Early this past summer, Paltiel Behagaon, the gabai (beadle) of the Kedoshei Antopol Synagogue at 43 Oliphant Street in Tel Aviv, died suddenly. His death caused a major crisis in the congregation. For years, since its founding, he had served the synagogue and, in recent times, with the dwindling and ageing of its members, he took upon himself more and more roles: cantor, Torah reader and shofar blower. The treasurer, Alexander Kalit, assumed Behagaon's functions in the synagogue but, after a few weeks, he too died suddenly. A third, younger man, has been appointed as gabai, but the losses have seriously depleted the congregation. The synagogue's elegant sanctuary seats more than 300, but only 10-15 are occupied during services. Last Shabbat, the congregants gathered as usual: The elderly men were scattered throughout the giant sanctuary, sitting in their regular seats, the same places they had occupied when the sanctuary was full of worshipers.
Last Rosh Hashanah, three Filipino caregivers sat on a bench outside the "Horonchik," as the Ateret Mordechai congregation is called, on Bloch Street. Yawning from time to time, they were waiting for services to end. Next to them, at the entrance to the building where the synagogue is located, on the ground floor, you could see a large number of wheelchairs and walkers. Members of the Gur (Ger) Hasidic sect established this synagogue in a private apartment. They ran this small but vibrant Tel Avivian institution, which once was packed with dozens of worshipers, some of who were members of other Hasidic sects, and others Sephardi Jews. Up until the mid-1990s, you would have had difficulty finding an empty seat here on a Saturday morning.
The migration of Hasidim to Bnei Brak and the social and demographic changes that Tel Aviv is undergoing spell bad news for places like the Horonchik. Nonetheless, this past Rosh Hashanah, visitors also attended and thus 19 male worshipers and one female one were counted. Most of them were in their 80s. In the middle of the services, when one of the worshipers caught sight of a neighbor peeping at the congregants through the open apartment door, debating whether to enter, he ironically called out, "C'mon in already, there are enough empty seats."
Slowly but surely, synagogues in Tel Aviv, especially in its downtown district, are silently shutting down. While neighborhoods like Yad Eliahu, Shapira and Hatikva are experiencing what some call a budding "Jewish renaissance" in their synagogues, primarily Sephardi, the city center is dying and in a sad state of decline, religiously speaking: Some of its synagogues have shut down, their doors permanently locked, while others are scraping by with tiny congregations of elderly worshipers. In this category are dozens of synagogues including even Tel Aviv's Great Synagogue, a majestic structure on Allenby Street that today looks more like a giant, forsaken centipede. Visitors who join one of the services in these places can become the target of emotional entreaties, such as, "Could you please stay for the next service. We are short of people to make up a minyan [prayer quorum]."
You can count on the fingers of two hands the number of synagogues, ultra-Orthodox or Conservative or Reform, that are packed with congregants on a Sabbath morning. One of them is Minyan Bashamayim, which is very popular among young Modern Orthodox Israeli men and is located on the sixth floor of the Ichud Shivat Zion building on Ben Yehuda Street. (The main sanctuary on the first floor offers services that are sparsely attended.)
Mickey Kokolewitz, a 32-year-old art teacher, is a member of Minyan Bashamayim, but on Friday nights, he prays in one of the old synagogues closer to his home, in the Yehuda Halevi-Sheinkin district.
"Wherever I attend services, I become instantly popular. Everyone wants to recruit me for the congregation," says Kokolewitz. "I feel very awkward in these situations, because wherever I go, people try to harpoon me with the phrase, `We need you as the 10th for our minyan.'"
During the recent holiday season, he attended the services at the Antopol Synagogue: "The new beadle knows me. He came up to me after the service and pleaded with me, `Please, I beg of you, come to our Simhat Torah services. We have no one who can hold the Torah scrolls and dance with them.' This is such an unpleasant situation. I cannot understand why people are so stubborn about keeping places like that open," he adds.
The elderly worshipers regard their synagogue as a fortress - a place that they have dedicated their entire lives to, a place where their relatives are commemorated. In each of these synagogues, the congregants have used their life savings to perpetuate the memory of loved ones - in the form of Torah scrolls, libraries or chandeliers. However, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger thinks it preferable to keep open a few synagogues with large congregations than to have so many almost-empty ones barely surviving. He believes that the time is ripe for appointing a chief rabbi for the city (a "spiritual leader"), who would initiate the merger of tiny congregations operating in Tel Aviv's various neighborhoods.
