When you think of the modern city of Tel Aviv, synagogues are probably not the first thing that come to mind. Beaches, bars, nightclubs, a thriving tech industry, yes, but synagogues? Well, unbelievably, Tel Aviv has a rich religious history and is currently home to over 500 synagogues. Some of its most famous ones were built even before the establishment of the State, while others were built later to accommodate various needs. Three of Tel Aviv’s most famous synagogues — the Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv, Ohel Moed, and Heichal Yehuda — are all active today and can be visited as tourist attractions or for actual prayer services. How and when were they started? Read on.
The Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv
Located on the famous Allenby Street in today’s business and financial sector, the Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv was completed in 1926 and renovated in 1970. It was originally supposed to be on Yehuda Halevi Street, but for various reasons, it was moved to Allenby. In the early 20th century, the Committee for the Great Synagogue held a competition for architects and chose Richard Michael to draw up the building plans, but when Word War I broke out Michael was forced to leave Israel and draft into the German army. The building plan was then taken over by architect Alexander Baerwald, who also designed the Technion in Haifa. For years, the synagogue functioned as a focal point for Jewish religious life in Tel Aviv; in 1949, David Ben Gurion attended services there on Israel’s first Independence Day. However, as the population of Tel Aviv changed and became more secular, fewer and fewer people came to pray. While the synagogue still hosts weekly prayer services, it’s most popular on Shabbat and as a venue for bar mitzvahs and the like.
Ohel Moed Synagogue/The Great Sephardic Synagogue of Tel Aviv
Ohel Moed Synagogue, also known as the Great Sephardic Synagogue, is located on Shadal Street, near Rothschild Boulevard. The land on which the synagogue is built was bought by two wealthy Yemenite Jews in the 1920s, Shalom Aharon Levy and Shlomo Yitzchak Cohen. They bought it as an investment before they immigrated to Israel. When the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel, heard of the purchase, he wrote a letter to the two investors encouraging them to dedicate the land as a place of prayer for Sephardic Jews. Levy and Cohen agreed, and even funded a significant part of the synagogue’s construction. (Today, you can see a copy of Rabbi Uziel’s letter in the synagogue, framed and hung next to the entrance.) This synagogue was designed by the architect Joseph Berlin; it is known for its beautiful art deco and Bauhaus styles. Construction of the building was completed in 1928, but its famous dome took an additional three years to complete.
Hechal Yehuda Synagogue
Located on Menahem Ben Saruq Street in the center of Tel Aviv, Hechal Yehuda is also known as the Recanati Synagogue and Seashell Synagogue (the former due to the family who funded it and the latter due to its unique shape). Indeed, the design was inspired by the seashells on the shores of Thessalonica, the Greek hometown of the Recanati family, who funded the building of the synagogue. Hechal Yehuda came onto the Tel Aviv synagogue scene later than the Great Synagogues and was designed by the architect Yitzchak Toledano (also from Thessalonica) and built in memory of the Jews of the city who were almost entirely wiped out during the Holocaust. The construction was completed in 1980 and includes beautiful stained-glass windows and separate men and women sections with seating for 600.
Visiting Tel Aviv Synagogues Today
Whether you’re interested in historical tours of synagogues or praying in them, there’s no shortage of options in Tel Aviv. Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Orthodox, Conservative, Egalitarian, Reform, Chabad, Masorti; Tel Aviv has it all. The next time you plan to visit, don’t just think of the beach or the Namal; do something different and explore the beautiful architecture and rich history that the city has to offer.