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In Tel Aviv, Israel’s ‘Sin City,’ an Unexpected Religious Revival Takes Root

Synagogues are full and kosher restaurants abound as liberal immigrants, Orthodox singles, and secular Jews come together

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Tisha B’Av in Tel Aviv. Hundreds gather at Frishman Beach for the reading of Eicha. (The Tel Aviv International Synagogue)
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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 kosher Cava 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.

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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 England, approaching me in the supermarket and inviting me to a minyan in someone’s home,” he said. “The olim developed a community in the style they knew. That was new for Israel.” Subsequently, one such prayer group moved to one floor of the Ichud Tzion synagogue on Ben Yehuda and grew steadily. Eventually, the young minyan became known as Ichud Olam, and its 20 members in 2000 grew to hundreds of members by 2008.

The city’s religious involvement continued on an upward trajectory. After the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, active strides were made by some Orthodox organizations to find common ground with secular communities, and they directed efforts at a revival of Tel Aviv’s religious community. By around 2009, numbers had grown enough to warrant new synagogues and learning centers. Today there is a steady influx of observant singles and young couples, both immigrants and native Israelis. While as recently as five years ago many synagogues struggled to find a minyan of elderly residents, today, these same institutions regularly attract hundreds of people of all ages. And in addition to the more traditional options, there are smaller but growing egalitarian/Conservative synagogues, Reform congregations, and services that cater to an LGBT crowd. A Facebook page called Kosher Tel Aviv now offers copious restaurant options in a city once known for the scarcity of kosher dining establishments.

Employment opportunities in the area’s burgeoning high-tech sector have brought many more Shabbat-observant singles to the area in recent years. Hebrew University sociologist Ari Engelberg classified Tel Aviv as the third-largest community of religious singles in Israel, after Jerusalem and Givat Shmuel, in his 2011 dissertation “Religious Zionism and the Problem of Prolonged Singlehood.” Several articles have appeared in the Israeli press in the last few years describing this influx to Tel Aviv and it impact on the city’s culture.

Engelberg believes religious singles are moving to Tel Aviv to enjoy the more liberal lifestyle that a modern urban environment provides and that this trend reflects larger changes in Israeli society. More Israelis of all kinds, including the religious, are delaying marriage and family, he says. Many religious singles in their late 20s, 30s, and 40s are identifying as “Dati-lite,” a term comparable to Modern Orthodox in the United States and a category fairly new in Israel. Dati-lite individuals may dress and socialize like their secular counterparts but are generally Shabbat- and kashrut-observant. “Tel Aviv is the next logical step for Israel’s Dati-lite singles,” said Engelberg. “In Israeli mythos, Tel Aviv represents freedom, a place where anything can happen. It’s like Los Angeles and New York combined.”

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In Tel Aviv, Israel’s ‘Sin City,’ an Unexpected Religious Revival Takes Root

Synagogues are full and kosher restaurants abound as liberal immigrants, Orthodox singles, and secular Jews come together