Ultra-Orthodox Tel Avivians Abandoning Secular Ship

The city of AM:PMs no longer resembles the town that used to close shop on Shabbat.

The inhabitants of downtown Tel Aviv who have been strolling in the Rothschild Boulevard area of late cannot help but notice the abundance of "Apartment for Rent" signs on the balconies of buildings there. Alongside the phone number to call, and the notation "No Agents," there is the caution "Not on the Sabbath," usually hand-written. Tel Aviv, which next year will celebrate its 100th anniversary, is losing its observant religious, a population concentrated in the downtown Lev Ha'ir area.

At the height of its flourishing, in the 1960s, there were 20 Hasidic groups living here. The abandonment began some years ago, when the admors (spiritual leaders) passed away or left the city to live in large ultra-Orthodox centers like Jerusalem or Bnei Brak., and their disciples followed them. Of the many Hasidic courts only a very few remain, and many synagogues and educational institutions have shut down for lack of demand.

According to Yossi Altschuler of the Nihul Nehasim real estate company, which has been active in the Lev Ha'ir area for about 20 years, this process has accelerated.

"Not in huge waves," he says, "but we are definitely witnessing a phenomenon of quite a number of religious families, mostly the elderly, who are leaving the city. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designation of Lev Ha'ir area as a World Heritage site has made it fashionable and has contributed to the wave of price increases. In Tel Aviv there is no chance of a positive influx of ultra-Orthodox population, since they cannot afford the high prices. They prefer to buy in places like Bnei Brak or in other places that are attractive to their public."

A couple that has lived in the city for 40 years and raised five children there are among those who have recently decided to sell their home and leave Tel Aviv.

"It wasn't an easy decision to get up and move all of a sudden, leaving so many memories behind," says the mother of the family, as she showed the apartment to clients who had come to view the property.

Sad-faced, she says: "This is where we started our life and here is where we raised our children. To start all over again at the age of 60 is hard, but the prices in this area are high, which makes it impossible to buy apartments here for the children but at the same time we can get a high price for this apartment here and move to a more religious area, near the children."

"The religious population in Lev Ha'ir does indeed have a big problem," confirms Rabbi Shimon Menachem Frenkel, son of the late Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, Rabbi Yitzchak Yedidya Frenkel.

Frenkel, who serves as the rabbi of three synagogues in the city, mourns that religious Tel Aviv has lost its greatness. "Most of the synagogues are emptying and the young people are leaving and not coming back, and, to my regret, I have been seeing that recently the elderly parents have been leaving in their wake. Just this week I heard about a number of Gur Hasidic families that are leaving the community. This large community, which has existed in Tel Aviv since it was founded, is crumbling. My five sons don't live here any more either. My late father saw the start of the crumbling. When the Admor of Strikov left 22 years ago, he castigated him: 'Do you want to transform the city of Tel Aviv into a remote city?'"

Frenkel declares that he himself is remaining in the city and continuing his war to preserve the remnants of the religious character in Tel Aviv, but he is not optimistic.

"A miracle has to happen. Maybe if the prices drop, the people will come back. But I am very much afraid that in a few more years the religious community will simply disappear."

The apartment prices are not the only reason for the new wave of departures. S., who lived on Oliphant Street in Tel Aviv for 40 years and left a few years ago, says the famous coexistence between religious and secular in the city has come to an end.

S: "Times have changed. The secular have become even more secular and the religious have become more ultra-Orthodox. There used to be mutual respect. It used to be that the Kedoshei Antopol Synagogue on Oliphant Street was full on Friday nights and holidays, and nowadays it is sometimes hard to find a minyan.

"The secular people today don't have a feeling for religion. The secular people I knew in my childhood were for the most part from Europe and had a connection to religion. The secular people of today are absolutely secular. It used to be that you could feel the Sabbath in Tel Aviv. The shops were closed on Saturday, even if they were under secular ownership.

"Today, the old shops have been replaced by the AM:PM and Tiv Ta'am chains that are open on the Sabbath. The population has changed. Even my own children don't want to come to grandma and grandpa for the Sabbath. They say to me: 'We don't understand how you grew up here? Why are you bringing us to a place where there is no Sabbath?' The ultra-Orthodox prefer to move to Beitar Ilit and Bnei Brak. They prefer nature reserves of Jews to nature reserves of Bauhaus buildings."

"Look," adds S. with a laugh, and points to a notice on a tree. "This notice exemplifies the big picture in the best way: 'Lost: a white cat with a red collar. Anyone who knows anything about where she is requested to contact...' You understand? In my childhood on nearly every notice board or tree in the area there were pashkevils (admonitory posters) and notices about hashevat aveda (the pious return of a lost object) - a lunch bag or a book bag that was forgotten, a little tallis that was found. From hashevat aveda to a lost cat. This is the story of the neighborhood."

Approaching the building where Rebbetzin R. lives, it is easy to tell which is her apartment by the faded plastic louvers, which are very different from the well-tended facade with the pretty Belgian windows of her new neighbors on the upper stories of the building. R., who is about 70, is the wife of one of the heads of the community in the area. She grew up in a prestigious family of a dynasty of admors from Austro-Hungary, which immigrated to the land of Israel before the establishment of the state.

"Imagine," she says, "when I was a girl, we were three families sharing one apartment. An ultra-Orthodox family, a traditional family and a secular family all lived together under one roof. It couldn't be said there were no problems - there were, because that's how it is when you live crowded together and meagerly. But there were never disagreements on matters of religion and tradition, there was mutual respect. Nowadays it isn't like that. I miss my secular neighbor who used to live in the adjacent apartment. When we would sing Sabbath songs, she and her family would turn the radio off to listen to the Sabbath songs that they remembered from their parents shtetl in Poland."

"It isn't pleasant to say so," she adds, lowering her voice as though sharing a secret, "but money is also an element in the departure of the religious. The prices have gone up a lot. The big departure was around the 1970s. The parents, who couldn't manage to buy apartments for their children, had to buy apartments for them in other, cheaper cities like Jerusalem and Bnei Brak. The Hasidic communities are dwindling. The Vizhnitz community has left, and so has the Belz Hasidut. There used to be heders for teaching Torah to children from each Hasidut and now there is only one heder on Ahad Ha'am Street, which serves anyone who remains.

"Look, in my building there used to be six religious families and today only we remain. In the building next door only three families remain. Only in the building across the street," she says, pointing proudly, "there are four (religious) families and just two secular families. They will never leave. They are Gur Hassidim! 'The patriots,' we call them. The ones who will never leave in any circumstances. They have had orders from the admor.

"The neighbor upstairs told me one day that this building is now worth a lot of money, because they declared the area as...." She scratches the scarf wrapped around her head, trying to recall. "What did she call it? Oh, I remember. A Bohemian area. A Bohemian building for preservation. That's what she called it."