TEL AVIV, Israel — The ritual Friday-night scramble for a parking space was well underway, but for once, Rob and Netta Geist Pinfold watched it unfold with a smile.
It was late on the Sabbath eve in central Tel Aviv, and swarms of residents who had driven to dinner were cruising for the most precious real estate in the cram-packed capital of secular Israel: a legal spot on the street.
The Geist Pinfolds had let their car gather dust for the night. They’d ridden to Ramat Aviv and back in a minibus. And it hadn’t cost them a shekel.
Nor were they alone. Some 10,000 Israelis have been riding for free on Friday nights and Saturdays since a new Sabbath-only transit network was rushed into service in November by Tel Aviv and three neighboring municipalities.
What is revolutionary about the minibuses is not that they’re free but that they’re running at all. For an otherwise modern metropolis, known for its startups and billion-dollar exits, its beaches and bustling nightlife, Tel Aviv has long been — literally — slowed down by the statutory shutdown of public transportation from before sundown Friday until after sundown Saturday.
Religious Jews abstain from driving and from spending money on the Sabbath, and public transportation has been banned in most places since an agreement before Israel’s founding — known as the status quo — struck a balance between religious and secular interests.
In heavily religious West Jerusalem, where Sabbath observance is the rule, the pause in bus service inconveniences relatively few.
Not so in Tel Aviv, where Friday nights bring crowds to the cafes and bars lining Rabin Square and Rothschild Boulevard, and the clubs and eateries of bohemian Florentin overflow into the wee hours with hipsters whose beards rival any Hasid’s. The weekly transit shutdown amounts to an annoying and costly speed bump on the way to the party.
Those determined to go out, or to get to and from their jobs pouring drinks or waiting tables, have options — taxis, private shuttles or even the electric scooters that charge by the minute.
But taxis charge extra on the Sabbath. Private shuttles, which are licensed by the state, run on only a few main arteries. And scooting while inebriated is ill-advised; one minibus passenger rolled up a sleeve to show his scar from a drunken mishap.
“We waited for this so long,” said Sofia Rabinovich, 18, a student at Tel Aviv University who once depended on her boyfriend to drive her to see friends downtown or in Jaffa.
The excitement about what amounts to a slapdash, stopgap transit system captures how Tel Aviv is at once Israel’s most modern city and also strangely backward.
It is trying to become more worldly, to make itself more livable to residents and more inviting to visitors. Its skyline is rising, with a 91-story tower under construction. The trenches for a light-rail network have been dug, though it is likely to be inadequate the moment it opens. A rapid-transit subway system is at least on the drawing boards.
But the city that launched a thousand killer apps still has plenty of catching up to do with metropolises not known as nearly so innovative.
The new bus service was spearheaded by Tel Aviv’s longtime mayor, 75-year-old Ron Huldai, an old-time Israeli socialist and hard-charging former fighter pilot and air force general. He said Zionism was meant to create “a center for the Jews and not a center for the Jewish religion.” He wants his city to be a “model for democracy and pluralism.”
Huldai said he had wanted to expand Sabbath transit since taking office in 1998. “The first 10 years I didn’t have money to do it,” he said. “The second 10, the minister of transportation kept promising that he was going to do it. Finally, I lost my patience, and we did it.”
A loophole made it legal. The Sabbath ban covers only public transportation for which riders pay a fare. Nothing prevented a city from using municipal funds to run buses where passengers rode free.
The low cost made it feasible. Running 19-seat minibuses across the metro area from early Friday evening until 2 a.m. Saturday, and then starting again at 9 a.m. Saturday, required only $3.6 million a year, shared with the cities of Ramat Hasharon, Giv’atayim and Kiryat Ono.
Still, it wasn’t until September, after Israel’s second parliamentary election of the year resulted in another deadlock, that Huldai gave the project the go-ahead.
The stalemate, in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ultraorthodox allies remained unable to form a government, had created an opening. Nonreligious voters had risen up against the influence of the ultraorthodox, and ultraorthodox lawmakers were not looking for another fight, at least until they were assured of another term in power.
“I’m secular,” Huldai said. “But sometimes, God is working for us.”
In another twist, Tel Aviv’s lefties were using against the right-wing government in Jerusalem a strategy that Israel long ago perfected against the Palestinians.
“It’s the old Zionist way — creating facts on the ground,” said Tomer Persico, a scholar who advocates religious freedom in Israel.
There were objections, of course.
Bezalel Smotrich, the transportation minister, said he was “pained” by the bus service. Moshe Gafni, of the ultraorthodox United Torah Judaism party, called it a “disaster on a national scale.” Shopkeepers for whom Saturday is their only day off complained that their nonreligious customers — suddenly able to ride to open malls — would desert them.
From the left, Persico worried that Tel Aviv’s gambit would set off a “secular arms race,” with cities that cater to affluent nonreligious Israelis accelerating the sorting of the country’s population by providing services like Sabbath buses that poorer and more religious areas would not have.
But the throngs of passengers making use of the minibuses in Tel Aviv on a recent Friday had little interest in such quibbles.
As the vehicles kept rolling by, because there were no empty seats, the clusters of partyers, restaurant workers and young couples on date night who were willing to wait as much as an hour for a ride attested to a larger-than-expected, pent-up demand.
Ridership was just as robust the next morning, with passengers carrying portable grills, strollers or folding chairs for outings in the sunshine.
“The paradox is, I like having it quiet on Shabbat,” said Linda Loritch, an Elmira, New York, native who has lived in Israel for 36 years. She said she attends synagogue and lights candles but resented being denied public transportation out of deference to the more religious.
“Why shouldn’t I get to go to the beach or to Jaffa or anywhere else?” she said, returning from the gym. “If people want it, why shouldn’t they have it? That’s democracy.”
For Vicky Purmishar, the minibuses arrived just in time.
Her 79-year-old mother was hospitalized with a degenerative brain disorder in November. It took her sight and left her unable walk or to eat without choking. The nurses couldn’t sit with her for a half-hour at every meal, so Purmishar, 48, an only child raising two sons, visited twice a day to help her mother eat.
Purmishar does not drive and said she could not afford cabs from Ramat Hasharon. Climbing into a minibus outside Ichilov Hospital on a Saturday afternoon, she said the free rides may well have saved her mother’s life.
“It’s like God sent me a way to come here,” she said.