The French Renaissance of Tel Aviv Synagogues

They are not only spiritual centers but social venues, too: How French immigrants are changing the Tel Aviv synagogue scene.

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Zion Synagogue in Tel Aviv.
Zion Synagogue in Tel Aviv.Credit: Moti Milrod
Noa Amiel Lavie
Noa Amiel Lavie

I arrive at the headquarters of the Tel Aviv chief rabbinate piously attired and perspiring. There’s no air conditioning. I ask for the office of Rabbi Arie Levin and am directed to a door with a sign on it: “Marriage Rabbi.” I knock. Three ultra-Orthodox men welcome me, all smiles, and then go back to signing a document of some kind. “A bride of ours?” one of them asks.

“No, no, she’s from Haaretz,” Rabbi Levin answers for me. “Haaretz a biting newspaper. Did you know that what’s-his-name, one of your reporters, was married here? Are you married? Alright, we won’t hold it against you. How old are you?”

I reply. Silence. I decide to wait outside until they finish.

Rabbi Arie Levin.Credit: Moti Milrod

Rabbi Levin’s name opens doors. Just mentioning him gets you information. He’s quite cordial, smiling, something of a chatterbox. He will send me WhatsApp messages asking how I’m doing, while I’m working on the article.

“So,” he begins, “your family is from France?”

“From Algeria, afterward from France,” I tell him, and add, “They love religion.”

Levin is not surprised. As he told me in a prior phone conversation, he spotted the trend of Jewish immigration to Israel from France before he knew it was a trend and before immigrants started to arrive in substantial numbers.

At the beginning of the 2000s, not long after he was ordained, Levin acceded to the request of the gabbai (beadle) of the Yehezkel Synagogue, in Tel Aviv, and began giving Torah lessons there, so it would not have to shut down for lack of congregants. One day, a young man sporting a long ponytail and casting an aura of mystery showed up.

“I didn’t realize he was French until he started to talk,” recalls Levin. The visitor wanted to know when “they pray here on Shabbat.” Levin could barely keep from laughing. “There is nothing here, what are you talking about?” he replied.

Have no worry, the French fellow with the long ponytail shot back: He would bring his friends and they would provide a Shabbat minyan (prayer quorum of 10 men).

Peak season is July-August; some arrive at the synagogue immediately after a visit to the beach.

“We shook hands and agreed that if there were in fact a minyan on the next Shabbat,” says the rabbi, “I would come on the following one.” Since then, Levin has served as the congregation’s rabbi – and, he adds with a proud smile, you can count the number of Sabbaths he has spent outside Tel Aviv on the fingers of one hand. He also started to recite the prayers in the Sephardi style, even though he himself is Ashkenazi. The young man’s name is Elie Benacom, he tells me finally. “A tzaddik (righteous person) who has redeemed many synagogues in the city that were on the verge of closure.” And the rabbi adds: “It’s the resurrection of the dead.”

Yehezkel Synagogue is strategically located: to the west is Hayarkon Street, close to the beach front and the hotel district, while to the east and south it’s a short walk to Ben Yehuda and Bograshov, an area some call the “French ghetto” of Tel Aviv. On one occasion, in order to recruit worshippers, Benacom, 44, a real estate developer, made the rounds of the hotels in the area, handing out fliers listing the prayer times and showing a map with the synagogue’s location. These days, with synagogues in the area packed with traditionally observant French Jews, the notion that it was once necessary to recruit worshippers seems ludicrous. Newcomers, looking for places where they could gather, pray and revive the community ethos they’d enjoyed in France, have reopened old synagogues on Ben Yehuda and other streets, as well as in the gentrifying neighborhoods of Neveh Tzedek and Florentin, to the south.

It’s the Hebrew month of Elul, the month of Selihot – penitential prayers recited during this season, until Yom Kippur. I arrive at Yehezkel Synagogue half an hour after midnight in an overly long skirt, surprised, as a secular Tel Avivian, to see women there who don’t look ultra-Orthodox (and look much like me) and who choose to spend their night at the synagogue. These worshippers are toting bags by Michael Kors and Lanvin. They are meticulously made up, wear tight skirts that end at the knees and their hands are carefully manicured. Most of them use a French-Hebrew siddur – prayer book – and it’s clear from the whispering that I’m the only sabra present. I sit down in the women’s section next to a new immigrant from Paris named Lora Zivolsky. “I heard three days ago that the customs in this synagogue are similar to ours, and I decided to come to Selihot,” she whispers to me and then continues praying.

Yehezkel Synagogue in Tel Aviv. Credit: Moti Milrod

The older people recite Selihot here in the morning, whereas younger worshippers often do so at night. The synagogue’s peak season is July-August, thanks to family visits and vacationing friends from France. According to Levin, there are between 150 and 300 worshippers on a typical summer Shabbat, many of them very pious, some arriving at the synagogue immediately after a visit to the beach. “The way Diaspora Jews go to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Jews from France come to Yehezkel Synagogue,” he says.

