Israel’s First Jewish City: Developing Community and Jewish Identity

Courtesy Kedem Auctions
Courtesy Kedem Auctions

Last week I had the opportunity to spend two days in Tel Aviv and I witnessed firsthand the community redevelopment effort in the southern part of the city – all while searching for a minyan in which to say Kaddish.

When I went looking for a minyan that would be davening mincha (afternoon) and maariv (evening), I was told that there are two synagogues very close to the hotel where I was staying. They are both about 80 years old; one is Eadot HaMizrach (Sephardic) and the other is HaGra (Askenazic).

I decided to try the Askenazic shul first. It turned out I had been there almost 20 years ago when it looked as if it had just survived a war. The ceilings, walls, and windows were in terrible shape, and everything inside was either cracked or broken. This time, as I entered the building I immediately noticed it had been renovated: it looked beautiful. New benches had been installed, the walls were tiled, and the floor had been changed completely. There was even a small sign on the door welcoming people and announcing that the shul served Shabbat meals with a telephone number to call to reserve a place.

Being someone who believes that if you are not early you are late, I went to the shul 15 minutes before the announced time. When I walked in there were a few people studying, and when I asked if there would be a mincha service, they responded, “With God’s help.” When there were only six of us in the shul at the service’s starting time, I began to worry because we were four short of the number needed to say Kaddish. One of those present, Danny, seemed to be the all-purpose Gabbai (the person responsible for making sure things happen in a synagogue more or less on time).

When Danny realized there was no minyan. He hit the streets and went around the neighborhood, rounding up four more people so we could daven. Following mincha the people who were studying packed up and left. When I asked whether they would wait for maariv, they said they were not able to do so. At that point it was getting dark, and the chances of attracting a minyan seemed slim. Because the time was getting late, I decided to try the Eadot HaMizrach synagogue.

I walked in just as they were concluding and was able to join them for Kaddish. I asked about the morning service, and they said they started at 5:15 AM. Being on vacation, I was not too enthusiastic about getting up so early when the Ashkenazi shul said its service would start at 7:00 AM.

Being a trusting soul, I returned to the Ashkenazi shul at 6:45 AM; Danny soon arrived and quickly made the rounds to ensure a minyan. He then proceeded to daven from the bima (lead the services) and read the Torah since it was a Thursday, which is one of the three days during the week when we take out the scroll from the ark. It was clear by then that without Danny the shul would not continue to function.

I inquired about the renovations and I was told that someone in the community provided the funds because of his sentimental feelings for the shul in this part of Tel Aviv. Danny has arranged for a group to come to the shul every day to study, and the rabbi drives in during the week from B’nai Brak (a city adjacent to Tel Aviv). They are working very hard to revive the community around the shul.

The few regulars are people who have lived in the neighborhood their entire lives and do not want to see the shul close. They are committed to making sure there is a minyan three times a day as many days as possible. They are involved in creating a Shabbat atmosphere where visitors and area residents can enjoy a Shabbat meal together. This is an example of a community revitalizing itself around a neighborhood synagogue. The people who come to the shul are not all Orthodox, but simply want to ensure the continuity of its role in the neighborhood.

Not wanting to take any chances my second afternoon in Tel Aviv, I returned to the Eadot HaMizrach shul for mincha and maariv. They were extremely warm and welcoming. They accepted my Ashkenazic pronunciation of the Kaddish and welcomed me to join them at 5:15 AM the next morning. I thought it best to get up early so I would not have to worry about whether there would be a minyan.

I joined them in the morning and was offered a cup of tea as soon as I entered the shul. Following services there was a lesson on ethics taught by a young man. After the lesson I spoke with him and found out that he is a rabbi who recently moved from Paris where he had been leader of a congregation and before that in Morocco. He came back to Israel to live and look for a wife: he was 39 years old and it was time to settle down.

He told me that he grew up in the neighborhood and he was committed to reviving still another shul two blocks away that had been boarded up for years. He envisioned turning it into a community center for area residents and for tourists who are looking for a place to connect with Israelis. There was something charismatic about both his teaching style and his warm outreach to me.

These three synagogues in south Tel Aviv represent both a trend toward Jewish renewal and toward building community in Israel. In recent years, along with the end to socialism and to the belief that the government has to provide everything for its citizens, we have witnessed a trend to creating local community networks that both provide services to neighborhood residents and strengthen the bonds between them. I would suggest that these two shuls represent both trends. The Jewish citizens of Israel are searching for the spirit of a close-knit community in modern society. It is very appropriate for this dynamic to be identified in the first Jewish city in Israel.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program. Stephen was Director of the Israel office of the Council of Jewish Federations (CJF), 1986-94, and Director of the Israel office of UJA Federation of New York, 1994-2008.