Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood is undergoing dramatic change. Named for David Florentin, a Greek Jew who had purchased the land in the late 1920s, the neighborhood suffered for many decades from urban decay and poverty. Its present turnaround is being fueled by younger residents and aspiring artists who have attracted like-minded people, which has changed the community’s vibe. In fact, Florentin was recently named the second most hip neighborhood in the world, ironically right behind Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
In Florentin, there is a street named in memory of Rabbi Yitzchak Yedidya Frankel. In 1934, as a young communal rabbi in Rypin, Poland, Rabbi Frankel experienced a harrowing anti-Semitic encounter and, reading the writing on the wall, decided to emigrate to pre-state Israel.
A few months later, Rabbi Frankel and his family arrived in the Holy Land and moved into Florentin, where he taught in a local school and expended countless hours helping many new immigrants settle into the country. Rabbi Frankel served as the communal rabbi of Florentin for many years before becoming the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa.
The Florentin community’s population was a potpourri of immigrants from Bukhara, Salonika, Morocco, Yemen, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. Rabbi Frankel initiated numerous programs to unite this disparate group, but one particular event that he introduced became a nationwide tradition.
In Israel, the holiday of Simchat Torah—in which Jews celebrate the completion of the yearly cycle of Torah readings—falls on the same day as Shemini Atzeret, the last day of Sukkot. However, in the diaspora, Simchat Torah is celebrated the day after Shemini Atzeret.
In October 1942, at the end of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, in the Ahavat Chesed Synagogue located on what is now Frankel Street, Rabbi Frankel made an impassioned plea to his congregants. According to his son-in-law Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau’s autobiography, Rabbi Frankel “removed a Torah scroll from the ark, and in a voice quivering with emotion, announced to the congregation: ‘In Poland and elsewhere throughout war-torn Europe, the telephones aren’t working, the telegraph stations are closed, the mail no longer runs. Entire communities are cut off, and we do not know what has happened to their Jews.
“At this exact hour, in Warsaw, Krakow, and every other city in Poland, they should be beginning their Simchat Torah celebrations. But we do not know whether the synagogues are open, whether the Jews are allowed to go to them, whether they are performing the traditional processions holding the Torah scrolls. We are completely cut off from them, and despite our attempts to make contact, the communities do not answer. But all Jews are responsible for one another. Let us act in their stead and perform processions on their behalf, at least symbolically.”
At that point, the congregants followed Rabbi Frankel’s lead and took the Torah scrolls, sang songs, danced and completed a second night of hakafot (processions) on behalf of their brethren suffering unspeakable horrors in war-ravaged Europe.”
This was how Rabbi Frankel initiated the Israeli tradition of hakafot shniyot, a second round of dancing with the Torah scrolls, held the night after the holiday of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Over time, hakafot shniyot spread to practically every community across the country.
Hakafot shniyot is but one example of Rabbi Frankel’s life-long commitment to the Jewish people. Numerous stories about Rabbi Frankel and many other fascinating personalities fill the pages of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau’s inspirational—and highly recommended—memoirs, “Out of the Depths: The story of a Child of Buchenwald Who Returned Home at Last.”
By Gedaliah Borvick