The Unorthodox Solutions to Tel Aviv’s Abandoned Synagogues

No one quite knows how many empty shuls Tel Aviv has, but there are lots of creatives examples of what is being done to reuse them

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Hithavut, a watering hole opened by members of the Bratslav community in 2014.
Hithavut, a watering hole opened by members of the Bratslav community in 2014.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The wall-mounted Torah scroll at 11 Hacarmel Street in Tel Aviv faces the wrong direction — and that’s one of the least unorthodox things about this space that looks like a synagogue but is in fact a hummus joint.

A night before Hummus Hacarmel opened for business in the middle of the Carmel Market in 2008, its owner had a strange premonition: He saw the eatery decorated like a place of worship, complete with prayer books, stained glass windows and wooden pews. He altered the joint’s decor accordingly, and the hungry have been coming religiously ever since. Some even believe that the establishment used to be a synagogue, despite its past being nothing more exotic than a butcher’s and fish store.

A few kilometers southeast (the direction the Torah should be facing), diners at the Lasova soup kitchen on Chlenov Street eat at similar communal tables under stained glass windows featuring the Star of David. But there is nothing ersatz about this place. The building was constructed in the 1940s as Beit Yeshayahu synagogue and abandoned for decades after its congregants migrated from the neighborhood. It was renovated by a nonprofit a decade ago, as a multipurpose center equipped to feed up to 500 people daily and house homeless women.

There used to be hundreds of active synagogues in Tel Aviv. Beit Yeshayahu is among around 100 that are now shuttered or repurposed, according to Brit Yakobi, whose Free Space project aims to revitalize the city’s abandoned synagogues.

Rabbi Eli Naiditch of Chabad on the Coast in central Tel Aviv believes the city contains closer to 500 vacant synagogues. “I can count on one hand the number of synagogues in Tel Aviv not in use,” counters Eldad Mizrahi, chairman of the city’s religious council.

Hummus Hacarmel, situated in the Carmel Market: Confusing customers for over a decade.Credit: Meged Gozani

Disuse and disrepair

Whatever the actual number, the issue is a familiar one around the globe. As communities age or relocate and cultural practices change, attendance drops at older houses of worship. Their buildings, often too costly for the small number of remaining congregants to maintain, fall into disuse and disrepair.

The majority of Tel Aviv’s synagogues are privately owned, leaving decisions about these historic markers of the city’s earliest communities up to individuals. There is no definitive municipal policy dictating how they should be handled.

Some unused synagogues have been demolished to allow for new residential construction; others have become private residences, with minimal renovation work.

When Shoshi Stillman was looking for a Tel Aviv rental apartment with her partner, Adam Simkin, the landlord of their current one-bedroom abode in Kerem Hateimanim told them the space was once a synagogue.

This one-bedroom apartment in the Yemenite Quarter was once a synagogue, believe it or not.Credit: Meged Gozani

Nothing in the apartment in the old Yemenite Quarter hints at its past, except for a spacious layout vaguely suitable for religious congregation.

“I think if there had been anything left in the building to say ‘Here was the Torah ark or the bimah,’ we might have had some sort of reaction to that,” says Stillman, a thirtysomething originally from Canada. “Either like, ‘it’s disrespectful for us to live here,’ or ‘Whoa, this is so cool!’”

Further north in the city, a very different transaction took place surrounding a long-unused sanctuary. Rabbi Naiditch and his wife Sara moved to Tel Aviv in 2015 to establish a Chabad for English-speaking new immigrants, and were looking for a large space. Their search was fruitless until they met Pesach Steiner, a 92-year-old member of the shuttered Hug Hacham HaSofer synagogue on Bograshov Street, who was happy to let the Naiditches revive it.

“What we’ve done is we’ve created more of a community center, not just a place where people come to pray,” Eli Naiditch explains. “That’s the idea of a beit knesset — it’s a house of congregation. It’s people coming together; it’s not just a house of prayer.”

A younger congregation now gathers weekly around the restored Torah ark. Elsewhere, a small number of synagogues are adaptively reused for wholly secular use.

