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The Tel Aviv Synagogue That Never Grows Old

The unlikely story and struggles of 126 Ben Yehuda, a synagogue founded by Zionist pioneers and revived by young Jewish immigrants, in the heart of Israel’s most secular city

Ariane Mandell
August 09, 2016
Am Yisrael Foundation
Interior of 126 Ben Yehuda Synagogue in Tel Aviv Am Yisrael Foundation
Am Yisrael Foundation
Interior of 126 Ben Yehuda Synagogue in Tel Aviv Am Yisrael Foundation

If you stroll by North Central Synagogue in Tel Aviv, now hiply redubbed “126 Ben Yehuda,” on any given Saturday, you’ll find over 300 young people with heaping plates of food, sharing stories, singing traditional Sephardi and Ashkenazi songs, and listening to Rabbi Shlomo Chayen’s D’var Torah.

Today, 126 Ben Yehuda is arguably the most vibrant, active synagogue in Tel Aviv. No small feat in the heart of Israel’s cultural and financial but very secular metropolis.

But 10 years ago, the shul was on its last legs.

When Jay Shultz arrived in Tel Aviv in 2006, he found the dozen or so synagogues in his Old North neighborhood in crumbling disrepair, clinging to a handful of elderly congregants or shut down completely. “Locked,” he recalls now. “Literally, with a big rusty lock on the door.”

According to Shultz, Tel Aviv was the site of the most synagogue closures in the 20th century. The huge influx of immigrants to Israel in its nascent days brought with it hundreds of new Jewish subcommunities, with over 600 new synagogues built, each with its own rabbi and specific liturgy tailored to its unique geographic and cultural origins.

But a generation later, the people who created these communities and cared the most passed away. Many of their children married and blended into other Jewish communities, and the specificity of these shuls died out. The more religious families in Tel Aviv moved out to more spacious homes in nearby communities like Bnei Brak or Givat Shmuel. By the 1990s, most of the city’s synagogues became irrelevant, abandoned, and decrepit.

(Am Yisrael Foundation)
(Am Yisrael Foundation)

Of them all, Shultz was drawn to 126 when he launched his nonprofit, White City Shabbat, to host large young community Shabbat meals. A two-story Bauhaus structure tucked down an alleyway just blocks from the sea and David Ben-Gurion’s former home, it embodies Tel Aviv nostalgia. “I walked in and… what can I say? I felt the shechina [divine presence],” he recalls. “It’s physically so beautiful, the only traditional Bauhaus synagogue in the White City. And it screamed ‘Jewish.’ I mean… that Magen David in the ceiling! The glowing raw light bulbs like in Grand Central Station! The windows! The dimensions! The Zionist legacy!”

Built in 1934 by Zionist workers in the sand dunes that were North Tel Aviv, most of the synagogue’s original congregants were olim, immigrants. Many of them died fighting in Israel’s war of independence in 1948, including several in the Haganah’s “Lamed Hey Convoy” sent to rescue Gush Etzion.

But nostalgia was just about all the shul had by 2006. With only a few remaining elderly congregants, many of whom were Holocaust survivors, putting even a basic service together was a tall task. As fellow 126 Ben Yehuda revivalist Moise Javedanfar previously told Tablet, “When one of the congregants had to use the bathroom, we would all have to take a break because we had only 10 members, the minimum for a prayer quorum.”

Shabbat is a special time for Israelis, religious or otherwise. Friday night, Israelis head home for dinner and family time, which makes Friday the loneliest day of the week for new olim. Many young olim have no family or ties in Israel at all, and reach out to a shul to find that warmth and community, that sense of home, on Erev Shabbat. For years, there was no such community to find.

Rabbi Shlomo Chayen (Gilad Carni)
Rabbi Shlomo Chayen (Gilad Carni)

That’s when Shultz, Javendanfar, and Avishay Naamat recruited Rabbi Shlomo Chayen, then teaching Torah classes to a variety of young business leaders in the Startup Nation, to come rebuild the core of 126. “Shlomo is the only rabbi I know of in Tel Aviv that was chosen by the community,” says Shultz. “Typically, rabbis build up communities around themselves, but we chose him, and that says so much about what an incredible Jewish leader he is. We’re young, we’re getting married, we need dating advice, we have a lot of personal life issues we need help with, especially when we as immigrants to Israel don’t have a support network of close friends and family. He is a real organic and vital part of the community, also an ideal choice for our hybrid demographic having been born in NYC and raised in Israel.”

