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Tel Aviv: A view of the synagogues in a city purveying ultra-secularity

CM 19/08/2021


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If Jerusalem and Bnei Brak exude ultra-Orthodoxy, Tel Aviv purveys ultra-secularity, with its residential population profitably employed in world-class, cutting-edge hi-tech and service industry supported by quality restaurants, bars, and a diversity of leisure activities that are almost unrivaled on the Mediterranean. 
With a reputation for in-your-face liberalism, striving to abolish Shabbat closing of shops and public transport, and banning Chabad mass events where men and women are segregated, Tel Aviv does not seem to be a place where a person searching for Judaism’s capacity to inspire through its teachings and its buildings is likely to settle down. In reality, however, wide varieties of synagogues and encounters with Judaism are plentiful, but just much less noisy, and not part of the city stereotype. 
People have long forgotten founding mayor Meir Dizengoff’s taxing local merchants to pay for the Tel Aviv Great Synagogue. Today, less is popularly known about the Jewish life that beats quietly but firmly, and often innovatively, behind the city’s plush and ultra-modern exteriors. 

 Exterior of the Tel Aviv Great Synagogue. (credit: JACOB SOLOMON) Exterior of the Tel Aviv Great Synagogue. (credit: JACOB SOLOMON)
How many synagogues are there in Tel Aviv? The local religious council estimates a total of 500. By going to a different one each Shabbat, it should take you 10 years to see them all. Most are small, discreet places that newcomers – other than the most discerning – will not notice. Collectively, they span the experiences of the entire Jewish world: Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Yemenite, and many subgroups and denominations, including the hassidic courts of Vasloi and Bitchkov that have remained in the Tel Aviv area.
Among them are magnificent edifices, such as the Great Synagogue at 110 Allenby Street, the Ichud Shivat Zion at 86 Ben Yehuda Street (with Daf Yomi shiur, the daily study group of a page of Talmud at 5:30 am), and the sanctuary-spanning mesmerizing-domed Ohel Moed (Sephardi) synagogue at 5 Shadal St., just off the Rothschild Boulevard. The former in particular, with its domed and vaulted interior was, on festive occasions of earlier times, a gathering of Israel’s Who’s Who at prayer. In its day its worshipers included David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett, and Menachem Begin together with rabbinical luminaries ranging from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi, to his more recent successor currently serving as Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv (and one of the youngest Holocaust survivors), Rabbi Israel Meir Lau. 
 THE OHEL MOED Sephardi shul. (credit: JACOB SOLOMON) THE OHEL MOED Sephardi shul. (credit: JACOB SOLOMON)
IN THE years of early statehood, the richly attended services severely taxed the crowd-control capacities of the synagogue usher. But with the onset of the 1960s, the religiously observant residential population and its children tended to move away from its central business district locality, leaving behind only a small core of regular worshipers. Today, the Great Synagogue is gearing up for a rebounding comeback with extensive renovation plans. It has more recently become a popular venue for society weddings (one of which was in progress during my weekend afternoon visit), and it has developed an outreach program hosting Shabbat meals for hundreds of people.
 THE VASLOI HASSIDIM synagogue. (credit: JACOB SOLOMON) THE VASLOI HASSIDIM synagogue. (credit: JACOB SOLOMON)
As the sun sinks below the horizon, walk a few blocks northward from Dizengoff Circus and then turn right into Ben-Gurion Street. Enter Vasloi, for evening prayers. This small, intimate-feeling synagogue is the hub of the Vasloi Hassidic world, with the Vasloi rebbe (spiritual leader) R. Avrohom Halperin regally positioned by the golden ark, as an Eastern European sage of yesteryear. However, many of his congregants are regular working individuals, with knitted kippot, flat caps, and the odd ponytail. These people are the local cognoscenti who have allowed themselves to connect. On my first visit, the Rebbe reached out and welcomed me, many of his admirers commenting on his spiritual greatness, without politics or financial gain, that warms those people who come with his devotion to Torah and his radiant happiness. 
