The founders of Neve Shaanan, a neighborhood in southern Tel Aviv, planned their streets in the shape of a seven-branched candelabra – a symbol of their Jewish faith. Ninety years later, the streets are full of Christmas decorations, reflecting a flowering of Christianity in Israel's economic and cultural capital.
Tens of thousands of Christian foreigners, most of them laborers from the Philippines and African asylum seekers, have poured into the neighborhood in recent years.
They pray year-round in more than 30 churches hidden in grimy apartment buildings. But in late December, their Christian subculture emerges in full force in the southern streets of Tel Aviv, whose founders called it the "first Hebrew city."
On the Saturday before Christmas, the center of festivities was the city's central bus station, a hulking seven-story maze of concrete. A plastic green fir spewed fake snow from its top in a shop near the main entrance.
Christmas carols blasted from storefronts full of rice and noodles. Giggly young Filipino women took photographs with a Santa Claus figure to send to their friends and parents.
A few blocks north of the station, pastor Ruby Austria held her arms up and led prayers for 80 worshippers, most of them Filipino women, at a makeshift church on the third floor of an apartment building.
Women wept, clutching small children and singing along to Austria's prayers and a keyboard accompaniment. Nearly all of them were in Israel illegally because they lost their work permits when they had children.
"God is embracing us," Austria said. "May we see the true meaning of Christmas, that each of us will be able to see it in our lives and family."
'God is embracing us' (Photo: AP)
Romeo Moralit, 35, arrived in Israel five years ago to work as a caregiver. He planned to buy a musical Santa Claus statue to bring cheer to his home, he said. Tel Aviv's Christmas celebrations paled in comparison to Manila's. "In the Philippines you see decorations everywhere, twinkling lights, and songs playing in all the shopping malls," he said.
For some, the holiday punctuates the divide between parents and children.
Nancy Domingo, who arrived in Israel 14 years ago from the Philippines, said her eldest daughter did not plan on eating traditional Filipino Christmas food. The seven-year-old, like the other children of migrant workers here, has grown up steeped in Israeli Jewish culture. The girl speaks Hebrew, learns about Jewish holidays in school and is familiar with Jewish dietary laws, such as the ban on pork.
"If I cook pork she won't eat it because in school they tell her pork is not clean," Domingo said. "She doesn't know Christmas, only Hanukkah."
Nearby, a mostly African church called Lift Up Your Head, runs an annual trip to Jerusalem's Old City and Bethlehem. Tour organizer Anthony Stephens, a Nigerian asylum seeker, said 150 people have signed up.
"People from all over the world spend a lot of money to come here, but for us it is like a gift because we are in the land," said Stephens.
'They thought Christmas is a big deal everywhere'
Lift Up Your Head is sandwiched between two other African congregations on the first and third floors of an apartment building. These churches offer African-inflected gospel music, dancing in the aisles and fiery preaching that holds together an impoverished group far from home. On Saturday, pastor Jeremiah Dairo howled into a microphone between songs.
"Today you are in the right place and God will see you through, in the mighty name of Jesus!" Dairo said.
Not all Israelis are pleased to see the rising profile of Christmas, which to some symbolizes religious assimilation and to others a religion with a history of hostility to Jews. Moshe Avisar, 67, on his way back to Jerusalem, said the decorations in the bus station bothered him.
"I go to the Central Bus Station and I don't feel like I'm in Israel, even though it's my country," he said. Of the decorations, he said, "I don't want to see this in the Jewish state. Then all the Jewish people get carried away with it and start celebrating too."
The foreigners are not the only Christians in the city. Jaffa, a historically Arab town that is now the southern quarter of Tel Aviv, has churches dating back hundreds of years.
Nationwide, Israel has about 110,000 Arab Christian citizens. A wave of 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s included between 50,000-80,000 practicing Russian Orthodox. And thousands of other Russian-speaking Jews celebrate a secular version of Christmas.
But unlike these groups, the foreign workers and asylum seekers have little way to gain citizenship.
The workers, who receive temporary permits, often overstay them, living illegally and in fear of the immigration police. For these people, the churches are alternate institutions that help them navigate the uncertainty of their lives on the margins of Israeli society.
Social worker Tamar Schwartz directs Mesila, an aid organization for foreigners funded partially by the Tel Aviv municipality. The church is a key meeting place for the foreign community, she said.
Each year the organization throws a Christmas-Hanukkah party to help bridge between the migrants' foreign backgrounds and the Jewish culture their children absorb.
"They learn only about Hanukkah in school, and then they get home to parents who don't speak Hebrew and they hear that Christmas is the most important holiday," she said. "A child like this grows with a split identity."
Gift shop owner Daniel Seah said that when he first arrived in Tel Aviv from Singapore 15 years ago he brought his own Christmas tree because he wondered whether he could find one in Israel. A week before Christmas he produced an annual Christmas show on the fourth floor of the Central Bus Station, with singing, dancing and a gift basket lottery.
"In the mind of the people who come to Israel, it's the birthplace of Christianity and they really thought Christmas would be a big deal everywhere," he said. "They were disappointed. They expect it to be a little more exuberant."