The Ezrat Achim congregation in the Yemenite Quarter rents its synagogue out to the avant-garde Clipa Theater.Credit: Meged Gozani

Avant-garde theater

“Synagogues around the world are more than houses of prayer — they’re houses for the benefit of the community,” says Yakobi. “We don’t need to be afraid of mixing the sacred and the secular.”

One example is a fitness center that opened in 2015 in an unused Gur Hasidic synagogue in north Tel Aviv’s Nordau Boulevard, with pews and scripture cleared in favor of weightlifting equipment and treadmills. And on Dubnov Street, in the city’s east, coworking workspace firm WeWork has repurposed a building shaped like the two tablets received by Moses. The old synagogue was situated within the management headquarters of the Bnei Akiva youth movement.

Back in Kerem Hateimanim, the Ezrat Achim congregation rents its synagogue to the avant-garde Clipa Theater as an intimate performance space that seats 30. “Clipa 37 is a home for convening contradictions, revolutionary ideas and extraordinary artistic collaborations — all created in relation to the unique history and nature of the building and the neighborhood,” a plaque on the synagogue façade reads.

Though transformed, many of these spaces remain accessible to the public. “I’m in favor of having as many of these buildings as possible remaining in the service of the public,” says Yifat Avizedek Kalfa, a local tour guide who began a committee to fight the demolition of Tel Aviv synagogues — a common occurrence in gentrifying south Tel Aviv. “What’s happening is, the moment the municipality transfers these buildings to private developers, the place is taken from the public,” she says.

The Chapel in The Jaffa luxury hotel. The one-time chapel was deconsecrated before it was turned into a cocktail bar.Credit: Amit Geron

Kahal Hasidim synagogue in the Neve Tzedek neighborhood, for example, was among the city’s oldest synagogues, being founded in 1890. The roof collapsed in the early 1990s, leading to many years of vacuity, before Tel Aviv Municipality sold the building in the early 2000s to an individual who demolished it and built a private home there.

The municipality’s intent was to use the sale funds to renovate the equally historic, derelict synagogue next door, Marot Hasulam. The latter, whose interior was gutted by fire several years ago, has yet to be restored.

Once a synagogue...

A somewhat extreme case of a local religious sanctuary being converted to secular use is The Chapel in The Jaffa. The recently opened luxury hotel was once a 19th-century hospital managed by the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition, and the candlelit cocktail bar is in the historic building’s ornate former chapel, with a bar at the altar and menus bound to resemble prayer books.

The space was formally deconsecrated beforehand, but there is no equivalent process in Judaism to remove the sacred character of a building. Maybe that’s why there appears to be some hesitation about turning the main hall of a synagogue into a bar, even in nightlife-loving Tel Aviv. One exception that comes close is Hithavut — a watering hole opened by members of the Bratslav community in 2014, in a side room at the rear of the Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv (the city’s largest temple).

Hithavut in Tel Aviv. One of the few synagogue spaces converted into a bar.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Slowly, Tel Aviv is transforming unused synagogues built by its founders to match the city’s contemporary character. “My vision or dream when I started Free Space was to turn synagogues into cultural institutions that connect to the Jewish story,” Yakobi says. “Places that ask: What is Jewish culture in our secular world? Places that create culture that is radical, alternative, secular, interesting and feminist within this space.”

While contemplating how these spaces can be repurposed, there is a surprising lack of protocol. No municipal policy exists in this thoroughly secular city, although for those who choose to follow, it there is Jewish religious law. “According to halakha you can’t destroy a synagogue,” explains Avizedek Kalfa. “You can turn a house into a synagogue, but turning a synagogue into a residence is problematic in terms of halakha.”

There is no clear answer about what you can do with a synagogue once its original iteration no longer serves the community. “What should be done with [the abandoned synagogues]? It’s a very good question,” notes Eli Naiditch. “There’s so many wonderful things that can be done that would be respectful — like putting schools there. The best would be to find some sort of solution based on the needs of the people.”

A stained glass window at The Chapel in the Jaffa.Credit: Amit Geron