What Tel Aviv Teaches us About Jewish Identity-Building in the 21st Century

by David Chivo

How do we explain the increasing centrality of Tel Aviv as an example of Jewish living that resonates for so many people? What is it about this modern, secular, business – as well as nightlife – oriented city that is capturing hearts and mindshare from Jews around the world?

From the perspective of Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People, housed in the heart of Tel Aviv on the city’s University campus, these trends are not that surprising and the reasons for them are even somewhat straightforward.

While most places that tourists visit in Israel are designed to answer, “why be Jewish?” the magic of Tel Aviv is that it provides an authentic response to the question, “what is great and exciting about being Jewish in the 21st century?” Indeed, Tel Aviv is in many ways a metaphor for the kind of new narrative that many Jewish institutions are seeking to better engage modern Jewry.

Jewish communal investments in education, camping and Israel experiences (as presently designed) have been critical to giving a grounded response to “why be Jewish?” but today we need much more than that … we need fresh perspectives on how connecting with our Jewish identities can move and inspire us. We also need to validate how a sense of Jewish belonging enriches the unique life-path that each Jewish person chooses for oneself.

Since 2008, Beit Hatfutsot has taken upon itself a new goal: aspiring to be a global center of Jewish identity-building that uses culture, experiences and personalized encounters as its toolkit. Moreover, Beit Hatfutsot believes Jewish peoplehood is best advanced through highlighting the achievements and triumphs of Jewish communities throughout the ages. The blossoming of Tel Aviv is perhaps the brightest contemporary example of Jewish accomplishment we have.

There is much that the entire Jewish world can learn from Tel Aviv; the following five observations capture traits of the city that may have applicability to transform other Jewish communities.

  • A captivating vision of 21st century Jewish culture: There is a pulse in Tel Aviv that has few equals in any other Jewish times or places. Imagine if we could import the spontaneity and energy of Tel Aviv in large-scale, high-quality ways across the Jewish world. Together with the right set of Connectors, Mavens and Salespeople (as Malcolm Gladwell defines them in The Tipping Point), large segments of world Jewry could potentially come together and create enticing new Jewish experiences and cultural norms in their own communities.
  • Inspirational achievements that spur authentic Jewish pride: Tel Aviv inspires Jewish pride via the achievements realized during its short history and via its unstoppable ongoing progress. While Jewish communities around the globe may not be able to replicate the evolution of an Israeli metropolis, its institutions can catalyze the advancement of new Jewish ideas, culture and creativity. Fresh kinds of Jewish experiences that are attuned to modern Jewry helps build Jewish pride, and that sense of pride often inspires stronger connections to the Jewish people.
  • A city that is serious and fun at the same time: Tel Aviv is about hard work and serious playtime, and both have gathered positive worldwide attention. Israel’s $250 billion economy flows through Tel Aviv as does much of the country’s reputation for a vibrant culture, nightlife, cuisine and fashion. Imagine if our schools, community centers, houses of worship and other institutions could seamlessly connect this amalgam of Avodah and Simcha in its activities? The experiences would have the potential to attract newcomers enticed by the rewards of both intellectual rigor and social benefits of Jewish engagement,
  • Every Jew connects to the community on their own terms: On the way to Ben Gurion Airport, the taxi driver stated, “You know, I am not religious in any way. I am simply a citizen of Tel Aviv and that is enough for me … I’m happy!” His response was as much a validation of his Tel Aviv identity as it expressed his Jewish identity. Perhaps we can learn from this example that we need to more strongly validate the place of the “Just Jewish” constituency as a legitimate part of the Jewish community. In this manner, like the taxi driver, hundreds of thousands of Jews would know that they can find meaning from a connection to Jewish life that goes no further than they want it to.
  • Many definitions of “doing” Jewish: Tel Aviv aptly encompasses a description of Jewish connectedness coined by Richard Joel two decades ago: “people doing Jewish with other Jewish people.” We worry greatly about declining rates of affiliation, often defined by formal belonging to groups and institutions or by religious observances. While important, these may not be the only entry points. The sense of community in Tel Aviv is found in how people naturally congregate around activities they love. Community and identity-building efforts in the Jewish world would benefit from capturing that sense of connectedness through increased numbers of programs that are not necessarily overtly Jewish, but are excellent at bringing Jews together.

This April 11th will mark the 105th anniversary of the founding of Israel’s first modern city. Beit Hatfutsot is proud to have been a part of its history over the past 36 years. Its shared hope is that during the coming century the accomplishments of this remarkable center of Jewish of Jewish life will influence similar achievements and triumphs throughout the Jewish world.

David Chivo is the North America Director of Beit Hatfutsot’s Renewal Campaign, a project launched with the Government of Israel and the NADAV Foundation to advance the Museum’s renewed vision and mission.