In ‘Secular’ Tel Aviv, the Great Synagogue Comes back to Life

December 29, 2014  

For the past 30 years, when tourists would arrive at the stately entrance to the Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv at 110 Allenby St, the doors were usually locked. But thanks to a group of community activists and young locals, that is beginning to change. After decades of inactivity and some disrepair, the synagogue is entering a period of revival.

At a December 24 event entitled “The Preservation of Historical Synagogues in Tel Aviv”, held at the site and attended by Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, the message was made clear – the Great Synagogue is back in action. Those involved in the project are combining exciting programming, regular religious services and a welcoming style to help the institution serve once again as a center for Jewish life and a symbol of national identity – “a national home”, as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook once described it. The Synagogue’s advocates are also looking to the self-proclaimed “secular city” for help with the effort.

The event also featured impassioned presentations about other timeworn synagogues in the city, including some in the Jaffa and Neve Zedek neighborhoods that have fallen into utter disrepair. Tamar Tuchler, head of the Tel Aviv Department of the Society for the Preservation of Israeli Heritage Sites, and her staff are actively working to prevent the destruction of some of these sites. But according to her, the response from the Tel Aviv Municipality has been lukewarm.

“If we let our synagogues crumble, who will show our children the spirit of Torah alongside good work, which is so much a part of our national heritage and is manifest in these buildings? Will we educate them just with the Internet? Is that all that will be left?” asked Tuchler during her remarks at the event.

While the Great Synagogue is in better physical shape than other old synagogues in the area – thanks in part to the tradition of Israelis holding weddings and other occasions there – it has not received adequate upkeep in the last few decades. Over time, as the local residents became less connected to traditional Jewish practice, it also became difficult to form a minyan for prayer and it was left empty, even on Shabbat and holidays.

But these limitations haven’t stopped recent grassroots efforts at revitalizing the synagogue. Since the summer, a group of young locals, both immigrants and native Israelis, led by 33-year-old Saul Sadka, who moved to the area from London three years ago, have begun to make new strides. This August marked the resumption of Friday night services for the first time in some 25 years, a tradition that is now going strong. Next came catered Shabbat dinners, attended by hundreds, as well as classes on Torah topics and special holiday events.

“We are intent on returning the crown to its former glory,” explained Shlomo Pivko, the popular synagogue president, quoting a Talmudic phrase. This December 31, the synagogue is even holding a special “End 2014 at the Great Synagogue” event with Chief Rabbi David Lau and Kabbalist Rabbi David Batzri, among others. The idea is to speak directly to secular Tel Aviv locals using their language, to make them feel welcome and comfortable, so that the institution serves as a home for all.

According to Dr. Reuven Gafni of the Ben-Zvi Research Institute, who also spoke at the event, the synagogue was always meant to serve as a place for community, not only as a center for religious observance but also for national identity. The first architectural plans for the synagogue were drawn up in 1911, one of the first two major structures to be built in the Hebrew City alongside the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium. However, it was not until 1930 that the building, with its majestic dome reminiscent of the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem, was finally completed – once again Baron Rothschild saved the day with last minute funding. Even before the final touches were added, it was embraced by the locals. Film footage from pre-State Tel Aviv screened at the event revealed how hundreds of people regularly swarmed to the synagogue as Shabbat approached.

Sadka would like to see history repeat itself and he’s on something of a mission to make it happen. In 2007, he found himself in Tel Aviv for work. When Shabbat arrived, he went to the Great Synagogue for prayers on Friday night, and was shocked to find it locked and empty. After he went home to eat the dry pitas he had bought, he vowed that if he could, he’d help bring the synagogue back to life. Now, just a few years later, about 70-100 people attend services on Friday night and Shabbat, regular activity fills the expansive halls of the building and there is even a new rabbi, Isaac Bar Ze’ev.

”I really believe that the community is changing and that the very fact that the doors are now open and there is activity will lead slowly to a community coalescing. It really is a majestic building that deserves a real community and there are now a group of passionate people who, I believe, can turn the place around,” said Sadka.


Pictures credit: Melissa Kohavi

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