Torah in Tel Aviv

Many centers of Jewish learning have sprung up recently in the secular capital.

Torah in TA (photo credit: Deborah S. Danan)
Torah in TA
(photo credit: Deborah S. Danan)
The Torah class is held on the upper level of an old synagogue on Bar Kochba Street, just off Dizengoff Square. On the stairs leading up to the class, a woman with unmistakably Chinese features sits nursing her newborn.
The woman is now known as Ella, a name she chose for herself in the beit din (rabbinical court) just weeks before her baby was born.
Originally from China, Ella completed her conversion to Judaism in Israel, but had already been in the process for four years in Shanghai when she met her Israeli husband, Eran. They had a civil wedding in China, and two months ago, following her conversion, Eran and his heavily pregnant bride were married according to Jewish law in Tel Aviv’s Great Synagogue. Two weeks after that, she gave birth to their first child, Shira.
Much of the credit that Eran gives for his own path toward Judaism goes to Rosh Yehudi, the Jewish center that is hosting the class on Bar Kochba Street. Eighty people of all ages and walks of life fill the room to hear the words of Rabbi Uri Sherkey.
The class he gives is on Pirkei Avot – the Ethics of the Fathers – but he peppers it with anecdotes from philosophy, history and a host of other subjects.
The audience interacts with the rabbi, and the questions they pose indicate a high level of intellect from secular and religious attendees alike.
Yet the atmosphere is refreshingly free of the snobbery that often pervades any room occupied by a group of intellectuals.
Rosh Yehudi is just one of many centers for Jewish learning that have sprung up in recent years in Tel Aviv, ostensibly the country’s secular capital.
Tel Aviv has approximately 500 synagogues that are no longer in use, and many of the Jewish centers are using these defunct synagogues to host their activities. Although they are all geared toward the same goal of building bridges between the secular and religious communities, there is a surprising lack of competition among the different centers. Part of the reason for this is that each center has its own approach, catering to a specific target audience.
Even though Friday night prayers at Rosh Yehudi – with over 150 people in attendance – are conducted in the style of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the center was founded on the spirit and teachings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook; in other words, in the stream of religious Zionism. Rosh Yehudi boasts a wide range of activities, including a bar mitzva project and a newlyweds’ initiative to guide and support those who need it during those pivotal events in the Jewish life cycle.
In addition to hosting Torah classes, which are open to the public, it has a seminary for about 30 girls of varying degrees of observance.
Ze’ev Shlua, the executive director of Rosh Yehudi, explains that the center’s ideal is to bond and bridge between different parts of Israeli society by strengthening Jewish awareness.
Shlua opines that many people are simply afraid of learning about Judaism, and Rosh Yehudi hopes to change this attitude by offering a type of Judaism that is accessible to everyone.
“People are facing all different types of struggles today, and many feel lonely and lost,” says Shlua. “Rosh Yehudi’s aim is to provide a non-judgmental, open environment in which people don’t have to be afraid or apologetic about learning more about Judaism. We don’t want to be up in an ivory tower – we want to be here, on the ground in Tel Aviv. There is no replacement for the warm embrace of a fellow Jew.”
Sherkey postulates that there is a growing trend of people seeking to carve out their identities.
“There’s nothing more natural for a Jew than to explore Judaism, and at Rosh Yehudi we try and make it relevant to modern times,” he says, adding that the reason his approach is so appealing to many non-observant Jews is that he speaks in a “secular language,” using “secular” concepts and vernacular.
The rabbi shuns the term “kiruv rehokim” (drawing people into a religious lifestyle) as being the primary aim of the center.
“Kiruv rehokim is a problematic term,” he says. “It has connotations that bespeak superiority – ‘I got here and you need to be here, too.’ That’s not it at all. ‘Kiruv levavot’ [connecting hearts] is a better term. Secular people have much to learn from religious people, sure. But it’s a two-way street. There is so much that religious people should learn from secular people, such as basic intuition, freedom of thought, spontaneity, the autonomy of humanity, and sensitivity to more pragmatic issues like caring for the environment.”
