How Olim Are Transforming Israel’s Religious Communities

The pioneer spirit is alive and well in Israel, with new religious communities emerging from the north to the south. Formed by new Olim who come to Israel with a dream, these communities seek to broaden the scope of religious life in Israel and recruit members who share their vision. Read about three communities that are changing the face of Israel’s religious tapestry.

Karmiel Young Israel

When Rabbi Ephraim Schwartz made Aliyah with Nefesh B’Nefesh in 2010, he moved directly to Karmiel, one of Israel’s largest northern cities. There, he hoped to create a synagogue that functioned as a community center and not just a place for davening. Most importantly, in the diverse city, he was looking to attract people from all walks of life. He founded Karmiel’s Young Israel Synagogue, which, on a typical Shabbat, brings 50-60 people together, including American Olim, Charedi men studying in kollel, Sephardim, Ashkenazim, religious Jews, and secular Jews. Having previously lived in Jewish communities that ranged in size from Iowa to Seattle to Virginia, Rabbi Ephraim finds meaning in creating multifaceted Jewish communities. “I believe that we can all learn from each other, and the more we bring people together, the better off we all are,” said Rabbi Ephraim. Since 2010, 25-30 Oleh families have moved to Karmiel and joined its Young Israel community. Though he works as a full-time tour guide, Rabbi Ephraim has been instrumental in launching community events, including Purim seudot (feasts) and Yom Haatzmaut barbecues for soldiers at nearby bases. “If you want to take part in building something meaningful in Eretz Yisrael, Karmiel may be the place for you,” said Rabbi Ephraim. “Here, every person counts and each person helps draw another Jew like himself.”

Tel Aviv Minyan Shivyoni

Long known as a secular city, Tel Aviv has experienced a religious revival in the past few years, with alternative prayer services popping up on its beaches, in its once-empty shuls, and in people’s homes. One of these minyanim is Minyan Shivyoni Tel Aviv, an “open, traditional, and egalitarian community” that hosts Kabbalat Shabbat and Maariv services twice a month, followed by a monthly vegetarian potluck Shabbat dinner in young people’s apartments. Founded by a group of American Olim in 2012, the Minyan Shivyoni attracts a wide range of people every other week. “Tel Aviv attracts people from all religious backgrounds—and many who don’t define themselves as religious, but are still looking for a meaningful Shabbat experience,” said Shana Krakowski, a Minyan Shivyoni board member who made Aliyah with Nefesh B’Nefesh in 2003. “What keeps people coming back is its fun and open atmosphere.” Since its launch, Minyan Shivyoni has expanded to host Shavuot learning events, Purim megillah readings, and a weekly minyan so that its community members could say Kaddish in an egalitarian setting. “I’m very happy to be part of a minyan that is breaking the stereotype of Tel Aviv as a secular city, and showing that it is full of diverse people looking for diverse ways of expressing their religion,” said Shana. “In Tel Aviv, you don’t need to choose your affiliation. You don’t need to fit into any one box.”

Negev Neve Chabad

While growing up in Chabad communities in England and Canada, Mendy and Bruria Efune were taught to help others find ways to become closer to Judaism. When they made Aliyah in early 2014 with Nefesh B’Nefesh, they planned to continue this work in Israel. Together with the Or Movement, they developed the idea for Neve Chabad, a welcoming community in the Negev, which would be home to a five-star resort centered on Jewish learning. Visitors to the resort would spend their days getting pampered at the spa, eating top-notch cuisine, and participating in hands-on Jewish experiences. Neve Chabad would especially draw middle-aged singles and couples, who want to study Torah but do not have the flexibility to enroll in a seminary or yeshiva. “More and more people are coming to Israel who want to connect with the land and witness Judaism in real life,” said Mendy. “At Neve Chabad, they’ll be able to learn anything they want to—in a relaxing atmosphere.” According to the Efunes, the community surrounding the resort is crucial to its success. Now gathering in Be’er Sheva, they are seeking young Chabad families who are ready to work hard and dedicate themselves to others. So far, the community includes 13 families. “The opportunity to learn in this kind of environment is something that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world,” said Mendy. “Ultimately we want to give more people the ability to get closer to their roots in Israel, the center of the world.”