The city of Sochi, usually home to fewer than 400,000 people, has had to prepare to host hundreds of thousands more ever since it was selected to host the 2014 Winter Olympics. As hotels and public transportation were revamped and ski and bobsled tracks prepared, the local rabbi started to think about what he’d do with 20,000 Jewish visitors — and the thousands of kosher meals they’d need over the course of two weeks.
Located on the Black Sea, the Russian city is a growing sports destination and the home of some 3,000 Jews. According to Ari Edelkopf, a Chabad rabbi who heads a number of Jewish initiatives in Sochi, he and his staff are getting ready to welcome thousands of Jews from all continents, including Israel’s delegation of five athletes.
After years of planning, and with the real deal underway this week (the Games run from Friday, February 7, to Sunday, February 23), Edelkopf told The Times of Israel his goal was “to reach out to all the visiting Jews and to make sure that their spiritual and religious needs are met, and hopefully expanded” during their stay in Sochi.
Repeatedly referring to his job during the Winter Games “a challenge” in a recent email exchange, Edelkopf said he knows what awaits him and the rest of the Chabad team. “An estimated 20,00 Jewish visitors will be in attendance,” he said. This means there are more than six Jews visiting Sochi for every Jew living there.
“Our staff members are equipped to prepare about 7,000 kosher meals,” he continued. “There will be Jewish athletes and visitors from around the world who will be attending, including from places such as US, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Europe [and] Israel.”
One of those visiting Jewish athletes is American figure skater Jason Brown, a 19-year-old who grew up in the Reform movement and who recently told The Jewish Week he was “dying to go” to Israel, possibly on Birthright. Others include Israel’s four skaters and lone skier, as well as journalists and numerous spectators.
The Israel-born Edelkopf, 35, grew up in Los Angeles and has been a Chabad emissary in the community for the past 12 years. While he’s organized events before, to successfully cater to all the needs of the Jewish visitors is a huge challenge, he acknowledged.
But he is optimistic he’ll meet his goal of reaching out to the Jews visiting the Olympics.
To this end, the Jewish content and services offered in the city has been expanded.
“We have acquired two temporary centers that are strategically located throughout the region — this is in addition to our year-round Jewish community center — and they will be staffed by 12 rabbinic interns,” he said. “Throughout the week there will be prayer services, as well as courses and classes on topics ranging from the weekly Torah portion to in-depth Talmud study. On Shabbat there will be prayer services as well as traditional Shabbat meals.”
The Sochi Games have also been in the headlines for reasons other than sports.
“Our community is regularly in touch with local officials and security experts,” Edelkopf said when asked about possible security concerns, acknowledging it was something he and the organizers were taking seriously. “Because of the nature of the topic, I can’t elaborate more than that.”
The bottom line, Edelkopf stressed, is Jews traveling to the 2014 Winter Olympics will be provided with everything they need.
“We have a united and warm community and we are very much looking forward to greeting and hosting Jews from all over the world.”