This used to be my synagogue

Few pilgrimage sites have seen more Israeli politicians and journalists over the past year than a two room African migrant bar on Rosh Pina street next to the Neve Shaanan pedestrian walkway in south Tel Aviv. They come in groups on guided tours, and as they stand in the first room, the guide will point to the doors leading to the second room – aged, solid wood, with two large Stars of David set at eye level.

A synagogue undergoing renovations in Neve Shaanan in south Tel Aviv. (Photo: Ben Hartman)

A synagogue undergoing renovations in Neve Shaanan in south Tel Aviv. (Photo: Ben Hartman)

The message is clear – this was once hallowed ground, a Jewish house of worship defiled in the first Hebrew city.

The last one of these tours I tagged along for was last week, when the deputy head of the Religious Services Ministry Eli Ben-Dahan (of the Jewish Home party) was taken around the area to see South Tel Aviv synagogues that have fallen into disrepair or have become abandoned in recent years, as the older Jewish population has moved out and more and more foreign workers and in particular African migrants have moved in.

Ben-Dahan was taken to the Rosh Pina synagogue along with an aide and a few activists from Jewish Home, who said they are working on “Jewish renewal” projects in south Tel Aviv, largely because of what they said is the ever diminishing Jewish character of the neighborhoods in recent years, as the majority of Israel’s more than 60,000 African migrants have made the city’s southern neighborhoods home. He was also taken to a synagogue around the corner on Ein Hakore street, where renovations were underway to repair the building so it could house the worshipers who used to pray at the Rosh Pina synagogue. A veteran parishioner said that the Rosh Pina synagogue wasn’t illegally overrun by African migrants, rather that a few years earlier the landlord decided it would be more profitable to rent it out to a privately-run business, and that after a legal struggle, he paid the parishioners damages which were used to renovate the synagogue on Ein Hakore street to host the congregants from now on.

The tour then made its way to the former site of the Beit Yeshayahu synagogue on Chelnov street, which after it went abandoned years earlier, became the site of a soup kitchen that serves the needy from the neighborhood – from Jewish and Arab drug addicts and street walkers, to African migrants and their families. The transformation of this synagogue as well – from deserted former house of worship to active soup kitchen, was also a subject of lamentations on the trip.

The Rosh Pina synagogue was in the news again on Tuesday, albeit briefly, when it was mentioned by Tel Aviv city councilman and Hatikva neighborhood activist Shlomo Masslawi during remarks made to an urgent meeting of the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee. During the meeting, held to discuss the Supreme Court’s decision to cancel the anti-infiltration amendment, Masslawi mentioned the synagogue, saying “if we had heard about a synagogue in Europe that was turned into a pub we’d all be up in arms, but here in the heart of Tel Aviv it’s allowed.”

It makes sense why the issue is emotional, few things could be more emblematic of the changes in the neighborhood than the transformation of a synagogue into an African migrant pub. The issue has been viewed as a microcosm of the changes in the neighborhood, or, in the popular sentiment “the takeover of the neighborhood as the residents flee in terror.”

Nonetheless, it’s not something that’s unique to Israel. Every time I’ve heard about one of these tours it brings to mind articles in the American press about Jews from Newark who go on annual, police-escorted visits to the abandoned and derelict Jewish cemeteries and formerly Jewish neighborhoods of the city center, which changed dramatically when the Jews began to move to the suburbs in the post-war years.

It also hits a bit closer to home. My childhood synagogue, Congregation Agudas Achim, was founded by a group of orthodox Jews in Austin, Texas in 1914, leasing different spots in town before building a small brick synagogue on San Jacinto Street in downtown Austin 1934, which later became a government building. CAA became a conservative shul years later, and in 1963, the new building was dedicated on Bull Creek street in north Austin. Then Prime Minister Lyndon Baines Johnson was supposed to dedicate the building during a visit by he and President Kennedy to Texas on November 24, 1963, but the day before JFK was assassinated in Dallas, and the dedication was postponed until December. LBJ was a close personal friend of the synagogue’s long-time president Jim Novy, and a framed black and white photo of the president with his dedication to the new house of worship held a place of honor at the Bull Creek synagogue.

It was a local institution for decades in Austin, and expanded into a soaring new building at the site in 1989, an event I remember fondly. The congregation remained at the location until it relocated to the Austin Jewish Community Center where it’s new building was dedicated in 2001. The move was made as the Jewish community became more and more centered in northwest Austin, around the anchor of the JCC.

Not long after, the building on Bull Creek was taken over by a church, one called “Gateway Community Church” that by outside appearances looked evangelical. I found that a bit annoying, but as far as I remember, there was no scandal or community outrage, and my annoyance was more about the fact that a fixture of my childhood was gone, regardless of what came in its place. Last time I was in Austin a year and a half ago, the entire building had been torn down, after it was sold to the Westminster Senior Living Center to expand their facilities.

Surely this is not an exact comparison to the situation in south Tel Aviv. There was no influx of tens of thousands of African migrants to north central Austin in the course of a few years, it was never in a state of decay or rising crime, and a culture of fear was never spoken of by residents of the area. Nonetheless, at Agudas Achim or in those once-Jewish neighborhoods of Newark, the old institutions became abandoned or went through radical transformations because the former population moved on and moved out.

For the foreseeable future, the decrepit synagogues will remain a poignant bone of contention, and more than anything else, a great photo-op for politicians brought to gain a specific perspective of the issues facing the neighborhoods, without a nuanced view of a phenomenon that is by no means unique to south Tel Aviv.

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