A Bus to the Beach in Israel on Shabbos? You Betcha

Public transportation is still officially banned in Israel on the Sabbath, but new citizen-run cooperatives are finding ways to circumvent the law

Jerusalem city council member Laura Wharton (second from right) at launch of new Shabus bus line from Rosh Ha’ayin to Tel Aviv, on June 2, 2017.
Maya Green

For budget travellers in Israel, getting around on the weekend often presents a daunting challenge. Public transportation in most cities ends about an hour before Shabbat begins, at sundown Friday, and resumes only about an hour after it ends on Saturday night.

Tourists who do not have rented cars at their disposal are forced to choose between forking out large sums on taxis or skipping sights on their itinerary that are not within walking distance.

Thanks to various grass-roots initiatives sprouting up around the county, however, these deliberations may soon be a thing of the past. What began as a little experiment in Jerusalem two years ago – the creation of a citizen-run bus cooperative offering affordable rides to the popular downtown area on Friday nights – has since mushroomed to include other parts of the country.

Some of the new lines operated by these bus cooperatives are geared toward the restaurant- and pub-going crowd, running only on Friday nights. Others have targeted passengers interested in soaking up sun on the beach and operate exclusively on Saturdays – the big beach-going day in Israel. (Sunday is a regular workday in the country.)

In the past week alone, two new lines have begun to operate on Friday nights: one connecting the suburb of Tsur Hadassah to downtown Jerusalem, and another running between the central Israeli city of Rosh Ha’ayin to Tel Aviv. In addition, two lines that operate only during the summer and provide rides to the beach on Shabbat – both of them inaugurated last year – were re-launched this month.

“Our strategy was not to take on the religious establishment by going out and demonstrating,” says Laura Wharton, an American-born social activist and a driving force behind “Shabus” – the Jerusalem-based cooperative launched in May 2015. “The idea was to figure out a constructive way to help people who don’t observe Shabbat, but because they don’t have a car or don’t have a license or are disabled and can’t drive, are locked up at home for the entire weekend.”

Shabus served as the model for Noa Tanua (a name inspired by Galileo’s famous adage “And yet it moves”), which began service for the first time in Tel Aviv in June 2015.

The laws regarding public transportation in Israel derive from the so-called religious status quo – in other words, whatever was the rule in 1948, when the State of Israel was founded, remains in force. Because transportation did not operate on Shabbat in major towns and cities in the pre-state days – with the key exception of Haifa – that meant it would not operate in the post-state days either.

So how do these new initiatives get around the law? Simply put, by distancing themselves from the term “public transportation.”

Roy Schwartz-Tichon of Noa Tanua at the launching last month of a second bus line in Tel Aviv.
Avihai Levy

“Because people have to register with us to use our service, that makes us a private enterprise, and therefore there’s nothing illegal about what we’re doing,” explains Wharton, a representative of the left-wing Meretz party on the Jerusalem city council.

“To our surprising pleasure, there’s been almost no opposition to what we’re doing from the ultra-Orthodox,” she adds, noting that the Shabus lines avoid ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and make a point of hiring Muslim drivers.

Shabus was launched following a successful crowd-funding campaign that raised 100,000 shekels (around $25,000). The money was used to lease private buses. Each member of the cooperative pays a nominal fee of 20 shekels (about $5) to register for the year and a separate fee for each ride (which varies according to the distance traveled). The cooperative currently has 1,500 members, most of them Jerusalemites.

Its inaugural line, which runs every two hours on Friday nights, stretches from Ma’aleh Adumim, the West Bank settlement and northern suburb of Jerusalem, to the city's Kiryat Hayovel quarter in the south. It also runs a bus from Jerusalem to the Tel Aviv beach on Saturdays in the summer.

At present, Shabus is in the midst of another crowd-funding campaign – this time aimed at launching a new bus line that will carry passengers from the suburb of Holon into Tel Aviv on Friday nights.

Southern comforts

Roy Schwartz-Tichon is the 24-year-old brain behind Noa Tanua, which was initially self-financed. “I used my stipend from the army and dipped into my savings to start our first line,” he explains.

That inaugural line carries passengers from Tel Aviv and its outskirts to the city’s beaches and cultural hubs, following the exact route of a popular public transportation line. Noa Tanua recently launched a second line in Tel Aviv, thanks to a crowd-funding campaign that brought in almost twice its goal of 180,000 shekels (about $45,000); the cooperative is also set to start running two more lines in the Tel Aviv area.

Outside the central part of the country, Noa Tanua boasts a summertime bus service that transports passengers from the southern city of Be'er Sheva to the Ashkelon beach.

Registration for Noa Tanua is free of charge and passengers pay a fixed fee of 9 shekels (just over $2) for each ride. According to its founder, the cooperative already has more than 3,000 members.

“We have one main goal,” says Schwartz-Tichon, who is a biology student, “and that is to close down – once public transportation becomes legal in Israel on Shabbat.”

Meanwhile, the ban on Sabbath bus travel is being challenged on other fronts as well. Last summer, a group of private citizens petitioned the Supreme Court to force the government to provide limited public transportation on the weekend.

The group was represented by the Israel Religious Action Center (the advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel), which cited a survey showing that 72 percent of Jewish Israelis support transportation on Shabbat (including more than half of the religious population, provided that service is limited to certain hours.) The petitioners cited another survey that found that 25 percent of Israelis would be willing to give up their cars altogether should public transportation be made available on Shabbat.

Moreover, a group of Israeli lawmakers from across the political spectrum have been mobilizing behind a new effort to change the status quo. Leading this parliamentary initiative is Manuel Trajtenberg of Zionist Union, who says the proposed changes in public transportation laws would be part of a “package deal” that would also represent a sort of compromise by prohibiting most shops and offices from opening on Shabbat. The legislation would allow mini-buses, regulated by the government, to operate at certain hours over the course of the weekend. The initiative is scheduled for discussion in the Knesset's Ministerial Committee for Legislation in three weeks.

“By hook or by crook, there will be public transportation in Israel on Shabbat,” promises Trajtenberg.

'Under curfew'

Bat-Sheva Israel, 33, grew up in an ultra-Orthodox home in Jerusalem but no longer observes Shabbat. Living on her own in Ma’aleh Adumim (“I had no idea it was a settlement when I moved here,” she says), she used to spend the weekend “under curfew,” as she described it, until Shabus came along.

“I belong to a support group of people like me who grew up ultra-Orthodox and became secular,” Israel explains. “We are like family to one another, but until Shabus was launched, I had no way of getting together with them for the weekly dinner they hold on Friday nights. Now my life has changed.”

Sharon Papkin, a 30-year-old high-techie who lives in Kiryat Hayovel, says his weekly Friday night excursions to downtown Jerusalem, where he would meet friends, used to cost him on average 100 shekels ($25) in cab fees. No longer. “I estimate I’ve saved thousands of shekels because of the new bus line,” he says.

City council representative Wharton says her short-term goal is to expand the Shabus lines and have the existing ones run more frequently. Her long-term goal, though, is to do away with the service altogether.

“Our real success," she declares, "will come once public transportation is legalized on Shabbat and Shabus has become superfluous."