TBILISI, Georgia — It was a crisp Friday night in October when my husband and I walked to the Chabad House on Kote Afghazi Street in Tbilisi, the main tourist drag in the city’s Old Town, lined with wine stores and tourist shops selling Georgian tchotchkes.
We were heading to dinner, but first tagged along with a group of Israelis from Holon who were making their way first to the nearby Georgian Synagogue in their jeans and sweatshirts, some with yarmulkes perched on their heads.
It wasn’t our first sighting of Israelis in Georgia, where I was on a quick, five-day jaunt to discover why the country has become so appealing to the Israeli traveler, including a Shabbat in Tbilisi.
Some 60,000 Israelis visit Georgia annually, according to Israel’s Tourism Ministry, boosting local tourism considerably since Israelis stopped traveling to Turkey for security reasons. Now they’re all coming to Georgia for inexpensive guided tours in the Kazbegi mountains, seasonal jaunts by the sea in Batumi, and Shabbat dinner at Chabad in Tbilisi.
The Georgian Synagogue, also known as the Great Synagogue, was full on Friday night, and the high-ceilinged, 19th century-era sanctuary thronged with what looked to be more visitors than locals. (On one side of the shul is the King David kosher restaurant, opened by members of the synagogue, and serving khinkali meat dumplings and other Georgian delicacies, but not on Shabbat.)
At the end of services, the locals headed home while many of the tourists — about 100 of us — made our way back to the Chabad House, where everyone stood outside while a security guard checked off names against a printed list of paying customers.
Once accounted for, they ushered everyone into a room set with two long tables. We found two spots, squeezing in next to a couple from Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi; across from Yoss, a 60-something hipster originally from Belgium, now living in Jaffa; and near Arik, a middle-aged Israeli who lives and works in Georgia and served as a guide, explaining how Georgians buy expensive, used cars from Japan and how safe it is to be Jewish in Georgia.
He pointed out the central location of the Georgian Synagogue, with its massive stone menorah out front, and told us that the Georgian president had visited there more than once.
So many Israelis visit Georgia that a line of cars parked on Kote Afghazi Street offering private tours of the country includes more than one with handwritten Hebrew advertising.
Still, Georgia’s Jewish community is small, with only a few thousand Jews left after many have emigrated elsewhere. The Jewish population dates back at least 1,500 years, but has declined for decades.
There is also a second synagogue and kosher restaurants (Restaurant Jerusalem was opened by one Jewish Georgian couple who returned after immigrating to Israel in the 1970s). Chabad’s presence is strong too. The organization educates 160 children between the Or Avner Jewish day school and Chabad kindergarten. Chabad also operates a ritual bath and a printing press publishing Jewish texts in Georgian.
At the Shabbat dinner, a group of Georgian Jewish teenagers dressed to go clubbing right after kiddush joined local families, clearly used to the mix of people who show up regularly at Chabad.
“The needs of your community come first,” said our host, Rabbi Meir Kozlovsky, repeating the Chabad dictum of serving the local Jewish community.
“It’s what we do,” said Kozlovsky.
The Kozlovskys generally host between 80 to 110 guests at each Shabbat meal during the high season of May to October, with double the numbers between July and September. That’s when Chabad hosts two seatings of 110 people each.
With so many people coming for Shabbat, the food at this particular Chabad House, the rabbi told me, is prepared by local chefs, who made and served the delicious Georgian-style stewed chicken with white rice and meat-stuffed mushrooms.
I was surprised to learn that there was a fee for dinner, just $14.50 per person; I had always thought that Chabad houses served scores of people for free.
It turns out that each Chabad emissary makes their own decisions about how to fund the enormous meals that are only a small portion of their outreach work.
“There’s this expectation that this couple out in the middle of nowhere, where it’s a lot harder to get kosher food, is supposed to supply free food,” said Chabad spokesperson Rabbi Motti Seligson. “The shluchim go out there and make decisions; no one at 770 is telling them what to do. So they look at what the needs are, whether in Kentucky or Seoul.”
In Tbilisi, the decision has been to include Shabbat meals, largely because of the tremendous number of Israeli tourists who now make the Chabad House there one of their stops. It’s an opportunity that can’t be ignored.
But when the tourists are gone during the long, cold winter, there are usually around 30 people around the Kozlovskys’ table, and the focus is more on school and after-school programming, the rabbi said.
“When the tourists aren’t here, it’s pretty quiet around here,” said Arik, our Friday night dinner guide. “But the Jews aren’t gone just yet.”