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Transcending Walls in Tel Aviv

Interview with Rabbi Meir Azari

You started Beit Daniel—the first Reform synagogue in Tel Aviv with its own building—without adopting North American congregational models. You created something unique.

That’s right. The needs and expectations of Israelis are quite different from those of North American Jews, so we had to come up with a suitable model of what a modern Israeli congregation ought to be. Unlike Jews in North America, Israelis don’t need religious school to learn Hebrew for their bar or bat mitzvah, and they don’t need a synagogue to serve as a Jewish place of meeting. Israelis also expect to receive religious services free, because the Israeli government has invested heavily in building and maintaining Orthodox synagogues and paying their rabbis’ salaries, allowing them to offer the public religious services almost for free. As a result, most Israelis consider congregational dues a foreign concept.

Therefore Beit Daniel has never relied on dues for revenue, though about 20% of the people we serve are paying members. Instead, we instituted a fee-for-service model that serves the wider community. Annually, we perform more than 300 weddings, 180 b’nai mitzvah, and 100 conversions for non-members. Israelis are very happy to pay for services they want, so long as they don’t feel pressured to join a congregation.

Wasn’t it risky to depend on a fee-for-service model?

From the start we knew that our product would have to be very good and meaningful; otherwise nobody would buy it. If a restaurant doesn’t provide good food and service, it will go out of business. The same applies to a synagogue.

In North America, where most congregations rely primarily on dues, “fee for service” has become a somewhat pejorative term. Do you think your model can be sustainable outside of Israel?

Dramatic changes in the world are having a huge impact on nonprofit institutions, forcing us to think in unconventional and creative ways to ensure the future of the Jewish world. Today, the Reform Movement can no longer depend mainly on a dues-based model. To attract the younger generation, who do not have the same motivation as their grandparents to be members of a synagogue, we have to think beyond our comfort zone. We do not have the luxury to rule out alternative models, such as that of Chabad, of different church denominations in North America, or our model in Tel Aviv.

How did you come to think of Beit Daniel in business terms?

Beit Daniel is named after Gerry Daniel and his wife Ruth, z”l, successful industrialists who not only provided a major contribution to launch the congregation, but also taught me how to apply three important business principles in growing a congregation: to think big; to think about the day after tomorrow, not just tomorrow; and not to fear failure. I have internalized these principles and apply them to everything we do at Beit Daniel, which, as a result, has grown to include three congregations that constitute The Daniel Centers for Progressive Judaism.

How did you begin to put these principles into practice?

The Daniels and our lay leadership decided that our scope would extend beyond the synagogue walls and include the entire Tel Aviv area. Our staff and I spend most of our time officiating at lifecycle events for non-members, hosting or participating in cultural programs and public lectures, serving as part of the national education system by providing the Jewish identity content for numerous schools in the Tel Aviv area, and providing a Progressive Jewish experience to tourists from Israel and abroad.

Our open-door policy has brought thousands of people into our orbit for a large array of programs and services that feed into one another. For example, a person who comes to us for a bar mitzvah may return later for a bat mitzvah, or a funeral, or to take a course on Jewish ethics or art. We have established relationships with all these people and target mailings to them based on their individual interests. In addition, every year about 8,000 teachers, parents, and children attend seminars and programs we conduct at the Daniel Centers or at 30 different Tel Aviv schools. We also run the Jewish identity program in two elementary schools in Tel Aviv, a unique coexistence program in a mixed Jewish Arab school in Jaffa, and 20 different preschools serving about 700 children across the city.

What led Beit Daniel in 2006 to build its second center—Mishkenot Ruth Daniel, the guest house, synagogue, and conference center in Jaffa?

We conceived Mishkenot as a synagogue, 64-room guest house, and conference center that reaches out to the wider Jewish world, giving foreign visitors—25,000 guests last year—an Israeli experience in Israel’s most pluralistic and innovative city. We also host about 10,000 Birthright participants every year, offering them seminars on topics such as Jewish identity, coexistence, and social justice. And we’re proud of having brought prosperity—new people, businesses, and jobs for both Jews and Arabs—to what was once a blighted urban space. When the Tel Aviv municipality first offered Beit Daniel this plot of land in Jaffa more than 10 years ago, the area was the domain of drug dealers. Today, largely because of our presence, the neighborhood is prime real estate. Mayor Ron Huldai of Tel Aviv, who invested $2 million in the project, says it was one of the best investments he’s ever made.

Why in 2010 did The Daniel Centers establish a third Tel Aviv center—Kehilat Halev [Community of the Heart]?

Kehilat Halev is not a separate congregation but an expansion of The Daniel Centers to the center of Tel Aviv. Beit Daniel is in Northern Tel Aviv, the city is growing, and people here are increasingly focusing on the neighborhoodlevel. Also, Kehilat Halev is geared to younger people who are looking for a more New Age, East meets West spirit with a focus on movement and music.Situated in a building owned by the municipality that serves as a senior citizen center, Kehilat Halev was part of the city’s plan to have young adults interact with the older generation. It is lovely to see old and young people dancing together on Purim or Simchat Torah.

Having three branches is a good model from a financial and management efficiency point of view because we do not have to fund separate executive directors, bookkeepers, brochures, newspaper ads, etc. And when we go to the mayor of Tel Aviv with a request, he understands that we are in a position of clout with three centers serving thousands of people.

How does The Daniel Centers fund its general operating budget?

Of our total annual budget of $3 million, 80% is internally generated from membership dues, service fees (e.g. b’nai mitzvah, conversions, adult education, preschool), and Mishkenot Ruth; 10% comes from the Jewish Agency and Reform Movement sources; and 10% is from the Friends of The Daniel Centers (donations from people who have visited us in the past 20 years and have become supporters).

How else has the Daniel Centers raised its social profile?

One way has been through social action—rallying for the rights of Holocaust survivors denied government benefits, collecting food and clothes for the needy, and overseeing the MASA Tikkun Olam Tel Aviv Jaffa program that brings post college adults to Israel to volunteer at different organizations. In the early 1990s, we were the first establishment to host a gay rights event. Most recently, Beit Daniel and Mishkenot Ruth Daniel received a lot of media attention because they served as meeting places for the organizers of the massive summer social protests in Tel Aviv demanding economic equality and social justice.

We’ve also raised our profile through involvement in the city’s cultural life. We serve as a kind of cultural incubator, offering free space to artists and startup performing groups. Several years ago, for example, Nalagat, a theater group of deaf and blind actors, needed rehearsal space, so I went to see them and invited them to use our facility. Today Nalagat is one of Israel’s premier attractions, operating a restaurant and large theater in Jaffa with sold-out performances every night. We did the same for a puppeteer from Russia namedShaul who needed a place to live and build his puppets. He did his first show at Beit Daniel and today is a big success with his own theater group. Encounters with artists and their audiences bring people to Beit Daniel who would never otherwise have entered our building. Once inside, they begin to ask questions about who we are and what we do, and begin to develop an understanding and appreciation of the values of Progressive Judaism. Our goal is to open the door and break down the barriers that keep people on the other side.

Do you plan to build another Daniel Center?

Absolutely. If things continue to go as they are, with our organization growing and the Tel Aviv resident and worker population expanding beyond one million people, I expect that within the next 10 years we will add more than one congregation to magnify the Reform presence here. And Gerry Daniel, who is now 95; his family; and the Daniel Centers staff plan to create a seminar center for Jewish professionals from all over the world to come together in this exciting city.

Meir Azari, one of the first Israelis to be ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem and one of the first executive directors of the Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism (1986-1989), has also been a pioneer in creating a new entrepreneurial vision of the Israeli urban synagogue.