The first thing Chayen offered was a maxim. “You’ve heard of ‘if you build it, they will come?’” Chayen laughed. “Well, I say, ‘if you cook it, they will come.’” Chayen and his young crew made home-made cholent for Shabbat and advertised it. The first week, 30 people came. The next, 50. Now, years later, more than 400 young people are known to come for Torah, treats, and l’chaims on Shabbat.

With this success, the synagogue has expanded its offerings, hosting weekly Tanakh classes, Jewish philosophy seminars, Talmud groups, and more. The community is 50% olim and 50% natives, and although the shul formally identifies as modern Zionist orthodox, it is a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere that holds services in multiple languages and welcomes Jews of all backgrounds.

There is, however, a highly unusual problem at 126 Ben Yehuda. There are only young people.

“It’s the opposite of most shuls around the world,” Chayen said. “Everywhere else, they’re struggling to attract young people, shuls are aging and their children are moving away. Here, we have hundreds of young adults who are active members… but when they get married, when they have children, they move out of the big city into other neighborhoods, like Raanana.”

Tel Aviv, for all its charms, can be a lonely place. “The real appeal of Raanana is they have an amazing community,” Chayen explained. “Not just religious community, but in every sense. You can really feel like you’re part of something greater there and that is exactly what we are working so hard to build in Tel Aviv. In Tel Aviv, there’s also something special…. You can be exactly who you want to be, wearing flip-flops and a kippa on the beach, drinking your coffee, and going about your week not paying any mind to anyone else. But there’s a loneliness aspect to it, too. Maybe you try to fight it off on Shabbat, and once a week come together as a community, but you reach an age where that isn’t enough anymore. You want to be part of a warm community that will cook you meals when you need it, will congregate around you, where the rabbi will notice if you’re not in your seat two weeks in a row.”

Chayen recalled how, when he and his wife had their first child, they didn’t cook a single meal for themselves for a month. Everything was taken care of for them by their community. And it’s the couples who’ve been there before, who are settled themselves, who tend to step up and show that kind of care. Much has been written about the problems of missing the younger generation in a shul, but what about missing the older one?

Who can matchmake the younger generation without the community mothers and grandmothers carrying around pictures of all their progeny? Who will form the fundraising committees and the welcome wagons, and who will dole out the sage, sometimes unwelcome, yet always needed advice? And if 126 Ben Yehuda is a haven for the lost boys (and girls) of Tel Aviv, then who is going to read them stories and sew them pockets?

“At the end of the day it’s not money or a larger apartment that makes a couple leave a shul, or an oleh leave Israel,” said Chayen. “They need to feel they have a community. They need to feel they have a home.”

(Am Yisrael Foundation)
(Am Yisrael Foundation)

And so 126’s youth are stepping up to build one. With no fundraising community, there is not much money to go around, but a community member who was an architect teamed up with another who was a contractor to remodel the bathroom. The community crowdfunded a new Sefer Torah in honor of the soldiers lost in the 2014 Gaza war. Chayen himself works full-time for the shul, almost completely as a volunteer. He holds events especially to attract and maintain the community’s couples, has recently partnered with Hineni to help Tel Aviv’s young singles find love through his, and is fast becoming one of the most popular rabbis in Tel Aviv for officiating at weddings.

“On the other hand,” Chayen sighs, “The more couples we have, the more we stop being the ‘forever young shul.’ Young people don’t want to hang out with married couples, right?”

Maybe right, according to Shultz. “I’m aging out of my own organization,” he chuckled, speaking of the many international young adult community organizations he founded in Tel Aviv under his Am Yisrael Foundation—the leadership committee of 126 Ben Yehuda among them. “I’m 39 now, I’m married. I’m strict about the community I created being for 20s and 30s. When I was 25, I didn’t want to hang out with a 40-year-old. I’m proud of aging out. I get a lot of nachas from watching new young people take the reins. And they don’t have to start from scratch like I did, they can inherit.”

The inheritance that is the North Central Synagogue – 126 Ben Yehuda – is today a great one. Founded by newcomers, and revived by newcomers, it is up to the grassroots community now to create and recreate it as one in which they can grow up – and hopefully grow old.

Ariane Mandell is a writer and novelist living in Tel Aviv. Follow her on Twitter at @ArianeMandell.

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