From Over the Green Line, a Spiritual Revolution Comes to Tel Aviv

Blame it on the Gaza withdrawal. In its wake, a wave of national-religious young adults, feeling cut off from secular Israeli society, moved back from the settlements to try to connect with their brethren.

The happy band that marched through the streets of Tel Aviv's Florentin neighborhood at the end of the Simhat Torah holiday last month drew a lot of looks. Patrons of neighborhood coffee shops and pubs could not help but stare at the colorful and loud vehicle, and the dancers and ever-growing group of marchers behind it.

national-religious Moti Milrod
Moti Milrod

The high point of the event, which was arranged by an organization called the Rosh Yehudi Center and the forum of garinim torani'im in Tel Aviv, was the Hakafot Shniyot ("second circuits" ) celebration at the Barby club. The garin torani (literally, "religious nucleus," or core group ) consists of socially committed Orthodox individuals and families, who do religious outreach in secular neighborhoods. Hakafot Shniyot is a post-festival celebration that takes place after the close of the Simhat Torah holiday and, like the holiday itself, involves dancing with the Torah scrolls in celebration of the end and immediate restart of the annual cycle of reading through the Five Books of Moses.

At Barby, a popular rock club, a klezmer band was on stage. The usual night-piercing guitars were replaced by "Mipi El" ("From God's Mouth" ), a song traditional to Shabbat and Simhat Torah. The two-story club was packed to the rafters - and segregated by gender, of course: men downstairs, women upstairs.

"We wanted to dance with the whole People of Israel," says Tal Reis, who came for the occasion from the settlement of Sansana in the southern Hebron Hills. "Dancing with the Torah in Tel Aviv is really exciting, and also a way of introducing Jewish life into these streets. Ordinarily, the light of Torah is less present here. It is a privilege for us to be here and be joyous."

"I wanted to be with the People of Israel, to feel the connection to everyone," says a woman who identifies herself only as Efrat, who had come in from Beit El, also in the West Bank, with her nine children. "You meet people here who even if they don't look exactly like you, their soul is a Jewish soul. It is a privilege for us to be part of this big thing."

"There has been a spiritual awakening in Tel Aviv in recent years," Eldad Mizrahi, chairman of the city's religious council, says. "The young Orthodox people who come to live here see it as an ideal: to create Jewish life in the first Hebrew city." Mizrahi insists that "the goal is not to proselytize," but rather "to make the local residents a little better acquainted with the Bible and Jewish tradition."

"I think there is a Jewish blossoming, an enormous thirst," says Yisrael Zeira, director of Rosh Yehudi and a real estate developer for Zionist-Orthodox clientele. (The company Zeira heads won a tender to build housing for the Zionist-Orthodox public in Jaffa's Ajami neighborhood. Neighborhood residents appealed the bid outcome, but the court rejected their case. )

"Residents are beginning to look for synagogues, and the emuni public is returning to the faith and seeking the People of Israel, also in Tel Aviv," Zeira adds. "Emuni (believing ) public" is an inclusive term used to connote the Israelis for whom Judaism is the key element of their identity.

'Dialogue with non-religious'

Keren Cohen, 27, originally from Shavei Shomron, lives near the Dizengoff Center with her husband Eitan (originally from Kochav Yair ) and their 2-year-old twins, David and Haleli. The Cohens spent four years as part of the garin torani in the Shapira neighborhood of south Tel Aviv. They moved three months ago, and now are one of five families that comprise the Rosh Yehudi garin torani. Some group members work in various capacities for Rosh Yehudi, which runs a center aimed at bringing Judaism to secular people through a range of activities. Cohen is in charge of a dating service for newly religious men and women.

The process she herself underwent started on a trip to India with Eitan. "We got to the family that ran Habayit Hayehudi [the Jewish Home] in Dharamsala. The owner told us he was going to Israel and that there was nobody else to manage the place. So we stayed and ran the place for three weeks. We met Israelis who were traveling, searching for the Almighty and themselves. India opened us up to discussion and dialogue with non-religious kids. If we hadn't been there, we would never have wound up in Tel Aviv.