Avraham Vanunu, a local resident of 52, has been coming to the synagogue for 15 years. “You could say that I have been a witness to the synagogue’s development,” he says with obvious pride. “Many people call it the ‘synagogue of the French.’ We received the immigrants warmly. It’s like an absorption center. They come from Paris to Tel Aviv and don’t yet know where they will live. In the hotel they hear about a synagogue with customs like back home, because there’s a Moroccan cantor and an Ashkenazi rabbi, and it works really well. The French have added a great deal. With the money they donate, many things that need doing can be accomplished.”

The synagogue, which is situated in a largely non-religious neighborhood, initially provoked resistance from neighbors.

Vanunu: “They imagined the future and said, ‘Oh no, we’re going to end up with a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhood.’ But it’s not Haredi, it’s traditionalist. Gradually, they saw that their fears were unfounded and they started to connect with the synagogue. Most of the people in the area now come on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to hear the shofar. There’s tolerance and openness.”

‘A place and a captain’

Yehezkel Synagogue was the first of several houses of worship in whose rehabilitation Elie Benacom was involved. Subsequently, he brought about the reopening of several more synagogues, most of them led by French clerics.

“French Jews are very accustomed to a community life,” Benacom notes, “and that is unfortunately not the case in cities in Israel. It is especially lacking in Tel Aviv. I saw that for community life to exist, it was necessary to have a place and a captain, and the captain in a synagogue is the rabbi.”

The affable Benacom is not eager to talk about himself. It took some time to arrange a meeting with him – I called, left messages, asked senior religious officials to intercede – and when he finally assented, he refused adamantly to have his picture taken for the article. I notice that he no longer sports a long ponytail. We talk about how he once had to do plenty of legwork to muster a minyan, whereas today it’s the opposite: There aren’t enough synagogues for all the new French-speaking immigrants who are seeking a venue that will serve their community.

“There are many requests from rabbis in France who are looking for places in Israel in order to start new congregations,” Benacom tells me. “It’s hard to find places in which they would be able to lead the public as they are accustomed to. If it were [physically] possible, we would start five or six new congregations.”

The dream harbored by Benacom and his wife, Léa (“thanks to whom and to my parents, all this happened,” he emphasizes throughout the conversation), was realized last July, when Zion Synagogue on Kalischer Street reopened after almost 15 years of standing empty: It was the first time he had succeeded to take a synagogue that was completely out of service and give it a new lease on life. It now attracts dozens of worshippers on the Sabbath and hundreds on holidays and other occasions, Benacom and Levin assure me – all of them French speaking.

Prayer at Zion Synagogue in Tel Aviv.Credit: Moti Milrod

Mingling and prayer

Sabbath eve. I leave my bike a safe distance from Zion Synagogue so as not to offend worshippers’ sensibilities. But that turns out to be unnecessary: Many of them arrive in cars. I climb the fire escape of the old building, which leads to the women’s section, and hear only French. Taking a siddur from the back shelf, I find a seat in the last row, among the younger women. Next to me is Sharone Atlani, who is about 14 and immigrated with her family two years ago. She’s fashionably attired and also well versed in the texts. “Yesterday a girlfriend said she felt like performing a mitzvah, so we decided to come here,” she whispers, and shows me the right page in the siddur. A peek into the men’s section below reveals that they’re all wearing Nikes and are wrapped in prayer shawls.

In the row in front of me are the “mothers,” well-dressed women in their 40. One is Sharone’s mother, Stephanie, who’s a fashion blogger. After the service she relates that she started to attend synagogue in the summer of 2014, when Israel launched Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip. I can’t quite figure out whether she is Sabbath-observant.

Rabbi Avraham Lemmel.Credit: Moti Milrod

In the front row are the hard core worshippers: the women who are in charge of pulling the curtain tight so that no man can see in. Some pray standing up the whole time. They open the curtain wide during Rabbi Avraham Lemmel’s sermon, which is heavily spiced with the phrase “be’ezrat Hashem” – with God’s help. They respond with “baruch Hashem” – blessed is He, blessed is His name – and wish one another “blessings and success.”

In contrast to Yehezkel Synagogue, Zion Synagogue was originally opened in response to the genuine need of a large community of immigrants who live along the seam between the trendy Neveh Tzedek and Kerem Hateimanim neighborhoods and Rothschild Boulevard. Zion Synagogue originally served Iraqi Jews, but their numbers dwindled and eventually the congregation ceased to exist. Two-and-a-half years ago, on the last day of Passover, Rabbi Lemmel, an athletic-looking 29-year-old, brimming with vitality, was the guest of friends in Herzliya.