Says Metzger: "We have to have heart-to-heart talks with a few beadles. For example, one synagogue could be sold under conditions compliant with Jewish law, and another synagogue could receive the money from the first synagogue's sale and use it to carry out renovations. True, people will find it very hard to say good-bye to the sentimental attachment they have for their synagogue, but surely that is preferable to, God forbid, a synagogue that is almost empty."
The candidate for the post of chief rabbi of Tel Aviv is someone who has already filled that position and has since served as Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi: Israel Meir Lau. He states that he agrees with the idea of merging tiny congregations, but in the same breath, he expresses optimism and explains why it would be wise to postpone such a move: "There is still the possibility that these synagogues may one day flourish anew. It is only a question of time. I almost said `a question of fashion.' The same picture keeps on repeating itself throughout the world. Many surprising situations have arisen. When I visited Manhattan's West Side 30 years ago, I found empty synagogues with only a handful of elderly worshipers. Today, that same district, those same streets and those same synagogues are full of them."
Lau expresses sorrow over those synagogues that have already been abandoned: "It is very sad that there are places where, as the saying goes, `Foxes have prowled there.' Who knows the fate of the Torah scrolls and holy books in such synagogues? Have they been consumed by the moth?"
A walking encyclopedia of Tel Aviv's synagogues, Lau can enumerate which synagogues have shut their doors forever; he especially regrets the conversion of one in the Florentine neighborhood into a carpentry workshop. He notes that Tel Aviv once had 700 synagogues, but says there are barely more than 500 today. In a book published a few years ago (in Hebrew) on synagogues in Tel Aviv, "Avo Veitekha," by Rabbi Mordechai Yitzhari, a deputy mayor representing Shas, 519 synagogues are documented. Tel Aviv may have more synagogues than coffee shops and bars, but how many of these synagogues are active? No precise answer can be found in the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the local Religious Council or the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality.
The situation of Tel Aviv's synagogues is, of course, a matter of supply and demand, both a result and a microcosm of a major process in which religious Jews, both Modern and ultra-Orthodox, have given up on Tel Aviv, which has also given up on them. Many synagogues were built during the Hasidic "boom" in Tel Aviv, immediately following Israel's creation in 1948, and during the period when religious Zionism was a visible force in this city. Over the past three decades, the city has become depleted of its Hasidic sects whose admorim (leaders), have left, one by one, in order to take up residence in Bnei Brak, including those affiliated with Gur, Modjitz, Lelov Sadigora, etc. Gur and Belz Hasidim, obeying their rabbis' instructions, still live in the Sheinkin-Ahad Haam area, but many of them find the cost of living there - the highest in all Israel - difficult to cope with and are very uncomfortable with their continual contact with its secular residents. Once the Sheinkin district had 15 synagogues affiliated with the Gur sect; today there are only four.
Religious Zionists have followed the example of their Hasidic counterparts and have chosen to move to neighborhoods where there are people who share a similar outlook. They have made their homes in such communities as Ra'anana, Petah Tikva and Givat Shmuel, and in the settlements.
The other side of the coin is a feeling of alienation toward the religious, especially the Orthodox, option. On the one hand, we are witnessing the almost total disappearance of an entire sector that defined itself as "traditional," and whose members would attend Orthodox synagogues on the Sabbath and on Jewish festivals. On the other hand, there is now a flourishing of Conservative and Reform congregations in downtown and northern Tel Aviv. These congregations do not usually have a building of their own and operate primarily out of private apartments or other temporary facilities. For instance, one Conservative congregation rents a classroom in the Gymnasia Herzliya secondary school.
In contrast with Tel Aviv's downtown and southern neighborhoods, no one hears complaints among the residents of the city's new northern neighborhoods. Indeed, there are no synagogues in upscale Neot Afeka Bet or in Ramat Aviv Gimel, and few worshipers can be found in the synagogues that still exist.
"The synagogues are empty. There are few worshipers and there are very few children," laments a Ramat Aviv resident, Amir Halevy, a former municipal councillor (Likud). "There has been no follow-up generation among the Modern Orthodox and Tel Aviv's religious community has vanished."
