Holy Tel Aviv! A Guide to Sacred Sites in Israel’s 'Sin City'

From orthodoxy and evangelism to Scientology and Zen, Tel Aviv-Jaffa has something to tickle your every god-bud.

Judd Yadid
Judd Yadid
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Judd Yadid
Judd Yadid

With its Mediterranean beaches and thriving cultural scene, Tel Aviv-Jaffa is a magnet for masses of pleasure-seeking tourists every year. Yet beyond its earthly attractions and hedonistic caricature is a city even more diverse than meets the eye. From its manicured, predominately Jewish north to its more mixed, decidedly Levantine south, below is a suggested ‘holy trail’ through Tel Aviv’s hybrid spiritual terrain.

1. Where science and religion seamlessly collide

First stop: Tel Aviv University, where, rising like a spacecraft amid towering palm trees, is the Cymbalista Synagogue and Jewish Heritage Center. With a reddish stone exterior and two towers rising from a square base into perfect circles, symbolizing the meeting of science and faith, Cymbalista was born of a vision to bridge divides between academia and religion, and among Judaism’s denominations. On weekdays, you’ll find students and staff praying shacharit, mincha and ma’ariv in the Orthodox synagogue section of the center, or opposite, in a multipurpose hall that provides an alternative space for non-orthodox services, as well as a variety of ceremonies and symposia in fields such as Jewish Studies and interfaith dialogue.

2. By the rivers of Tel Aviv

Heading south, you cross the Yarkon River and arrive at Beit Daniel, Tel Aviv’s flagship Progressive synagogue. Here, women read from the Torah and LGBT Jews are welcome with open arms. Headed by Rabbi Meir Azari, Beit Daniel offer daily prayer services, conducts weddings and bar mitzvahs as well as educational and cultural outreach, all predicated on its self-described mission as giving “secular Israelis a meaningful sense of Jewish progressive purpose” and building “an Israel which is tolerant, just and welcoming.”

3. The Seashell Synagogue

Continuing along the riverfront toward the sea, you turn left onto Ibn Gvirol St. and make your way to Menachem Ben Suq St. where, amid apartment blocks, you will see an elephantine seashell. Hechal Yehuda Synagogue is at once a place of worship and a memorial to the Nazi-ravaged Jewish community of Thessaloniki, whose seashell-laden coastline inspired the synagogue’s design. Like at many of the city’s large synagogues, attendance is down, but it still hosts regular Orthodox services that are attended mainly by Tel Avivians Jews of Greek descent.

4. Temple of the Tel Avivians

Next stop: Rabin Square. Though devoid of any formal religious house of worship, the iconic public space nevertheless holds deep emotional resonance for many of the city’s residents. It was here that the largest protest in Israeli history took place, where a peace-seeking Prime Minister was assassinated, where multitudes seek refuge in song, dance and even an annual mass water fight. And while only lovers of drab, Soviet-style architecture would describe Rabin Square as aesthetically inspiring, many a Tel Avivian will tell you that its real beauty – and sanctity – lie in the hundreds of thousands of prayers for democracy and human dignity that have filled its air. Note that nothing quite catches the square’s energy – or ‘civil religion’ – as a large-scale political or cultural event, so try visit when something big is on.

5. The Great Synagogue

After strolling down tree-lined Rothschild Boulevard, take a right on Allenby St. and make your way to Tel Aviv’s domed Great Synagogue. Completed in 1926, the original synagogue was built in a classic, old-wordly style in the heart of "Old Tel Aviv," serving as fledgling city’s main Jewish house of worship. In 1970, a heavy arched façade was added, giving the building the imposing, modernist look it has today. While home to a dwindling amount of regular worshippers, its large dome and stained glass windows – replicas of those belonging to synagogues destroyed by the Nazis – make for an impressive sight, as does the contrast of the quiet interior with bustling, profane Allenby St, with its proliferation of banks, clothing shops, electronics stores and falafel joints.

6. Finding Yemen – and Zen

Follow Allenby St. to the bustling Carmel Market and enter Kerem HaTeimanim, Tel Aviv’s village-like “Yemenite Vineyard,” sprinkled as it is with little orthodox Sephardi synagogues. Most are no more than large-sized rooms, but prepare to be enchanted by the Yemenite melodies that waft from their windows. For a sample, visit Chaiyai Olam, lit. “Eternal Life” Synagogue, situated on Kanfei Nesharim St., a street named after the “Wings of Eagles” airlift of tens of thousands of Yemeni Jews to the newborn State of Israel, based on the biblical term to describe God’s deliverance of the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt.

