Remembering Tel Aviv’s Religious Past, and Its Possible Religious Future

October 23, 2020 | Yitzḥak Bar Ze’ev
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The popular Israeli imagination contrasts “secular” Tel Aviv with “religious” Jerusalem. But it was not as ever thus, as Yitzḥak Bar Ze’ev, the rabbi of the former city’s Great Synagogue, writes:

Between the 1950s and the 1970s, Tel Aviv had around 700 active synagogues, many located on the most important streets in the city, like the Allenby, Rothschild, and Dizengoff synagogues. . . . In the early days of the city, dozens of famous rabbis, yeshiva heads, and religious judges were active in Tel Aviv. Five of Israel’s chief rabbis were first chief rabbis of the city. . . . During those years, dozens of religious educational institutions for girls and boys were founded, [along with] a few famous yeshivas, some still active today. [In addition], more than twenty rebbes (spiritual leaders of the ḥasidic movement) have lived in Tel Aviv at some point. During the 1950s, there were as many if not more rebbes in Tel Aviv than Jerusalem.

The religious neighborhoods of Tel Aviv are older than the city itself. Whoever wanders the streets of Neveh Tzedek, Shabazi, or the Yemenite Quarter today sees dozens of old synagogues, most of them more than 100 years old. These neighborhoods were built as suburbs of Jaffa more than twenty years before Tel Aviv was established, and were later attached to the new city.

And although the city has indeed secularized greatly since then, that process is far from total, although much religious life is concentrated in the southern part of the city, which is less affluent and more diverse than the north. Moreover, Bar Ze’ev sees signs of a religious revival, spurred by, among other things, an influx of French Jews:

A new “traditional” lifestyle has developed in Tel Aviv: young men and women from all across the country, who grew up in religious families and moved to the city to live alongside Diaspora immigrants who sought to preserve communal life, particularly on Shabbat and holidays. Some members do not strictly observe the Shabbat; after shul, some may go to the beach. But they still want to belong to a religious community. These are the people who are renewing the synagogues of Tel Aviv.

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