The following is an excerpt from Rabbi Doron Perez’s recently published book entitled “Leading the Way”, collected writings on some of life’s most important matters.

Bridging the cultural gap between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv

Jerusalem and Tel Aviv

The story of the distance between Israel’s two largest cities, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, defines the contours of one of the major challenges facing Israel. I am not referring to the 50km geographical distance but to the religious, social and cultural schism which lies at the heart of modern-day Israel. There are many fault lines in Israel’s social order, but none as pivotal as this in determining the long-term success of Israel’s future.

In Charles Dickens’ renowned novel, A Tale of Two Cities, arguably the greatest fictional historical novel in the English language, he describes the social and cultural realities of French and English societies at the time of the French Revolution. Set in the late 1700s he focuses on the two great European cities of Paris and London as the setting for his social critique. In a similar sense, I believe, the two greatest cities of modern-day Israel – Jerusalem and Tel Aviv – are a succinct expression of Israel’s salient social and cultural challenges.

Two remarkable cities

Both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are truly remarkable cities and symbols of the astonishing success of the Zionist enterprise. Tel Aviv is barely 100 years old, founded in 1909 on the barren sand dunes north of Jaffa, yet today it is Israel’s second-largest city with a population of over 400 000 strong. Amazingly, it is the epicentre of the Gush Dan area, home to over 3.5 million people – over half of Israel’s population – and the undisputed hub of Israel’s commercial life. An extraordinary achievement for a city which did not exist 100 years ago!

Not to be outdone, the story of modern-day Jerusalem is no less remarkable. In contrast and as we all know, Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities in the world – over 4 000 years old. It has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times and recaptured 44 times. It is one of the great surviving and thriving cities of antiquity. In the same year that Tel Aviv was founded, in 1909, Jerusalem had a population of 50 000. Today it is Israel’s largest city, with a population of 900 000 – 18 times the size it was 100 years ago. The tale of these two cities is indeed the story of one of the most miraculously impressive success stories of the 20th century.

Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and the spiritual disengagement from Tel Aviv

That is where the comparison ends. They could not be more culturally different than what they are today. The ancient city of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount and holiest Jewish site, has been a locus of the greatest religious and spiritual revolution in the Jewish world in the modern era. Jerusalem continues to enjoy explosive growth in the growing number of Yeshivot, Seminaries, and Chassidic courts, with the tens of thousands of Yeshiva students consistently teeming in to the city from all around Israel and all around the world, united by their spiritual quest. It has more shuls per capita than any other city in the world and there is literally more than one shul on every street corner.

Jerusalem stands in stark contrast to the reality of Yeshivot, Chassidic courts and shuls in Tel Aviv. There are barely 100 active synagogues in Tel Aviv of a total of just over 500, with, until recently, one shul closing down every week. There are a handful of Yeshivot with only one or two dwindling Chassidic courts. What is tragic about this statistic is the fact that a little over 50 years ago, there were 650 shuls in Tel Aviv and over 20 Chassidic courts. What has happened over the last 50 years has been a gradual spiritual disengagement from Tel Aviv. Over 100 shuls have been closed and the vast majority of the remaining 500 are inactive. Many of the religious Jews and communities have relocated across the highway to Bnei Brak, moved to Jerusalem or other parts of Israel. The city which once drew so much spiritual growth has now become devoid of this, and the secular capital of Israel represents a big schism within Israel.

There are many organisations which are doing wonderful work in spiritually re-energising Tel Aviv, such Tzohar, Mibereishit, Rosh Yehudi, to mention a few, but the reality remains that the religious community has largely disinvested spiritually from the great modern city of Tel Aviv. This applies both to the Ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionist communities. The Ultra-Orthodox established and built the neighbouring town of Bnei Brak, which teems with Torah learning and religious scrupulousness, but in the process has left a religious and spiritual vacuum behind in Tel Aviv. Perhaps only one road divides these two towns, but a cultural schism of epic proportions separates them. The religious Zionist community has also largely disinvested from Tel Aviv, choosing rather to place much of its noble efforts into development towns, and over the last 35 years, into the building of the settlements in Judaea, Sumaria and previously Gaza.