"In India I discovered that I have a people that doesn't know me, and whom I don't know. They don't know me because previously I lived in closed communities. The disengagement [from Gaza] caused a very big shake-up. And then time went by and we realized that the people sitting in Tel Aviv didn't really give a hoot. And I realized that it was our fault, not theirs, that there was a price to this seclusion."

Cohen's vision of the impact she would like to have on Tel Aviv is "that they get to know the Almighty; that they will know that Judaism is all-encompassing; that they be interested. I want to have religious and non-religious girlfriends, but to have all of them see themselves as coming under the umbrella of Judaism. I don't want people to change because of me. There are people who think that I'm compromising. I want discussion, but genuine discussion, and not about what I bought, where there's a sale and how I made money, but rather about the essence of humanity."

While they are enjoying the multifaceted life of the big city, Cohen and her friends attest to quite a few difficulties.

"We are living in a very different society from the one to which we were accustomed," says Tmima Adi, 34, who moved to Tel Aviv from Sansana two years ago with her husband and six sons. Adi lives near Gan Meir in the center of town, and runs Rosh Yehudi's midrasha - institute of Jewish studies for girls.

"Educational frameworks exist, but there are barely any Orthodox children. There aren't people like us here. We lead a lonely life. Furthermore, the reality here is in contradiction to the values we're used to," she says. As an example of this she cites the annual gay pride parade. "On that day we go out of town. There is a limit to what we wish to expose our children to. The situation is hard and contradicts our faith."

Despite the difficulties, Adi says, "I believe that the children are benefiting from this as well. They are growing stronger, toughening up, bolstering their faith and identity. They are learning that people who live here are not bad, heaven forbid, but rather good and wonderful people. They are happy to be their neighbors, even though their Shabbat is different from ours and they eat differently than us."

From Elkana to Shapira

Alongside this nuclear group of two families near the Dizengoff Center, which grew to five over the past year, there are other places in the city where communities and garinim were established and have grown. One of them resides in the old north of Tel Aviv, and attends services at Heichal Moshe synagogue on Smuts Boulevard. Tzvi Yehuda Dickstein, 28, lives on Pinkas Street with his wife Leah and their two children. Their previous home was in Beit El. Over the computer is a picture of Yosef, Hannah and Shuv-El Dickstein, his parents and younger brother, who were murdered in a terror attack near Hebron in 2002.

Tzvi Yehuda was born in Jerusalem, and moved with his parents to the settlement of Psagot. After marrying Leah, who came from Elkana, he attended a yeshiva in Beit El.

"In the army I also went to the most heterogeneous place possible: I served in a secular company in Golani. I even enlisted in a secular call-up round," Dickstein says. "It's in my nature; I wanted to venture out." And so he found himself moving to the metropolis with his family, about 18 months ago.

Today the community includes seven couples, nearly all of them friends from the Beit El yeshiva. On the first Yom Kippur he observed in Tel Aviv, hundreds attended the services at the synagogue.

"We couldn't get our heads around that. We were pleasantly surprised, because I had always read in the newspapers that on Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv everyone rides bicycles, watches videos, or looks for other ways to get through the day," he recalls. The following year they prepared for the excess demand and stocked extra prayer books.

"I am not trying to get anyone to take up religion," Dickstein says. "At Pesach we baked matzot, and the gang had a great time. In the culture of 'fences' [territorial separation between secular and religious] a secular guy has no way of knowing what matzot are. I didn't talk to them about kashrut or about eating matzot. I said, 'Join in.'

"All my life I was raised in a 'bubble,' and so was Leah. We dreamed of getting out of the bubble. I also view this as social tikkun - living with one another. My neighbors in the building here would never in a lifetime have met me. They are really sweet people. We are their friends and they are ours. There are social ties here that would not have been created any other way."

