keeping the faith

Making a Minyan in Tel Aviv

A new initiative seeks to connect secular Israelis with Shabbat traditions

As the sun sets on a Friday evening in Tel Aviv, strangers trickle into a loft in the heart of Jaffa. They leave their bags — and phones — at the door, per the hosts’ instructions, and grab a glass of wine and begin to mingle. 

When the 20 invitees — mostly secular Israelis — have arrived, they sit in a circle in the loft’s foyer. A meditation begins, bringing the group together in silence as they welcome the start of Shabbat. Tonight, a host explains in Hebrew, the night’s theme is “ritual,” tying the concept to the week’s Torah portion. 

Over the course of the next four hours, attendees — some of whom grew up religious and have adopted a less observant lifestyle; others who were always secular, and some who are religious — shared the role that ritual plays in their lives. The conversation continued over dinner, which was inspired by the Kurdish dishes that were Shabbat mainstays in the childhood home of Lipaz Ela, one of the hosts of the dinner and a co-founder of Minyan TLV.

Ela, along with co-founder Oz Fishman, conceived of the idea for these small group dinners during Israel’s restrictive lockdowns in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. They first met when Fishman was working at Reality, a project of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, and Ela was working at Talma, a Schusterman-funded project that brings Americans to Israel to teach English in the country’s periphery. With Israelis banned from traveling far from their homes, the two would frequently get together at a coffee shop downstairs from their respective apartments.

“We were sitting there and we were like, ‘I really wish I could go to shul right now,’” Fishman, an urban planner and teacher at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, explained. The “closest thing” that felt like going to shul, he said, was “walking downstairs to the coffee shop outside our house in Florentine and sitting there and seeing the same people day after day after day, especially when you’re stuck in your home all day.’” 

That realization, Fishman explained, sparked the creation of Minyan TLV. “It consciously dawned on us that the coffee shop in Tel Aviv is people’s shul, more or less,” he said. “It’s not the depth of the spiritual experience that I think a lot of people are feeling. Maybe they get that in yoga, they get that in meditation, they get it in all these New Age-y things that people like, but we were looking for a space that knew how to handle both.” 

Israel’s secular Jews account for a sizable amount of the country’s total Jewish population, though a variety of surveys have found different numbers, and also use various definitions to distinguish between groups. With both secular and non-Jewish residents, many restaurants in Tel Aviv are open on Shabbat, and a number of private buses run on free “Shabbat routes” that operate from sundown Friday through the following evening. In a city that feels constantly “on,” it can sometimes be challenging to slow down for Shabbat, especially for young people who lack a strong Jewish community.

With that in mind, Lipaz and Fishman invited a group of 10 friends, mostly secular, to a Shabbat dinner in March 2022. And so Minyan TLV was birthed.

The organization’s name was chosen because of the central concept of a minyan, or quorum of 10 people, in Judaism. “Minyan is like the base unit of a Jewish community, of saying, first of all, you can’t do anything sacred alone. Doesn’t work like that, A. And B, that if you have nine people a minyan doesn’t work,” Fishman said. “You absolutely need to have 10, which means that first, second, third, fourth, seventh, eighth, ninth, 10th are all equally important because without any one of them we don’t have what we need.”

The March dinner was such a hit among attendees that Fishman and Ela decided to continue hosting monthly dinners. In addition to the Shabbat meals, Minyan hosted a large-scale Shavuot gathering in May, and has partnered with groups including OneTable and The Big Table for events in Tel Aviv. Minyan held its 19th small-group Shabbat dinner earlier this month.

Shalom Simcha Elbert, who participated in Minyan’s first Shabbat dinner, lived in Italy for four years before returning to Israel in the middle of the pandemic. He grew up religious but became more secular as an adult; in Italy, he re-embraced his religious roots, putting on tefillin every morning and celebrating the holidays. That changed again when he got back to Israel. 

“When I came back [to Israel], it kind of faded away,” he explained. “And I think Minyan gives you that feeling of yearning, like wanting to go back…it really gives you an itch that you want to scratch every time that you go, and you feel like you can do more and you can learn more and you can be more connected.”

Minyan’s work to connect secular Israelis with religious practice comes at a time of heightened tensions between the country’s secular and religious populations. “Segregation between religious and non-religious Jews is so big here, and the gap is just growing and growing,” Elbert said. “To find a neutral ground where people can connect on what everybody’s tradition is, I think that’s very unique.”