These efforts were most noble in both fulfilling the Biblical precept of settling the land, an unusual opportunity given to us post 1967, as well as bringing religious connectivity to many of the peripheral communities. Of course, for every action there is a reaction and for every consequence an often unintended corollary. I often wonder to myself what Tel Aviv may have looked like today if both the Hareidi and religious Zionist communities would have invested spiritually into the city and inhabitants. I wonder how the city would have looked if there were tens of thousands more observant Jews, hundreds of more active synagogues, Yeshivot and learning centres throughout all of its wonderful neighbourhoods. I believe it would be a different place.

The monumental schism

That, unfortunately, is not the case and what results is a sharp cultural schism between Israel’s two greatest cities. Jerusalem is an ancient 4  000-year-old city, while Tel Aviv is a modern one that barely existed a century ago. Jerusalem is a sacred city; Tel Aviv a secular one. Jerusalem is Middle Eastern while Tel Aviv is Western. Jerusalem is Israel’s spiritual centre while Tel Aviv is its financial one. Tel Aviv is known as the busiest city that “never rests, 24/7”, while Jerusalem mainly comes to rest every Shabbat. Jerusalem is a city that people are prepared to die for, while Tel Aviv is city where people want to live and let live. Jerusalem has a Jewish feel to it; Tel Aviv an Israeli one. In Tel Aviv one encounters high-risers and beachfronts; in Jerusalem hallowed history and the Byzantines. In Jerusalem around 100 people a year experience ‘Jerusalem Syndrome’, a psychiatric condition of those who feel a messianic sense of spiritual high, while in Tel Aviv the ‘highs’ experienced may be of a different nature. Tel Aviv is an earthly city, Jerusalem a heavenly one.

History repeating itself?

The impulse to create two separate societies with little if any interaction between them is a simpler route in the short term, but a more dangerous one in the long term. Jewish history is littered with precedents, which show the disastrous consequences of creating two separate and distinct states and  societies within the borders of the Land of Israel. I always find it quite hard to believe that barely 80 years after the founding of the first united Kingdom of Israel in terms of King David and Solomon that they were rent asunder into two separate states and countries. We are told in the Book of Kings One, Chapter 12, those in times of Rechavem, son of Solomon and grandson of David, that the political tension of the times had the unintended consequences of creating two separate countries. Rechavem was unable to continue the path of David and Solomon and the land was split into the southern religious Kingdom of Judah, with Jerusalem as its capital, and the northern idolatress Kingdom of Israel, with Shomron – Sumaria – as its capital. Two different Kings, Rechavem in the south, Yerovam in the north. Two different capitals and two different cultures. The more Torah-committed in the south and extended Jerusalem area; and the more idolatress, open to trends of the time and the universal pagan culture in the north. This split was to have devastating consequences, which we suffer from until today.

It was only a few hundred years later that the Syrian King, Sencherib, and his armies swarmed down from the north conquering all of the Kingdom of Israel and much of the Kingdom of Judah, and exiling the entire northern Kingdom – the ten Tribes of Israel lost from Jewish destiny until this very day. Indeed, we are all called Jews today because by and large we are all descendants of the tribe of Judah, the southern kingdom, which survived the Assyrian onslaught. Ten of the 12 tribes have been lost to Jewish history and destiny as a direct result of the splitting of the Kingdom of Israel into two distinct cultures along religious-cultural fault lines. After the rebuilding the Second Temple, in the times of Ezra and Nehemiah, it was not a few hundred years before once again there was a schism within the Land of Judea between the hedonists and Hasmoneans, and later the Pharisees and the Sadducees, continual infighting and politicking, continual cultural strife which weakened the Jewish State, culminating in its destruction in the year 70CE.

Re-engagement: two cities – one society

I believe fervently that bridging the distance between the religious and secular divide in Israel, microcosmically represented through the cultural differences between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, is one of the absolutely crucial issues to be placed on Israel’s national agenda. There is almost nothing more important, based both on historical precedent and on the current reality, to ensure the success of the State of Israel in the 21st century. Jews and Israelis, heaven and earth, body and soul, secular and spiritual, ancient and modern must come together if the State of Israel is to be a sustainable and united country to face the challenges ahead. Both are central to Judaism and both crucial to a harmonious Jewish identity. Indeed, the cultural distance between these two cities will determine the future success of the Zionist enterprise. Understanding the problem is at least half of the solution.

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