The Coolest Shul in Tel Aviv

When Ariel Konstantyn left his position as associate rabbi at the Hampton Synagogue in Long Island to make aliyah in 2005, he didn’t think he’d find work as a community rabbi in Israel.

Against the odds, that is exactly what he is doing.

He’s built his new pulpit, the Tel Aviv International Synagogue-Congregation Beit El, in the heart of a secular city, working doggedly and enthusiastically despite the fact that he receives no salary. In the three years he has been there, the modern Orthodox congregation has grown from a handful of elderly men and women to Tel Aviv’s “coolest shul,” drawing over 300 people from more than 30 countries on Friday nights and over 1,000 members on its Facebook group page. Most are secular or traditional, between the ages of 25 and 45.

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Rabbi Ariel Konstantyn

“We’ve created an environment where everyone feels welcome and part of the experience,” Konstantyn said. He introduced a sheer curtain as a mehitzah down the center of the 80-year-old sanctuary instead of confining women to the balcony or in a tiny, thick-curtained downstairs cubicle if they could not navigate the steps. “Most synagogues in Israel are an exclusive, religious-only club, and we are saying the synagogue belongs to every Jew. It’s a revolution in Tel Aviv — making Judaism accessible, enjoyable, and wanted instead of harsh and coercive.” His goal, he said, is not to make people more religious, but connecting them to the Jewish community in a nonjudgmental way.

Kontantyn, 36, who grew up in East Meadow, Long Island, says he dreamed of aliyah in order to “be part of the destiny of the Jewish people.” His parents, Alex and Susan Konstantyn, are veteran educators, and his sister, Dahlia Rosen, lives in Teaneck. After receiving his ordination from REITS at Yeshiva University, he was brought in to revive Congregation Mount Sinai in Jersey City which, he says, is “still going and growing.” At the end of his five-year tenure at the Hampton Synagogue he had his choice of major Orthodox synagogues across the United States but, he said, “it was 25 years to life if I took any of them.” Aliyah won out over his career.

With his wife, Cheryl, and their two children, Racheli and Eitan, then 6 and 3, Kontantyn left for Israel without a plan. They arrived at the Merkaz Klitah (absorption center) in Ra’anana, trading a huge house with a pool and live-in help for a tiny hostel room. The children went from a Chabad gan of 9 kids to a roomful of 35 rambunctious Israeli children. Eight months later, the Konstantyns moved to the settlement town of Karnei Shomron, which seemed perfect on paper. Nothing worked out, Konstantyn said. For three years he tried his hand at teaching, marketing, and consulting but, he said, “I still felt a hole. I wasn’t fulfilled or happy and I didn’t know what was wrong.”

Then he heard that Tzohar, a religious-Zionist modern-Orthodox rabbinic group supported by the Avichai Foundation, was creating a community project to develop diaspora-style synagogues. They encouraged him to go to Tel Aviv. Konstantyn rented a synagogue space at a religious high school, which was available only on weekends when the school was not in use. The Religious Council of Tel Aviv finally suggested Beit El.

A modern-day pioneer with infectious energy, Konstantyn jumped into the project believing it would work out. He credits the synagogue for accepting his innovations — even page announcements and a Shabbat morning kiddush were revolutions, he said. Most rabbis in Israeli synagogues serve more for the honor than the income, and few are full-time, he noted. “The basic bread-and-butter of a rabbi is unheard of in Israel. I’m fighting for people to see the rabbi as a full-time spiritual and community leader, teacher, social worker, program director, fundraiser. We need to change the dynamic of a synagogue from a simple house of prayer to a community center and place of support. People are alone here, too; they don’t have a sense of community or togetherness.”

The disparity between religious and secular groups in Israel can be a shock for olim. “Many people make aliyah with Judaism and Zionism in their hearts but once they settle here they discover how polarized the society is and are forced to make a choice between being secular or religious. Ironically, many are unable to find a middle ground and end up becoming less connected Jewishly,” Konstantyn said.

The programs he runs range from the Carlebach Kabbalat Shabbat, Champagne Kiddush, and Musical Musaf for Sleep Lovers (service starts at 11 am) to Lecture and Latte at a local café, concerts, and other Jewish cultural events. Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi Yona Metzger, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, Knesset members, and leading media and academic personalities have been guests at services. A lone soldier project (in conjunction with the Michael Levine Lone Soldiers Center) offers free Friday night dinners and Shabbat lunches; it recently drew 150 participants: 100 soldiers—mostly Americans—and 50 congregants.

Funding and religious politics remain a challenge. The fact that the rabbinate accepts him is “a miracle,” Konstantyn said. Tzohar, the San Francisco Jewish Federation, and the Ministry of Absorption provide a small percentage of his budget. Konstantyn hopes to develop sister synagogue relationships, but in the meantime, his expanded family (Yakir, 5, and Noam, 2, were born in Israel) is living on savings, as they invest all the financial support they receive back into the community. His wife, he said, is “following my crazy dreams and letting me live out this concept.”

Konstantyn is not complaining; instead, his face beams when he notes the renaissance of Jewish life in Tel Aviv his shul has inspired. As he walks outside the synagogue, he greets a couple looking curiously at a plaque on the building. Konstantyn invites them inside. “That’s how it works,” he said.