The gatherings have been inspired in part by Ela and Fishman’s own experiences with the American Jewish community. Fishman, who was born in Israel, grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. Ela served as a shaliach, or emissary, at UCLA for three years. 

While Ela described her upbringing as “not religious, but traditional,” she explained that she identified as an Israeli more than she did with Judaism, something she attributes to her parents’ immigrant roots. 

“I think that because my parents came from Kurdistan and from Iraq, the sense of us being Israelis was very important,” she explained. Being Israeli, Ela added, was her “primary identity.”

Fishman, whose parents are both Israeli, expressed a similar sentiment. “For my parents’ generation, the core of identity came from building the state, strengthening the state, sustaining the state,” he said. “Today, the state’s in a place where it can build and sustain and strengthen us as people.”

Ela’s three years at UCLA marked her first sustained encounter with the American Jewish community as an adult. “Suddenly,” Ela said, “I discovered Judaism in 100 different colors, and it’s not black or white, or it’s not even 50 shades. It’s like hundreds, and everybody can be who they are and connect with their Judaism in their own way.” In L.A., she said, “I found something that I was missing. And I started looking into my Jewish identity and started to shape it and started to understand in which aspects I find…I belong.”

The feelings took root during the pandemic, as Ela and Fishman sought to find community in an increasingly isolating landscape. As holidays came and went, they felt a longing for a hub to serve as a center for their Jewish experiences.

“We were like, ‘Where would we go?’” Ela explained. “We didn’t have anywhere to go, where we feel that we belong. So we’re like, ‘Maybe we should start something.’ And I think both of us are very millennial-wise, right? So if we don’t have something, let’s just create it. We don’t need to know how, but we’ll figure it out along the way. And by actually creating something for us, we realized that it’s not just us [who] are looking for this. It’s not just us that are looking for spiritual paths for reclaiming their Jewish identity, for actually connecting back to who we are, and creating something out of it, creating something new.” 

The group’s seed funding came from the New York-based Julius Stulman Foundation, which issued a rare open request for proposals ahead of founder Steven Stulman’s 90th birthday. Fishman, who noted that small groups often struggle to find seed funding to get off the ground without deep relationships in the philanthropic space, put together a submission asking for enough for five dinners. 

Months later, grantees were notified that they’d received some funding, but not the exact amount, which would be announced on a Zoom call with all the foundation’s grantees. “We’re sitting in my living room,” Fishman recalled. “We’re listening, and he’s handing out the grants one by one… And then right before he finishes, he says, ‘There’s two people, an educator and an urban designer. And they really have a dream to do Shabbat dinners in Tel Aviv. And for me, Shabbat was the first time that I discovered how important Jewish ritual tradition is to me, and so I believe in them enough that they asked for a certain amount, but I’m actually going to be doubling the amount.’” 

That money, Fishman said, sustained the group for the entirety of its first year. Now, the group seeks to find additional sources of funding as it works to expand its offerings and reach larger numbers of people.

Fishman connected with Aliza Kline, the president and CEO of OneTable, a nonprofit that helps individuals create Shabbat experiences, whom he had known since he lived in the U.S. OneTable and Minyan have since partnered on events, including one centered around the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in Tel Aviv earlier this year.

When Fishman came back to Israel as an adult, Kline observed, he could see those around him were looking for a spiritual connection. But he also understood that they didn’t know how to access it on their own.

Though the two organizations have similarities — OneTable provides support and resources for individuals to create Shabbat experiences in their own homes — they found differences in their audiences’ needs.

“In [OneTable’s] case, we use technology and connections and coaching and resources and nourishment support,” Kline, who now sits on Minyan’s advisory board, explained. “And [Fishman] was saying, ‘No, I think in Israel, I actually need an even more supported experience’ — where at least initially, he could model what it could be, so people could start to imagine that their needs could be met.” 

Ela and Fishman “scratched an itch, right?” Kline asked rhetorically. “It’s not just that people are like, ‘Oh, this is such a beautiful event. I want to go to another event.’ The question is if they have this beautiful event, what does it change in themselves that they realized that they could do that more? Do they have the capacity to actually start to do it themselves? That, I think, will be the interesting evolution of Minyan.”

Ela reflected on the organization’s Shavuot event, its first large-scale gathering. “I looked at all these people and I thought that this is how a synagogue should look like. Because people pray for their loved ones. People send different prayers for people who are sick, who they care about, who they want. [They’re going] through something that is very spiritual, as a group of people who just met… But we had something in common.” 

“And I stood there and I said, ‘This is how I want our place to look — people gathering and feeling that they are part of something bigger.’”