Right in the heart of the Tel Aviv suburb of Nahalat Yitzhak, walking distance from the towers of Azrieli and the Israel Defense Forces barracks of the Kirya, there is a religious school for girls that feels like it was plucked from another world.
In Jerusalem or Bnei Brak, Midreshet Aviv’s small, green campus, filled with long-skirted young women giggling between classes, would blend right in. But here on Emek Bracha street, just a stone’s throw from nonkosher restaurants and the buzzing Ayalon highway, stumbling upon this quiet place of Torah learning is a surprise.
The school was founded in 1996 by Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, modeled on the teachings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. Today, it is run by Rabbi Yair Ben Shetrit, who lives in the small settlement of Kochav Hashahar and makes the hour-plus journey to Tel Aviv each day.
Yifat Diamant has been working at the school for 10 years, serving as a teacher, counselor, chief administrator and headmistress of sorts. Despite her many hats, she says she has no official title.
“What I do is listen to the girls here, who are 20-23 years old, which is a wonderful age with all its difficulties,” she says, her English flawless and her face animated. “I have found that teaching and learning Torah, in the deepest sense, is a way of meeting yourself. It’s where the voice of God, which is endless, meets your own little soul. And there, things connect.”
Despite Tel Aviv’s reputation as an oasis for secular Israelis, a bastion of bent rules that is primarily focused on start-ups and sunbathing, Diamant insists that the city’s small religious community feels comfortable. It’s too simplistic, she says, to say that Tel Aviv is hedonistic while Jerusalem is holy.
“Jerusalem is so huge and so complicated. It’s the main city of culture for all religions. So how can you say it’s just for religious people?” she says. “And in Tel Aviv, we constantly feel an undercurrent of interest in a lot of things, in religion, in intensifying your own relationship with yourself.”
Because real estate prices in Israel’s most cosmopolitan city are so high, the religious families that live here, Diamant says, tend to be more well-off than their neighbors in other cities. Often that means that the women who come study at Midreshet Aviv, women who have finished high school but have yet to marry and define themselves as adults, are especially hungry for what she refers to as the spiritual riches of Torah study.
“Tel Aviv is not everything. Here, you see one sort of life. And it’s very important to make space in yourself for other ways of life,” she says.
To nurture this sort of awareness, the school organizes regular field trips to areas outside of Tel Aviv, with a focus on the West Bank and rural areas. A trip is planned next week to introduce several of the young women to Benny Katzover, the veteran settler leader who has called for Jewish rule to replace democratic law. There will also be a separate journey to the north of Israel, near Safed, to meet a woman working as a weaver and living in the technology-free style of the Bible itself.
“It’s an opportunity for this population to see something else, something strange, something they would never see on an ordinary day. To open their mind and to open their hearts,” Diamant says.
Programs at Midreshet Aviv range from week-long study to just one day per week, with a total of about 400 young women attending. It is the only full-time seminary devoted solely to Torah learning for young women in the Tel Aviv area. The closest alternatives are in Givat Shmuel and Petah Tikva.
But the school has struggled in recent years, with budget cuts forcing it to slash staff and cut back on the number of full-time students. Asked about tuition rates, as well as annual expenditures, Diamant and Rabbi Yair refuse to give specifics.
“We live from air and love,” Diamant says, waving the question off.
In addition to the classes for women in their 20s, on Mondays the school operates a lecture series for women in the neighborhood, with attendees as old as 95 dropping in for a bit of added Jewish learning.
Chaya Rubenstein, a grandmother who came to Israel from Germany 40 years ago, lives near Kikar Hamedina and attends those lectures every Monday. The classes fit well into her Torah-observant Tel Aviv life, she says, adding to a sense of community that has lately taken a hit.
“All of my friends, their children don’t live in Tel Aviv. They live in Petah Tikva or Jerusalem,” Rubenstein, whose four children all also live elsewhere, says. “The young people, they don’t want to live in Tel Aviv because they don’t really have a community here.”
“Look, people drive by your house on Shabbos. It’s not like in Bnei Brak. But it’s okay for us,” she says, referring to herself and her husband, who grew up in Argentina. The two met in Israel not long after she arrived. Living here, she says, has actually strengthened their sense of religion.
“We are not used to living in a very secluded religious place like Borough Park. There are real Haredim in Tel Aviv, all kinds. And I say it’s not a big hochma to be a Haredi in Bnei Brak,” she says, using a Hebrew word for wisdom. “To be a Haredi in Tel Aviv, it’s much harder.”
Avital Mandel, who graduated from Midreshet Aviv two years ago and is now studying communications at a secular university in Ariel, says that the experience has helped her define herself as a young religious woman. She has struggled in college, finding that she often needs to step out of class to avoid lectures and subject matter she deems inappropriate, and draws on her Torah education to stick to her convictions.
“I think that if I would have gone to learn communications without doing a year in midrasha I would be in a different place today,” she says. “You live your life on one level, and then the midrasha just opens your eyes that you can live your life on a totally different level. It gives you a lot of tools.”
Whenever Mandel’s schedule allows her, she travels from Ariel all the way back to Tel Aviv just to visit her former teachers and slip back into the atmosphere of Midreshet Aviv. Asked if she finds it funny that she has to leave the West Bank and come to Tel Aviv to feel re-immersed in Torah, she giggles.
“Coming into this place — there’s Tel Aviv, but it is like a vacuum here,” she says. “You go through the gate and it’s a different place.”