Tel Aviv, Torah city

Apart from being famous, what Yael Bar-Zohar, Danny Ayalon, Gil Kopatch and Eviatar Banai all have in common is that they are connected in one way or another to Jewish centers around Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv cartoon 521 (photo credit: Deborah s. danan)
Tel Aviv cartoon 521
(photo credit: Deborah s. danan)
A couple of weeks ago, a Tel Avivian called Shlomo made the following comment to me: “The problem with Jerusalem is that everyone is religious.”
Although I hate to admit, whenever I arrive in Jerusalem and get on the Light Rail, a similar sentiment spring to fore: “Gosh, this city is full of Arabs and hareidim.” I sound just like other ignorant Tel Avivians who say the same thing whenever—if ever—they condescend to visit the Holy capital. They don’t realize that unlike Tel Aviv, Jerusalem is a city that doesn’t lay its cards on the table and what you see is definitely not what you get. Only people who have lived in the capital for a decent period of time can understand the way she operates and find the elusive key that unlocks the city’s charm.
But back to Tel Aviv and our friend Shlomo. He continued his diatribe on Jerusalem’s religiosity with the following observation: “See, in Jerusalem, even the secular people are religious. It’s not unlikely to see a secular girl wandering around shuk Mahane Yehuda wearing a tank top, but it’s also not unlikely that the same girl might also be sporting some sort of head-wrap, just like those that married religious women wear. It’s all confused over there.”
Now, if any of you out there might be offended by Shlomo’s comments, you might be comforted to learn that not only is Shlomo a religious Jew, he is also an ex-Jerusalemite and a rabbi now involved in Aish Tel Aviv. I visited Aish for a Shabbat Kiddush in its new building above the marina on the Tel Aviv boardwalk. In between bites of kugel and cholent, Rabbi Shlomo Chayen and I got chatting and I told him that after more than a decade, I had made the move from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. It was this that prompted him to make the aforementioned remarks.
Judaism and spirituality are intricately bound to the Holy City, and as such rubs off on all Jerusalemites – regardless of their affiliation with religion. In Tel Aviv, things just seem to be more clear cut. Sure, you can find a Belzer Hassid walking around the streets in Tel Aviv, but while it might not be with the same frequency that one sees a woman jogging in shorter-than-short shorts, the point is that in Tel Aviv, never the twain shall meet. The reason that Rabbi Chayen chose Tel Aviv over Jerusalem is precisely to try and close that gap. By way of analogy, Rabbi Chayen referred to the priests during the time of the Temple: The priest would work in the mikdash for only one month during the year and the rest of his time would be spent educating and creating unity among the Israelites.
Rabbi David Ziering, the founder of Aish Tel Aviv, was also at the Kiddush. In explaining his reason for opening a branch in Tel Aviv of all places, he opined that although Jerusalem may be Israel's political capital, Tel Avivians see their city as the country's spiritual, economical and social center, an attitude attested to by the Hebrew name for the region around Tel Aviv: the Merkaz (center).
“There are many people in places like Tel Aviv who feel that the ideals of Zionism are a thing of the past. We hope to show them that these values are still valid,” Ziering said. Unlike its counterparts in Jerusalem and the Diaspora, Aish Tel Aviv is geared mainly towards secular Israeli professionals, aspiring to connect leaders in the fields of politics, business and media, to their roots in Judaism. Included in those leaders is Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who participates in Aish’s chavruta (study session) program.
The new venue for Aish is situated right opposite a building advertising the imminent opening of a strip club. The irony is not lost on Rabbi Chayen, who, pointing at the building, said, “Can you think of a better place for Aish Tel Aviv to be creating unity among the Jewish people than here on the beachfront opposite a Tel Aviv staple such as that?”
I’m not sure I can. And there are many other examples of Jewish centers that have sprung up in recent years - at a pace that outruns strip club openings – all over Sin City. Downtown Tel Aviv has a couple of Chabad Lubavitch centers that, like the Aish center, host Shabbat meals and various learning programs, the difference being that their events are open to every type of Jew.