Dickstein says that the secular city has been welcoming: "I hope that if a secular Tel Avivian were to go live in Beit El or Psagot, he would be received with the same love with which an Orthodox person is received here. I greatly appreciate this and I'm happy here."

Meanwhile, the family is acclimating to the Tel Aviv lifestyle. "We took the kids to watch the Nike Night Run [last month]. We followed the runners on our bikes. In fact, I sold the car and we both ride with the kids on bicycles. It's a pleasure. We love to ride to the port."

The garin torani in the Shapira neighborhood got its start about 12 years ago with Orthodox girls who were performing their national service, and subsequently grew to 25 families.

"At first we didn't want to live in Tel Aviv. We were scared of the big city, so we lived in Elkana," says Ora Cohen, 27, who now lives in Shapira, near the central bus station, with her husband Yoni and their two children. Asked why they chose to settle in Tel Aviv, Cohen, who grew up in Kiryat Shmona, replies, "There is something very cosmopolitan here. I wanted to live in a community where not everyone works in education and not everyone is the same."

Cohen agrees that the Gaza pullout in the summer of 2005 contributed to their move: "We came to the realization that you cannot close yourself off. When you don't meet other people, there is no cross-fertilization, and you live in a bubble. You can't live like that, like two peoples. Before the Land of Israel there is the People of Israel."

Haim Goren, a member of the Shapira garin, and originally from Karnei Shomron, works as a teacher at an Orthodox high school in the Hatikva neighborhood of south Tel Aviv.

"My personal goal is to be more connected to what's going on, not sitting on some isolated hilltop," he explains. "The aspiration of every Orthodox person is ultimately for all Jews to believe in the Lord, but right now we are not aiming in practice for that target."

Goren, too, thinks that the Gaza disengagement prompted Orthodox people to get closer to Tel Aviv. "It's a pendulum. Orthodox people left Tel Aviv because of the task of populating Judea and Samaria. Now they are coming back to Tel Aviv. The objective of Orthodox Zionism has always been to blend in. The mission now is to return to living in cities, including Tel Aviv, the main city."

Without dogmas

Chana and Aviad Friedman and their five children live near Kikar Hamedina, in north Tel Aviv. Aviad is a businessman involved in energy projects, among other initiatives, and a volunteer educator at the military preparatory program in Tel Aviv. Chana runs a beit midrash, or Jewish study hall, at Tel Aviv University. Up until three years ago, the Friedman family was living in Gush Etzion.

"Categorically, the disengagement is what caused us to come here," says Chana. "Inside the community there was an automatic mobilization against [it]. We felt that we were being enlisted when we had no part in it. The face of the Orthodox public was very extremist. The Orthodox leadership was catastrophic, and the discourse compared the maneuver to the Holocaust, in a manner that lacked any sense of proportion.

"On the other hand, whenever we came to events in Tel Aviv at the time, disengagement talk sounded like a conversation about the weather. I almost sensed gloating on the part of some of the speakers. When I analyzed the matter, I found that at bottom there was a lack of deep identification with Orthodox Zionism, and maybe we had the disengagement coming to us."

The Friedmans are one of about 20 families and singles from a bloc of settlements in the West Bank, south of Jerusalem, who have moved to central Tel Aviv in the past decade, and are members of Kehilat Yahad, a liberal Orthodox congregation that prays at a synagogue on Zeitlin Street. The synagogue, they explain, is very inclusive. The diverse congregation runs the gamut from secular to newly religious, and includes Orthodox gays and lesbians.

"Israeli culture is shaped in Tel Aviv, and the future of Israeli society is determined here," Aviad Friedman says, "but in my view, this culture and this future lacks the spice of the Jewish root. I want to provide the option of getting to know it - not from a place of coercion, but from an open and accepting place that enables everyone to listen - without dogmas."