It’s a hot, sticky Friday night in one of Tel Aviv’s swankiest neighborhoods, and a battle over the community’s soul is about to erupt.
On one side is a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews, in black coats and hats, celebrating the Sabbath by singing, praying, and drinking wine in a public courtyard. Attracted by the revelry and the wine, about two dozen teenagers and young men join in.
At the other end of the plaza is a squad of concerned parents, alarmed by what they see as an extremist religious group trying to get a foothold in their secular neighborhood. They try to persuade the teenagers to stay away from the ultra-Orthodox party.
The situation escalates. Shouting turns into shoving. By midnight police arrive to restore the peace.
Another Sabbath, a time intended for rest and religious reflection almost triggering a brawl in Ramat Aviv.
Clashes between secular and religious Israelis are nothing new. In Jerusalem, shifting demographics have led to an uneasy coexistence between the fast-growing ultra-Orthodox community, known as Haredim, and the city’s secular population.
Now, however, these tensions are shifting to other parts of the country as Haredi families move into urban, secular neighborhoods such as Ramat Aviv.
In Ramat Aviv, one of the more expensive parts of Tel Aviv, some residents say the arrival of the Haredim is not about expanding populations in search of affordable housing, but is rooted in a political and religious agenda not unlike that of Jewish settlers moving to the West Bank.
“They’re not coming here just to live,’’ said David Shulman, who is helping to lead a neighborhood group opposed to the Haredi expansion. “They are here to take over the neighborhood.’’
Ultra-Orthodox leaders in Ramat Aviv dismiss such fears as unfounded. Yehuda Sheleg, who serves as a rabbi in a new synagogue in the area, said the controversy has been exaggerated by a handful of residents “who are bothered by anything Jewish.’’
Butcher Rafi Aharonowiz, who has been selling pork, seafood, and other nonkosher foods from his Ramat Aviv shop for a decade, said friction is growing as Haredim become more aggressive. Haredi leaders opened a religious school a few yards from his shop, and its students sometimes spit on his front stoop as they pass. He started receiving anonymous phone calls asking why he sells nonkosher goods.
Haredim set up booths and tables in front of his and other stores to spread their message.
At one such table, Haredi student Rotem Hadad, 25, invited shoppers to stop and pray, persistently pursuing some of those who brushed him off to a sleek mall, where some stopped for a quick prayer or free Sabbath candles.
To Hadad, there is no harm in reaching out to other Jews. Like many of the Haredim in Ramat Aviv, he is part of a ultra-Orthodox sect known as Chabad.
Unlike most other branches of Judaism, Chabad followers are known for their missionarylike practices directed at other Jews.
“We are trying to spread Judaism outside the synagogue,’’ he said. “Jews need to be awakened. It’s like awakening someone from a sleep. Sometimes that person wakes up a bit grumpy at first.’’
Secular leaders in Ramat Aviv say they are more than a little grumpy. They have organized a campaign to drive the Haredim out. In addition to sending teams of parents to confront the Friday night gatherings, they have filed zoning complaints about the Haredi kindergarten and other establishments.