In the latter part of the nineties, a group of avreichim opened a Kollel (Yeshiva for married men) called Ma’aleh Eliyahu in the area of Tel Aviv known as the Old North, which also happens to be my ‘hood. The avreichim comprised of national religious Jews, many of whom had been raised in settlements in Judea and Samaria. Their intent was to build bridges between the religious public and the secular public, and the place that they felt was most apt for achieving this goal was Tel Aviv.
How strange it must have been in those days to see classic “settler” families – complete with flying tzizit, flowing skirts and double strollers – walking the streets of Seculardom! Indeed, a religious friend of mine recalls that around the time of the kollel’s inception, she would walk the streets on Shabbat and be subjected to comments along the lines of, “The religious migration is ruining this neighborhood. Why did you have to move to Tel Aviv?”
Today the neighborhood has matured somewhat. There are a number of yeshivot in the area that span the entire religious spectrum, and I’ve yet to hear derogatory comments directed at any of the religious students that walk these streets. Perhaps today secular Tel Avivans are feeling less threatened by the presence of religious people in their midst, or perhaps they’ve learned that a preoccupation with Judaism is not reserved exclusively for the religious public.
By the time Tel Aviv entered the 21st century, its residents’ attitude towards Judaism had markedly changed. In one of the most distressed neighborhoods in South Tel Aviv, you can now find Bina, the country’s first ever secular yeshiva that is fully endorsed by the Defense and Education ministries as having the same status as orthodox yeshivot.
Tel Aviv is humming with Torah activity. This comes as a surprise to many who come here armed with preconceived notions that they picked up from their last visit to Tel Aviv in the seventies. Other than the aforementioned yeshivot and kollels, there are a number of shiurim (lectures) that take place on a weekly basis around the city. In Rabbi Yuval Asharov’s popular lecture in Neve Tzedek, you can spot a few famous faces in the audience from Israeli TV including Eden Harel and Yael Bar Zohar.
With separate seating for men and women, Rabbi Asharov’s lecture is quite formal and focuses heavily on Torat Hanistar, or the Kabbalah. For those of you who, like me, prefer a more relaxed atmosphere without compromising on content, Rabbi Uri Sherky’s weekly lecture on the Talmud might be for you. Rabbi Sherky’s lecture is hosted in Rosh Yehudi, another Jewish center just off of Dizengoff Street that also hosts Shabbat meals and various activities throughout the week. The audience (which is mixed-seating) has more bare-headed men than kippah-bedecked men and the level of Torah knowledge is varied. However, judging by the level of the questions that are posed to Rabbi Sherky, two things that everyone in the audience seem to have in common is a sharp intellect and an inquiring mind.
Ariel Dorfman was involved in Rosh Yehudi until he broke away and started Hamakom, a cultural center with an orientation towards Judaism. Located opposite the Carmel market, Hamakom boasts a wide range of activities that include composition workshops led by the singer Eviatar Banai, and parasha lectures delivered by Israeli comedian Gil Kopatch.
I recently went to Hamakov for an “evening of song” in honor of Tu Bishvat. Alas, sitting around a table and eating dried fruit while singing classic Israeli songs isn’t really my thing, so halfway through I left. The girls at the front desk were extremely friendly, and I promised to be back to try another of their evenings – perhaps Tzipi Livni is planning on giving a shiur on midot—Jewish values–at some point?
Much like coffee shops and bars, it seems that you don’t have to walk too far in Tel Aviv to find another Torah alternative. Situated only 3 bars and 4 coffee shops away from Hamokom, the grandiose Achad Ha’am synagogue can be found on Allenby Road. A few minutes after leaving Hamakom, I found myself at a shiur in Achad Ha’am that was being given by Rabbi Joseph Sitruk, the former chief rabbi of France. In excess of a thousand people, the shiur was attended by what seemed to be the entire French population of Tel Aviv.
So, who would have thought that an article about religious life in Tel Aviv would include so much name-dropping? Apart from being famous, perhaps what Yael Bar Zohar, Danny Ayalon, Gil Kopatch, and Eden Harel all have in common is that they seem to have found the elusive key that unlocks Tel Aviv’s secret spirituality.