Roll out the red carpet

As rabbi of the Beit El International Synagogue in Tel Aviv, Ariel Konstantyn aims to give Orthodox Judaism popular appeal.

Rabbi Ariel Konstantyn. (photo credit: GLORIA DEUTSCH)
Rabbi Ariel Konstantyn.
(photo credit: GLORIA DEUTSCH)
At 38 he still looks incredibly young, but when he started out as a community rabbi back in New Jersey, Rabbi Ariel Konstantyn says he was often mistaken for the bar-mitzva boy.
Today, he is the rabbi and force behind an extraordinary renaissance of religious observance and community activity centered around his synagogue, the Beit El International Synagogue, which has stood on Frishman Street in the heart of Tel Aviv for more than 80 years.
When he took over, a few years after making aliya from New Jersey with his wife and two children, the shul had almost fallen into disuse.
“Occasionally there would be a minyan of elders, but even that had petered out,” he says. Today, thanks to his activities, he can expect to have 250 to 300 people on a Friday night and even more for the monthly champagne kiddush. Shabbat congregations usually number about 100.
The burst in numbers attending shul has a little to do with the convivial activities and free food, and a great deal to do with the rabbi’s personality and welcoming approach – which is worlds away from the stereotype of a strict Orthodox rabbi. Without compromising any of his beliefs and principles, Rav Ariel manages to give Orthodox Judaism popular appeal – and a smiling, happy face to go with it.
“I don’t care why they are in the synagogue or what they wear – I don’t care if they come straight off the beach wearing a wrap – because I want them to connect to Judaism and the community,” he says. “If they come for social reasons because they are lonely and looking to meet someone, that’s fine, too.”
Rav Ariel has often been asked if he is a Reform rabbi, because he smiles so much.
“What have we done? How far have we strayed?” he laments. “My job is not to make people observant, but to show what Judaism has to offer and how it can enhance their lives.”
He feels there is a huge need among the people he meets.
“People are thirsting to connect, to get closer to God – but in their own way,” he says.
He added the word “international” to the synagogue’s title when he realized he had congregants from 30 countries, and he likes to assign seats according to nationalities – so he has a Russian row, a Dutch row, a Swedish row and so on.
Many congregants have turned to him for help with conversion, and he teaches conversion courses together with three other like-minded and sympathetic rabbis. All the conversions are done through the Chief Rabbinate and are, of course, kosher.
“We have a 100-percent success rate,” he says, “and the key to our success is our community-based program.”
Rav Ariel made aliya on Hanukka 2005. He had been a rabbi in Jersey City, and later in the Hamptons. He could have stayed and got a cushy, well-paid job without any trouble. “The big synagogues were knocking on my door,” he says, “but I knew that it would be for 25 years to life if I accepted.”
In any case he had always known he would settle in Israel one day, and wanted to do it while his two small children were still young.
The family arrived in the absorption center in Ra’anana. It was, he says a “humbling transition – from the Hamptons to a hostel.”
He had no clear idea what he would do once the ulpan was finished. Maybe teaching, maybe kashrut supervision, he didn’t know. The family moved to Karnei Shomron and he began to teach in a girls’ high school.
“It was a perfect community,” he says, “a heterogeneous mix of religious and secular, good air, a pool a shopping mall, good schools – but somehow it didn’t work.”
He began to wonder if he had made a mistake, and even considered returning to the US.
“But God wanted me here, in this place,” he says of his Tel Aviv synagogue. A meeting with one of the Modern Orthodox Tzohar rabbis led to him being recruited into the Kehillot Project, to persuade Israeli synagogues to adopt Anglo models and do outreach to the community.
“Come to Tel Aviv,” he was told, “and build a synagogue.”
At first, he was very skeptical.
“I didn’t know Tel Aviv at all,” he says. “It had this reputation of ‘sin city,’ but now I’ve discovered it’s so much deeper, so dynamic, with people thirsting for something spiritual. Now I see what an incredible place it is.”
On Shabbat the synagogue pulsates with life. English is the dominant language, and all the announcements and page numbers are given in the language.
“I would say that 60%-70% of our congregation is immigrants, but the Israelis love the international flavor and more and more are coming,” he says.
In the future the rabbi wants to carry on renovating the shul, to make it even more attractive than it already is. New air conditioners have been put in and the electricity renewed, but there is still plenty to do to revive the old building.
“I’m so busy that I don’t have time to devote to fund-raising,” says the rabbi, who has not yet received a salary and lives on his savings. “We rely on donations as we get nothing from the government. Any money that comes in goes straight to the synagogue, as we want to make it more attractive and hope to have more weddings and bar mitzvas from abroad.”
On Shabbat, Rabbi Konstantyn rolls out the red carpet – literally as well as emotionally – so that people who are not shulgoers will come in and see for themselves the happy, smiling face of Orthodox Judaism.
“Judaism is welcoming and loving, not harsh and stern,” he says. Anyone attending Tel Aviv’s International Shul and meeting Rav Konstantyn will quickly discover how true that statement is.