According to Halevy, this fact is driven home by the shutting down of religious nursery schools and by what is happening "on the street": The very small number of Jews wearing skullcaps and the tiny number of coffee shops and restaurants with certificates of kashrut (proper Jewish dietary) supervision. "A city like Tel Aviv," he continues, cannot afford a situation in which there is no future for religious Jews. "A vacuum has been created and it is now being filled by ultra-Orthodox Jews. The Lubavitcher (Chabad) Hasidic movement has opened a branch in Ramat Aviv and has sent emissaries over here who are doing incredible work, offering classes and organizing prayer services."
A similar picture exists in downtown Tel Aviv. A Chabad House has been set up in Geulat Israel, the community synagogue overlooking the Sheinkin Garden, whose congregation has sadly dwindled. The abandoned synagogue on the corner of Safed and Bograshov has been handed over to the Rosh Yehudi organization, which tries to bring secular Jews back to their Jewish roots. Eyal Meirowitz, director of Stam Tisch, a coffee shop on Bograshov Street with a distinctively Jewish ambience that works in collaboration with Rosh Yehudi, says that other deserted synagogues "should be converted into Jewish community centers, offering social and intellectual activities and preparing secular Jewish youngsters for their bar mitzvahs." He hopes that the rabbis will help out on this project, "although the problem is that the religious Jewish community is aloof and isolationist and does not really care what happens to the general public in Tel Aviv."
Such criticism is also aimed at Lau's past tenure as Tel Aviv's chief rabbi. He does not rule out the idea of such initiatives nor is he opposed to philanthropic ventures, such as the establishment of a hostel for the homeless in an abandoned synagogue in the area of Tel Aviv's old central bus station. However, he cautions, such decisions should be placed not in the hands of the municipality, but rather in those of the community.
"A synagogue is not like the Habimah Theater, it is not like the Cameri Theater," explains Lau. "It is not a place that was built with the funds of this or that establishment. And we should therefore treat synagogues accordingly. Not one synagogue in Tel Aviv has been constructed by either the Israeli government or the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality. The synagogues were built by private individuals with generous hearts. During the more than 100 years of Tel Aviv's existence, all its synagogues have been built by the worshipers themselves.
"Along come people who want to change the structure's function, but did they build the synagogue? Have they made any investment in the synagogue? The question here concerns the land. That is the only question. But who is sovereign to decide what should be done with a structure that we ourselves have not built? Should not the original donors and their descendants perhaps have a say in the matter?"
`A laborers' synagogue'
While many city synagogues have closed or are almost empty, there have been a few grass-roots initiatives in which the abandoned buildings have been restored to fulfill their original role. Recently, a large synagogue, Heichal Krasnik, was inaugurated in Tel Aviv's new medical center premises. The synagogue commemorates not only the thousands of Jewish residents of that Polish city who perished in the Holocaust, but also the synagogue established in their memory many years ago in another part of Tel Aviv. The new synagogue's construction was funded by descendants of the founders of the Heichal Krasnik Synagogue on Jonah the Prophet Street, which became inactive several years ago and was recently sold. The religious artifacts were transferred from the old location to the new building.
The Zichron Baruch Synagogue is an example of true community spirit. This was the only congregation in Jaffa's Noga district and was shut down 13 years ago. Up until the 1970s, there was an ultra-Orthodox community in the area, consisting of the former residents of the city of Komarno in Ukraine. They built and operated the synagogue and its attached Talmud Torah (elementary school). However, their children have moved out of Jaffa, the elderly worshipers have passed away and the place slowly died. When the last beadle died, the synagogue was shut down and it remained deserted for eight years - until local residents organized in order to reopen it. They renovated it themselves and, for the past five years, the synagogue has been active on weekdays. It is closed on the Sabbath because most of its worshipers, who work in the neighborhood's artisan workshops, are not local residents.
"This is clearly a laborers' synagogue" - that is how journalist Adam Baruch, a resident of the neighborhood who was involved in the synagogue's rebirth, proudly defines the place.
Says Baruch: "Every day there are large groups of worshipers here. The atmosphere is so peaceful. The synagogue has no rabbi and no officials. There is no hierarchy. The place suits the old definition of a community synagogue. It is unaffiliated with any political party or ethnic group or sector. It is not isolationist. The synagogue is an integral part of the neighborhood. It does not threaten any of the residents who do not worship there, nor does it generate any anxieties."
If the synagogue primarily serves people who do not live in the community, why did local residents establish it? Answers Baruch: "A place cannot be called a place unless it has a synagogue."