Had your fill of synagogues? If it’s a Sunday and you ring ahead, you can join a Kerem-based group of Zen practitioners for their weekly meeting of meditation and dharma discussion. Belonging to the Kwan Um School of Zen, the Tel Aviv group – comprised of people from across national and religious lines – also organizes retreats. While Zen TLV currently lacks a dedicated venue, let alone a place like Cymbalista or the Seashell, joining a meeting would make an interesting detour off the Abrahamic path. Call 054-9472290 or email telavivzen@gmail.com for meeting times and location.

7. Hassan Beq Mosque

Just a stone’s throw from the Kerem is the white-domed Hassan Beq Mosque, built by the Ottomans in 1916. While a cluster of mosques lie further south in Jaffa proper, Hassan Beq cuts a lonely figure, dwarfed by the ritzy David Intercontinental Hotel directly to its south, and wedged between car parks, the seafront boulevard and “Conquerors Street.” If Hassan Beq’s stone walls could speak, they’d tell you a riveting tale of snipers using minarets and air borne pig’s heads, and how the landscape around it has shifted from sand and shacks to car parks, bus stations and soaring luxury apartment towers. While entry to the mosque is restricted to Muslims, peer through the fanged gates to see its simple yet graceful stone façade and circular windows, not to mention the lovingly tendered greenery at the entrance.

8. Gateway to the Holy Land – St Peter’s Church

From Hassan Beq, follow the seafront promenade to Jaffa’s Old City, where you’ll ascend to St. Peter’s Church and Monastery, perched on perhaps the city’s most beautiful spot. First built 360 years ago by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, and since destroyed and rebuilt twice, the Franciscan church honors the eponymous saint’s resurrection of Tabitha, a disciple of Jesus famed for helping the city’s poor. With its distinctive reddish Baroque exterior, St. Peter’s was and remains the most imposing and arguably most impressive building in Old Jaffa, acting as a beacon for millions of Christian pilgrims, who, well before the days of passenger jets and Open Skies agreements, arrived to the Holy Land by boat.

Open to the public every day from 8-11:45 a.m. and 3-5 p.m, St. Peter’s, which coincidentally sits next to the Vatican Embassy to Israel, conducts masses in Hebrew, English, Polish and Spanish.

9. Your Scientological stop

For a dose of newer religious movements, head for the Center of Scientology of Tel Aviv. Housed in a renovated Art Deco movie cinema, the center opened in 2012 and is the only one of its kind in the Middle East. From the outside, neat rows of multi-lingual translations of founder L. Ron Hubbard’s self-help book, ‘Dianetics’ line the windows, and on the inside, a Public Information Center greets you, offering touch screen films and displays explaining the religion’s core teachings and chronicling the life of Hubbard. Ask at reception for a guided tour.

10. The hidden gem of Tabitha’s Tomb

About a 15-minute walk east is Tel Aviv’s Russian Orthodox Church, located on a hill surrounded by the city’s botanical and zoological gardens. The pinkish nineteenth-century complex, which includes the tomb of the Christian saint Tabitha, is a haven of green and tranquility, featuring manicured gardens, fishponds and even peacocks. Services are held on Sundays at 7am and most Tuesdays and Thursdays at 4pm in Russian and Hebrew. To get there, turn into Ofer Cohen St. from Herzl St., and continue straight until you see the large green entrance gate.

11. Gods of the World in Neve Sha’anan

For your final Holy Tel Aviv stop, head north to arty Florentin, then follow Levinsky St. to gritty Neve Sha’anan. Though notorious in Israeli popular imagination for crime and prostitution, the neighborhood – home to tens of thousands of Africans and Asians – boasts a thriving, diverse religious ecosystem. Catering to everyone from Nigerian evangelicals to Filipino Catholics, Neve Sha’anan is dotted with improvised churches in converted apartments with names like the Redemption Power Ministry and the Church of Pentecost – Mount Horeb Temple. Aside from myriad services, not all the churches are open to strangers but try your luck, especially among the cluster on Levanda St, coined ‘Church Row.’

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