Well within living memory, Tel Aviv was center to many more hassidic dynasties. For example, when the Belzer Rebbe reached Israel in 1944, he preferred to establish his community in Tel Aviv, observing that it had no mosques and no churches, but a flourishing Jewish environment. Many Belzer families as well as other major dynasties, such as Gur and Modzitz, continue in their own quarters to this very day, maintaining their own customs, synagogues and educational institutions under the strict guidance of their spiritual leadership that has more recently moved out of town. 
Further south, Rothschild Boulevard interacts with Sheinkin Street, famed for its high-end boutiques, designer clothes, and café culture. Just behind Sheinkin is a long-established religious neighborhood centering around the tree-lined Oliphant Street that local people nickname The Vatican. I walked through that street’s tree tunnel and emerged at the Antopol Synagogue with a few minutes to spare before catching the daily afternoon service. Plenty of regulars were already seated studying out of well-worn Talmud volumes in pairs or singly, giving a sense of combined Lithuanian yeshiva scholarship and hassidic warmth, whose sincerity and authenticity appeal to many would-like-to-be observant Jews. Its long-standing spiritual driving force comes from Rabbi Mordechai Auerbach, apolitical and highly respected across those different communities, some of who make up his congregation. As those who know him put it, Rabbi Auerbach sits and learns, and people of all types come to learn with him. It is an ideal environment for newcomers, with whom he interacts, to absorb the inspiring, warming combination of yeshiva-style learning and hassidic spirituality. 
BUT THOUGH tradition beats with strength and warmth for those who know where to find it, synagogues and their activities face the challenge of presenting themselves attractively to a new, but fast-growing phenomenon in Tel Aviv. That is individuals (both Israeli and immigrant) seeking personal spirituality and meaning in life, but not necessarily accompanied with the formal observance of the Shabbat, festivals, kashrut, standard worship, and associated dress codes. Outwardly secular, these people want to connect with the authentic spiritual energy that they seek within Judaism through studying Torah texts, Talmud texts, and even kabbalistic (mystical) texts. With suitable guidance, they want to engage with the Torah sources that speak to them and become part of them. Throughout the city, many places of worship, including Chabad, Modern Orthodox, Reform, and non-affiliated run programs of inspirational study circles and activities that bring their seeking and inquiring individuals together as growing groups of learners. 
Such people often gravitate to communities exemplified by the Tel Aviv International Synagogue (TAIS), centrally located at 23 Frishman St., under the youthful, dynamic leadership of American-raised and Yeshiva University-trained Rabbi Ariel Konstantyn. TAIS’s work includes offering “dynamic spiritual, cultural, social and educational programs for all ages in an environment of warmth, acceptance and mutual respect,” welcoming Jewish people of all backgrounds to its wide-ranging services and programs. Thus Shabbat programs may present as the Four Cs: Carelebach, Champagne, Cholent and Chevre (friendship). Tisha Be’Av programs express this in programs such as “Eicha (Lamentations) on the Beach with Songs and Stories of Jerusalem.” And as the High Holy Days draw near, that season opens with a “Musical, Mystical Saturday Night Selichot and Shiur,” explicitly designed to “Kick off the holiday season with a most special and unique experience.”
So when you show up in Tel Aviv in search of the local synagogue, turn from the main road into the neighborhood as the sun begins to set and ask a passerby whose outward signs indicate connection to Judaism where the nearest synagogue is. You will probably be much closer to it than to the nearest bar. 
Tel Aviv tends to live less in the past and more in the present and in the future. Enter, sit down, and engage with an open mind. And enjoy! 

Source: Jerusalem Post

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CM

The host of Coffee Mouth Scare Crow Show and CEO of 452 Impact, Inc. Here is food for thought. Romans 6:23 "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." John 3:16 "For God so love ed the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall be saved."

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