ANOTHER CENTER that has breathed life into an obsolete house of prayer is Merkaz Shamayim in the Sheinkin area. Founded by Nurit and Roni Ayalon 12 years ago under the name Shorashim, the center was the first of its kind in Tel Aviv. The classes that Shamayim offers have a slightly different approach in that they include a strong emphasis on hassidism and Jewish mysticism. Eight hundred people pass through Shamayim’s doors on a weekly basis, many of them having dabbled at one time or another in Eastern philosophies and religions.
Having traveled extensively in the Far East prior to becoming religious, the Ayalons are no strangers to the phenomenon of soul-searching in far-flung corners of the globe.
“I didn’t understand how I was a Jew, yet I knew so little about Judaism,” says Nurit. “Even though I didn’t even fast on Yom Kippur, I always spoke to God – I just didn’t know how to name it.”
The Ayalons, like the center they run, have many different facets. They are Belzer Hassidim living in the heart of secular Tel Aviv, and on the surface their hassidic appearance may seem incongruous with what they have achieved in all aspects of their lives. A mother of eight, Nurit is a lawyer, while Roni is a practitioner of Chinese medicine as well as a mohel and a reserve soldier for the IDF’s General Staff Reconnaissance Unit.
He also gives a series of lectures based on the Matrix movie trilogy, called “The Matrix According to Hassidism.”
Like Roni, most of the lecturers in Shamayim are ba’alei teshuva (returnees to the faith). Nurit says that people are more amenable to listening to those who have undergone their own process of soul-searching.
“If the rabbi or speaker is not constantly searching inside of himself, or if he just speaks in a dogmatic way, no one will buy it. Tel Avivians especially can identify falsehood from afar – and that’s part of the reason I love living here,” she says. “At Shamayim, we look for speakers who have a truth and authenticity that is so tangible and who aren’t afraid to voice their own fears and suspicions, or even to talk about their own failures.
They are totally without pride or ego, and they speak to our audiences on their own level.”
She stresses that “our aim is not to provide proofs pertaining to Judaism.
We don’t hold lectures that prove that ma’amad Har Sinai [the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai] was indeed a historical event, nor do we try to prove the existence of God. We want people who come to feel it. And everyone does that in a different way.
Not everyone becomes observant, but they are able to become better people, more sensitive people who work on improving their midot [character].”
Shamayim, which like the other learning centers is for both men and women, has a sister organization for women called Ashira. The websites of the two groups combined receive close to a million hits a month, making them the country’s largest online resource for Judaism.
RABBI DAVID Ziering is the founder of Aish Tel Aviv, one of the few centers that have opted out of utilizing neglected synagogue space; instead, it has its own state-of-the-art venue in a prime location opposite the marina.
Offering sushi and champagne means that Aish is able to attract the crème de la crème of those seeking to sharpen their knowledge of Judaism.
Explaining his reason for opening a branch of the international outreach organization in Tel Aviv, of all places, Ziering says that although Jerusalem may be the country’s political capital, Tel Avivians see their city as the country’s spiritual, economic and social center, an attitude reflected in the Hebrew name for the region around Tel Aviv: the Merkaz (Center).
Unlike its counterparts in Jerusalem and the Diaspora, Aish Tel Aviv is geared mainly toward secular professionals, aspiring to connect leaders in the fields of politics, business and media to their roots in Judaism. One of those leaders is Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who participates in Aish’s havruta (study session) program.
“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 says.
ANOTHER PURPOSE-BUILT center is Hamakom, which was founded four years ago by Ariel Dorfman.
Hamakom doesn’t label itself as a center for Jewish learning; instead it uses the tagline “center for culture and spirituality.”