“The brother of a friend came up to me and told me he’d bought an apartment in Neveh Tzedek and that it was up to us rabbis to ensure that something would be available for the religious population, a place to worship in,” Lemmel told me, greeting me in the renewed synagogue. “I wanted to see whether this was someone who just talks and does nothing, or is blessed for turning words into deeds. So I said to him, ‘You know what? I’ve heard a lot about this Neveh Tzedek – right after the holiday we’ll tour the neighborhood.’”

The visit was an eye-opener for the rabbi. “I told [the friend’s brother] that there were 10 times as many French people there as there are in Bayit Ve'Gan [an Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem]. There were French people in every café we passed.” Once they made a decision to open a French synagogue in the neighborhood, they called Benacom. “Two days later, we met with him in his home. He’s pure gold,” Lemmel says with obvious delight.

'It’s not a community whose religiosity poses a threat to other groups. It integrates others.'

Benacom suggested the synagogue to the rabbi, who shows me pre-restoration photographs on his phone. “This is exactly where we are now sitting,” he says, pointing to a spot in one of the photos. “They’re the same benches, but you can see that they’re not exactly the same color, because we redid them. There was mold, cockroaches, water leaks, totally disgusting. When I moved a rag that was lying on the dirty floor, there was a relatively white patch underneath and some moth-eaten tefillin [phylacteries] next to it.”

The restoration effort would cost 1.2 million shekels ($300,000). A fund-raising campaign was launched. “We paid half and we still owe the other half. But thank God, what we did was worth three, four, five times as much,” Lemmel explains.

The synagogue reopened officially in the summer of 2015. “God be blessed, finding a minyan has never been a problem for us. We waited a little on the first Shabbatot, but within a short time the place filled up,” Lemmel says proudly. “There were almost 300 people here on Yom Kippur [last year]. The women’s section was jammed. Indescribable. People stood on the stairs, in the doorway. It was full, full, full.”

The neighborhood was just waiting for a synagogue to open, the rabbi explains, adding: “The synagogue became a community venue in the full sense of the word. In other words, people come here to find new friends, a new atmosphere – to find others to talk to. We’re talking about a large number of new immigrants from 2015, fresh off the plane. There are also French people who have lived here for some time, and everyone is interconnected. There are ties of friendship, and this is also the importance of all the Shabbat events we held.”

Lemmel notes that “the synagogue belongs to Lev, an organization that seeks to prevent assimilation, which my father runs in France.”

‘Boeing aliyah’

Statistics differ concerning the number of French-speaking synagogues currently active in Tel Aviv, and there is no official body that can claim to know the correct figure. According to Dr. Yitzhak Dahan, from Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, an expert in French immigration to Israel, there are seven such synagogues in Tel Aviv. Benacom and Levin claim there are 10 out of 510. To these we can add international synagogues, such as one on Ben Yehuda Street that has Italian, French and English-speaking minyanim. There are also mixed synagogues where immigrants from France pray alongside native Israelis, such as at a Chabad institution in the city’s Old North area. Thus, even if this is not a salient phenomenon, it’s at least a trend: Synagogues that had shut down are reopening, and others that were already active are filling up.

Dahan has studied the “Boeing aliyah,” referring to French immigrants of recent years who continue to work in France, commuting by plane between the countries. They are mostly businessmen, owners of high-tech firms, and professionals such as physicians and lawyers. “These people are in their productive years, aged 40 to 60, possess a middle or high economic status and display a range of religiosity,” Dahan notes.

Meanwhile, back at the headquarters of the Tel Aviv chief rabbinate, the head of the city’s religious council, Eldad Mizrahi, is surprised to see me. “A bride of ours?” I’m asked for the second time in the past few weeks.

“No. I’m from the newspaper. We have an interview.”

“Ah, right,” he apologizes. “One of your reporters – I’ve forgotten his name – was married here. So in case you want to ”

Disused synagogues in Tel Aviv began reopening slightly before the big wave of immigration from France began in the early 2000s, Mizrahi says. “But there is no doubt that the French arrivals intensified the process.” Until a decade ago, there was a negative migration of young religiously observant people from Tel Aviv. The older generation was dying off, synagogue attendance fell off. But then something changed.

Mizrahi: “In the past two or three years, all the synagogues that were listed as closed in our records, reopened. Zion Synagogue is a good example. It was closed for some years, but now there is a magnificent congregation there, of about 100 worshippers, and the place is bustling with activity on weekdays, too. It’s a place that was rescued.”

Did all this cause a conflict with the veteran population who used to pray there and then had to “share” the synagogue with the French newcomers?

Mizrahi: “It didn’t, because they came to a place where the gabbai understood that it was either this or closure of the synagogue. I think the veteran worshippers did the right thing by working with them. The end result is that synagogues were reopened, thanks to the immigration from France.”

