Synagogues are full and kosher restaurants abound as liberal immigrants, Orthodox singles, and secular Jews come together
By Toby Perl Freilich
On a typical Friday evening on Tel Aviv’s Ben Yehuda Street, this city known for its vibrant nightlife is in weekend mode. Beachgoers walk home as the sun goes down, sandy and tanned, clutching towels and flip-flops. Elegant couples head out for drinks and dinner. Singles gather at pubs and start to make their late-night plans for the biggest club night of the week.
But nearby, at the same time, a very different scene kicks into gear—one that most people don’t associate with Tel Aviv. Synagogues in the center of the city fill up with young professionals. On Frishman Street, just minutes from the beach, a red carpet fit for a Hollywood awards show marks the entrance to The Tel Aviv International Synagogue. Inside the sanctuary, about a hundred well-heeled men and women sing and clap in a scene reminiscent of synagogues on New York City’s Upper West Side. After services, the young rabbi welcomes everyone in a mix of Hebrew and English and invites them for refreshments in the courtyard, where single men and women flirt over glasses of kosherCava and assorted pastries. Afterward, some head to friends’ homes for a traditional Friday night meal, while others hit their favorite restaurants or bars.
Welcome to the new Tel Aviv, where religious devotion mixes easily with the city’s predominantly secular ethos. Although Israel has become well-known for its religious-secular divide, with few active streams of liberal Judaism, Tel Aviv—long the defiantly secular counterpart to religious Jerusalem—is a study in how this culture may be changing. Attendance at synagogues and religious events in Tel Aviv has been growing for the past few years, and kosher restaurants are on the rise.
Part of this reflects an influx of immigrants, mostly Orthodox and Conservative/traditional, who have instilled a distinctly Diaspora-style, synagogue-based model of community to the scene. Part is also due to more Shabbat-observant Israeli singles moving to Tel Aviv from other cities, in search of a more liberal lifestyle. But part, too, is due to some increased interest in religious activities among Israel’s secular Jews.
Today, the city boasts dozens of active synagogues, social, civic, and religious organizations. Those who get involved in the city’s religious life are primarily single young professionals—a mix of immigrants and native Israelis, traditional Jews of all streams, and some who define themselves as secular.
The trend began about 15 or more years ago with a small group of Orthodox and traditional young immigrants from the United States and Europe, who helped revive some of the city’s largely empty synagogues. Gadi Blumrosen, a biomedical engineering researcher at Tel Aviv University, grew up in Jerusalem and moved to Tel Aviv after graduating from Technion 15 years ago. He remembers when several small groups of young professionals began gathering for Shabbat services, often organized by those immigrants. “I remember in 1998, a woman, an olah[immigrant] from …read more