for his other son's bar mitzva and then 15 years later at their weddings. To the extent that these people practice a Jewish life, they do so with us." One of the major challenges that Azari and his team faced was presenting an Israeli face to the Reform movement. For much of its history here, the majority of the staff were Diaspora born, but today most of the rabbis and religious service providers are sabras like him. "When we showed that face, the public flocked to us," he says. Azari says he sees a natural affinity between the liberal secular Jews of Tel Aviv and the Progressive movement. He speaks about a demographic trend in which young people, who came to the city 10 or 20 years ago as students, have now grown up and started forming families, creating a demand for religious services. He says that Beit Daniel satisfies these needs with its wide net of social services, ranging from a network of kindergartens and day care centers to counseling services, hosting cultural events and facilitating life-cycle celebrations. "Today there is open competition for the Jewish heart of Tel Aviv," says Azari. "The Tel Aviv of today is more self-conscious. I think the breakthrough in the city, in terms of Judaism, is taking place right now." In 2007, the Reform movement opened a second establishment, Mishkenot Ruth Daniel in Jaffa. Functioning as culture and education center for the local community, it also serves as a guest house, with 60 rooms and a banquet hall, well suited to hosting tourist groups and conferences. "One fascinating tendency we've noticed over the last few years is that more and more groups [of Jewish tourists] are spending their weekends in Tel Aviv instead of in Jerusalem," says Azari. "They get to experience a completely different Shabbat experience here... One foot in Shabbat and the other in the world." ANOTHER STREAM of Judaism that for years has been nearly invisible in the city is about to raise its profile with a new building scheduled to break ground in a week. Currently operating out of a small building on Rehov Bograshov, Conservative rabbi Roberto Arbib has big plans for the future. In a historic Templer building that over the years housed a British officers' club, a silent-film cinema, the legendary Lorenz Cafe, and which for the last 20 years has been standing derelict, Arbib plans to build a large new cultural-educational-religious community center. Situated in the heart of one of Tel Aviv's most picturesque neighborhoods, the Schechter Center for Jewish Culture in Neveh Tzedek, scheduled to be completed in spring 2010, will place Conservative Judaism on everyone's radar. Arbib, who immigrated from Italy in 1975, grew up in an Orthodox household in Rome. But when he arrived here, he found the Orthodox world too constraining. The grandson of a rabbi, he never considered leaving the faith, but couldn't find himself in what he called the "cold and narrow-minded" world of Orthodoxy in Israel. Instead, he joined the Conservative movement, graduating in the first class of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem in 1988. Arbib moved to Tel Aviv and took up the post of rabbi of Congregation Sinai. "When I first came to Tel Aviv, I thought it was ugly and boring," he recalls. "But I was drawn to the idea of working in a modern city and doing new things." A year after his arrival he opened Midreshet Iyun, with the aim of bringing religious and secular minds together in scholarly and philosophical debate about the burning issues of the day from a Jewish perspective. "It's difficult for someone who didn't grow up in a religious home to start praying all of a sudden, but to come and learn is much easier and makes the religion much more accessible," says Arbib. "The good thing about Tel Aviv is that people are tolerant, they believe in 'live and let live.'" While things were slow for the first few years, Arbib says that for the last six years the synagogue has been packed, with 60 regulars every Saturday and 40 bar and bat mitzvas every year. He says that his congregation's membership is made up of people who are looking for a religious experience that is different from what they think they know, but for whom the Reform movement seems too alien. On top of his rabbinical duties at Sinai, Arbib teaches Jewish studies in three local schools as part of the Tali advanced Jewish studies program, leads a theater actors' beit midrash and started an interfaith program called "In the Path of Abraham" in which Jews and Sufi Muslims study religious texts together. Arbib's salary and the synagogue expenses are funded by American donors and his hope is that the new center with its coffee shop, theater and special programming will help generate income. "I think it's absurd that all the money comes from abroad. It's absurd that Jews in the United States better understand the importance of religious pluralism in Israel and its contribution to the quality of life, than the state itself," he says. Arbib says he feels momentum on his side. "There is a longing here for a new kind of Judaism. We no longer see the outright rejection of religion that we saw here 20 or 30 years ago." Arbib describes what's going on in the city in terms of interest and acceptance of religious variety as "a revolution happening before our eyes." PART OF what's going on in Tel Aviv is the reclaiming of the Jewish bookshelf by secular Israelis. Situated in what was once an old medical clinic in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city, an organization called Bina (wisdom) founded what has to be the world's first secular yeshiva. There, secular young people, before or after the army, sit and study Torah, Talmud and Mishna from morning to night. The only noticeable difference between it and a regular yeshiva is that the kitchen is not kosher, Shabbat isn't observed and both men and women study together. "Our attitude is that we refer to the Halacha as a inspiration instead of as an obligation," says Noga Brenner Safia, Bina's director of programming and development. Bina was founded as an adult education center by intellectuals from the kibbutz movement in the late '90s to answer a growing need amid the general despair that followed the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. With time, its activities expanded to include Jewish enrichment programs for secular schools, a social action program to assist residents of the city's poor neighborhoods and finally, three years ago, the Secular Yeshiva. Bina has gained the support of the Tel Aviv Municipality and of influential members of Israeli society, due in large part to its efforts in the area of social assistance. It has not, however, gained official recognition as a yeshiva. But that doesn't stop its lessons from being in high demand and next year the mechina (pre-army) section of the yeshiva is set to double its enrollment. Bina is not alone in this effort. Across the city, secular Israelis, who for most of their lives felt alienated from the religion for a variety of reasons, are coming together to study the Jewish sources. In places like Alma, an adult education facility in North Tel Aviv, people draw inspiration from religious texts and channel it toward artistic endeavors. At Beit Tefilla Yisraeli, secular young people try to fuse their Israeli identity with a Jewish identity. In coffee shops and private homes small groups of people gather to study, gleaning current meaning from the ancient texts. Secular Jews who live in Tel Aviv and want to learn more about religion needn't search far. In some cases the religious services come to them. Rosh Yehudi is an outreach program of the religious Zionist movement, which draws its philosophy from the writings of Rabbi Avraham Kook. What started with sporadic lessons in a neighborhood cafe developed into a fully functioning learning center with daily lessons and Shabbat and holiday services. "The guiding line is that of Rabbi Kook, who was the chief rabbi of Jaffa and the early settlements at the time of the establishment of Tel Aviv a hundred years ago," says Yair Goldman, director of Rosh Yehudi. "He chose to live in Neveh Tzedek and not in Jerusalem because he wanted to live alongside the public. Our aim is to follow his example and expose Judaism to people who might not have been familiar with it while growing up." Over the last four years, a small community has grown up around the center on Rehov Bograshov. About 150 people attend holiday services at a restaurant on nearby Rehov Dizengoff and roughly 40 attend classes in the evening. The staff at the center helps anyone who is looking to become more observant, but tries not to pressure people into doing more than they're ready for. Rosh Yehudi is only one of several national religious organizations that have started operating in Tel Aviv. These, together with the noticeable presence of Chabad and Braslav hassidim, round off the spectrum of Jewish activity in the Hebrew metropolis. THE FIRST Hebrew city may be famous for many things, but piety is not one of them. But with 100 years of Jewish dwelling under its belt and a well-earned reputation of pushing the boundaries, it could be only a matter of time before it develops its own unique take on Judaism. In 500 years, could Jews be studying the Tel Avivian Talmud?