A young French person who lives and works in Tel Aviv needs a community base like he needs air to breathe.

How do you explain the revitalization of the city’s religious community by immigrants from France?

“It’s not a community whose religiosity poses a threat to other groups, but conducts its own life and integrates others. It offers a different hue of tradition.”

The need for kosher food has also played a part in this trend, according to Mizrahi. In the past three years, he notes, the demand for such food has increased in restaurants on Ben Yehuda and Bograshov streets, as well as along the beach.

“Restaurants I never imagined would want a kashrut certificate realized that for the French public, the word ‘kosher’ is important, even if they don’t look religious or uphold all the precepts,” he says. “That was beneficial to us. In the end, for us – the religious public for whom the Jewish values of Torah, Shabbat and kashrut are dear – the French immigration has been a huge boon. There has never been a community that generated such a change in the city.”

Dahan differentiates between the current surge in immigration from France and previous ones: “In the past two years, we’ve seen a wave of traditionalist families, and some Orthodox ones, coming to Israel from France. The big difference is between the immigrants who arrived at the end of the 1950s and in the 1960s, and those who have come in the 2000s.

“The recent immigrants are from the upper socioeconomic class, are better educated and have more options available to them than those of the 1950s and 1960s,” he notes.

In addition, if in the past the religious immigrants from France chose to live in Netanya and Ashdod, and establish their communities and synagogues there, today they are not apprehensive about settling in Tel Aviv. “The supposedly open, licentious, hedonistic city no longer frightens them,” Dahan says. “They come from Paris and other big cities in France, from an experience of being a minority within a majority, and they are willing to cope with life in a big city in Israel even though they are a religious minority.”

The French-speaking synagogue at 155 Ben Yehuda Street.Credit: Moti Milrod

If so, isn’t it surprising that they are so keen on finding traditionalism and community here?

Dahan: “The community ethos is very powerful where they come from. It’s what they’re familiar with. It’s not those who assimilated or distanced themselves from Judaism who are coming to Israel. It’s true that many of the young people chose Tel Aviv, but the big picture, I would say, is that 80 to 90 percent of the recent French immigrants to Israel are Haredim, Orthodox or traditionalist. The same holds true for the American Jews who are immigrating here. The situation may have changed a little in the 2015 wave, when people immigrated from France for reasons of fear, anti-Semitism, Islamism, concern for the children and so forth. But overall, in general, you can see that a specific segment of the population has immigrated. They imported the community ethos from France and want to continue it here.”

Indeed, Dahan adds, the young French person who lives and works in Tel Aviv needs a community base like he needs air to breathe. “Just like the average worshipper at Synagogue des Tournelles in Paris, who even though he is traditional, makes an effort to go [after services] by car to Place de la Bastille to socialize with the Jews who came from Oran and Constantine and speak his ‘language’ a little. I am talking about more than the purely linguistic level: I mean the language of culture [i.e., tradition and rituals from North Africa]. And when they come here, they bring their communalism.”

Boutique synagogue

A particularly interesting phenomenon is apparent among French immigrants whose roots lie in North Africa. According to Dahan, the immigrants of the 1950s and ‘60s were pressured not only to leave the world of religion, but also to abandon their North African heritage. But those who are arriving today from France now are restoring the heritage of North Africa – of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

A case in point is a French-speaking synagogue of Tunisians that was reopened half a year ago in a rear top-floor apartment at 155 Ben Yehuda Street. The Chemama family, who were looking for a venue to uphold their Tunisian customs, made contact with the person in charge, and started to hold Shabbat services in the synagogue. There is also a lesson in reading the Torah once a week. According to the family, the building has existed for 100 years.

Cantor Jeremy Chemama.Credit: Moti Milrod

It’s plain in the post-service kiddush on Shabbat that this is a small, family-based synagogue. Possibly it’s the simple curtain that separates the men’s and women’s sections, or the straw hats worn by the older women. A boutique synagogue. After the kiddush, everyone makes sure that I eat something. Those who don’t eat, drink (boha, a traditional Tunisian arak), and those who don’t drink, sweep the floor. I notice two brothers, the only native-born Israelis here, originally from Herzliya, for whom this is the first Shabbat service in the synagogue. They look pleased. We observe the French immigrants from the side. “There is a very good atmosphere of tradition and lovely people,” the two agree.

Jeremy Chemama, 24, tells me that he is the cantor who led the service on the Selihot evening I attended at Yehezkel Synagogue. I feel like a member of the guild. “We opened this place because we were looking for something that’s more in the direction of the French community. We know how the French love to go to synagogue, they are people who love religion and are close to it,” he explains. “In France, synagogue is a social thing, and that’s what we’re trying to do here.”