Tel Aviv was founded on the second day of Passover, 1909. A crowd famously gathered on the dunes on April 11 and dreamed of the rise of an ir metropolinit — a modern Hebrew metropolis.
The new white city, inhabited by “the new Jew”, was established to be as far removed from the religiosity and squalor of Jerusalem as possible. It will therefore come as a surprise that one of its founders was Zerach Barnett, a strictly Orthodox Jew from London’s East End.
Neve Tsedek, today a yuppified district near the Tel Aviv shore, was the first Jewish suburb of Jaffa, created in 1887. Three years later, in 1890, Barnett bought adjacent land to create Neve Shalom, the area, along with Neve Tsedek, that was to become Tel Aviv almost 20 years later.
Barnett arrived in the Holy Land 25 years before Theodor Herzl paid his first visit. Before he set about his Tel Aviv project, he established the strictly-Orthodox settlement of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, and was one of the founders of the city of Petakh Tikva in 1878.
Still virtually unknown in Britain, this one-man metropolis-builder was actually born in Tytuvenai, a small village in Lithuania, in 1843, lived until he was well into his nineties and was buried in Jerusalem. At yeshivah in Lithuania, he was highly influenced by his teacher, Rav Avraham Kreiser, who “yearned to see the blossoming of our Holy Land and to participate in its upbuilding”.
In his long-forgotten memoirs, Barnett reveals that he did not want the shidduch arranged for him with Rachel Leah, daughter of Yitzhak HaCohen of London, because he ardently wanted to go to the land of Israel with his rabbi.
Eventually he settled for the match, and a life in Britain. He soon became involved in the founding of small shtibls in the East End, based on the Vilna model, which eventually amalgamated as the Federation of Synagogues.
Through initiative and hard work, he was able to build up a thriving business in the fur trade with contacts in Leipzig and Paris. He received his British passport after seven years in London and immediately made plans to travel to the Middle East. He left London in 1872, with his wife and his two-year-old daughter. On arrival, he was disappointed to discover only eight Ashkenazi Jews among the Sephardim of Jaffa — “not enough for a minyan”, he remarks.
This first visit to search out land for Jewish settlement led to another 14 in as many years, much to the consternation of his wife and growing yet unsettled family. His shuttling between London and Jerusalem was directed towards earning money in the British capital and spending it on land purchases in the Holy Land. His obsession was not received with encouragement by his friends. In London, they thought his actions ridiculous if not mad, in Jerusalem they were perceived as verging on the heretical.
His daughter, Hannah, recalled the disapproval felt by the Orthodox inhabitants of Mea Shearim in her memoir in the 1920s. “In their eyes, the duty of a pious Jew was to study the Torah and to wait for the restoration of Palestine by miracle, and all this talk of buying land, piece by piece, and of building and farming, was little short of sinful,” she wrote.
But Barnett persevered. In 1890, he purchased 70,000 square metres of land abutting the Arab neighbourhood of al-Manshiye, named it Neve Shalom and settled there permanently.
He started to build houses for the increased number of Jews living in dire conditions in neighbouring Jaffa, and in 1896, he finally fulfilled his life-long ambition of building a large synagogue in Neve Shalom, accommodating Sephardi, Ashkenazi and Chabad services in its different rooms. Now he finally had his minyan outside of Jerusalem.