According to Dorfman, the chief challenge that his center aims to combat is ignorance. To this end, Hamakom’s main tactic is simply to provide exposure.
Different factions of Israeli society are by and large completely segregated from one another, which means that ignorance regarding “the other” is rife.
Dorfman says that this phenomenon is true of both secular and religious Israelis.
His center is about providing people with a forum in which they can become exposed to new ideas and gain a taste of Judaism in a fun atmosphere, while also being accepted for who they are. He wants to see people becoming more connected to themselves, and by doing so becoming more connected to each other.
“A person who doesn’t accept himself or love himself can’t give to others,” he says.
In the Diaspora, secular Jews are often more likely to know more about their faith than their Israeli counterparts. But this was not always the case. As the Hamakom founder points out, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion – a definitively secular man – always walked around carrying a copy of the Tanach (Hebrew Bible).
“In recent generations, Judaism has become something negative,” says Dorfman. “Factors including failures within the education system have led people to believe that the Tanach is all technical and not at all relevant to life.
That is not the attitude that the rest of the world has to the Bible, and it should not be the attitude here, either. In Hamakom, we try and show that the Tanach is very relevant to people’s lives.”
Dorfman’s vision is for a united Israel working together to build the land and to continue Ben-Gurion’s legacy of connecting the Jewish people to a Jewish identity. Hamakom strives to forge the path toward building a nation based on a culture of giving, accepting and loving one’s neighbor. This time of year in the Jewish calendar is particularly pertinent to furthering that end.
“We just finished marking the death of 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples who died because of their baseless hatred,” he says, referring to the first part of the Omer period, between Passover and Lag Ba’omer.
“Today, we need to make sure to eliminate that – not to have two separate states, the state of Jerusalem and the state of Tel Aviv.
Unification is key.”
Furthermore, he points out, “Shavuot marks the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people. It was not given in Israel; rather, it was given in the desert. The desert is a place that belongs to no one, and as such the Torah is not the property of one group over another. Judaism is relevant to everyone.”
It was a conscious decision not to host Hamakom’s activities inside a synagogue. Dorfman believes that doing so would turn many people off from entering.
“Sadly people feel that a synagogue is only the domain of the religious, so we decided to build this beautiful building that reflects a spirit of mutual respect,” he says.
He echoes Sherkey’s sentiments that the secular and religious communities have much to learn from one another.
“The havruta [study partner] that I learned most from was a secular person.
Through watching him experience his first encounter with the Tanach, I was able to draw lessons from his free thinking and the questions he asked,” he recalls. “Being a good person is not connected to whether you are religious or not. It is connected to humility, to being aware of how you conduct yourself toward your family and towards society.”
According to Dorfman, “the prevailing question 30 years ago of ‘How can I give to the state?’ has since turned into ‘How can the state give to me?’” He is hoping to reverse this trend by encouraging people to nurture a culture that combines all aspects of life as a Jew.
To achieve this, Hamakom hosts a series of workshops and lectures, including musical workshops run by Evyatar Banai and workshops on the Yemima method for self-development.
What sets this center apart from some of the others is that the activities aren’t run exclusively by religious people. Famous names like Dudi Levi, Gil Kopatch, Dov Singer and Kobi Oz have all given workshops there, including overseeing workshops on the Talmud. Berry Sakharof and Ehud Banai have also given performances in the center, which is close to the Carmel Market.
Hamakom has even invited religious people who had no prior contact with secular people to come to Tel Aviv and get to know other types of Jews.
“We’ll bring over girls from ulpanot [religious girls’ high schools] or yeshiva boys – some of whom have never even been to Tel Aviv – and we’ll send them out on the street with secular people. They’ll have a personal conversation that lasts hours, and that way, the religious people who have led somewhat sheltered lives are now able to see how the other sees life. It breaks down stigmas and barriers. I have religious people coming back to me and saying, ‘What an amazing nation we have, it’s such a shame we never interact with one another.’”