A fancy Herzliya apartment overlooking the Mediterranean has been taken over by cardboard boxes piled high, mounds of foodstuffs, shopping carts and more. The haphazard arrangement blocks what would be a stunning view of the harbor, but the smell of delicious home cooking permeates the room as a team of about a dozen volunteers rushes about, prepping, chopping, sautéing and baking.
The organized chaos is gently overseen by the apartment’s owner, Shekoufeh “Chicki” Elghanian, an elegant and lively 84-year-old widow who immigrated to the Jewish state in September. Since the surprise assault into southern Israel by Hamas on October 7, which set off the still raging Israel-Hamas war, Elghanian has been preparing meals for soldiers out of her home and shows no sign of letting up.
Her apartment now seems to function as a volunteer kitchen, social hub and food warehouse, to the point that in her guest bedroom, the air conditioner is permanently set to the lowest setting possible, to function as an ad hoc walk-in refrigerator. Her Italian interior decorator would have “a heart attack” if she saw the apartment in its current state, she says with a shrug.
Elghanian was born in Tehran to a very prominent, well-connected Jewish family, but emigrated from Iran as a six-year-old child with her parents and siblings to the United States in 1947, settling in New York City, where she grew up. She and her family would regularly visit Iran until the 1979 Islamic revolution, which saw her extended family’s businesses confiscated and her uncle, businessman Habib Elghanian, the de facto leader of the Jewish community, executed by firing squad.
Extremely worldly with a calm, loving demeanor, Elghanian is fluent in Persian, English, Italian and French. Although she’s a mother of four and grandmother/great-grandmother to 48 (with two more on the way), she recently was able to take a break from cooking to sit with The Times of Israel over coffee.
“On October 7 I came home from synagogue, and my two telephones were on the table, my son had left 10 messages. So we understood there was a war. My children wanted me to lock all the doors and stay [at home],” says Elghanian.
However, she had other ideas. “After that Shabbat, I took my handbag and my walker and I went to the supermarket. That same night I sent food to the soldiers with my grandson’s friends. It was really amazing, they were so happy,” she says.
Elghanian started cooking and sending food every day to IDF units she learned about from friends and family. Eventually, through word of mouth, she assembled a core team of volunteers of different ages and backgrounds, and now most weekdays there are between 10 and 15 people who come to cook, organize and pack. One dedicated volunteer organizes the drivers and deliveries, and the team now sends out around 300-400 meals each day — and double that amount on Thursdays, ahead of Shabbat.
Elghanian frequently gets calls from people who want to volunteer, and many local companies and businesses have sent their workers to cook for a day or two, she says. One day a few weeks ago, she got an unexpected knock on her door: it was Herzliya Mayor Moshe Fadlon, who had heard about “the cooking” and had come to give her the keys to the city and a plaque.
The circle of volunteers who have become part of Elghanian’s life “come with their whole heart, they really do care. I am so pleased, you can’t imagine. For me, this is a gift, it’s a big privilege to have all these angels from heaven,” she says.
The October 7 onslaught saw some 3,000 Hamas-led terrorists invade southern Israel under the cover of a barrage of rockets in a long-planned assault. Over 1,200 people were brutally murdered, mostly civilians, and roughly 240 kidnapped to Gaza, amid horrific atrocities perpetrated by the terrorists.
Israel subsequently declared war on Hamas, mobilized an unprecedented amount of reserve forces and moved to the current war footing, which shows little sign of abating. Israel post-October 7 also has seen a huge civil volunteer movement, including innumerable efforts to provide food for IDF soldiers.
Some of these food-oriented volunteer groups have subsequently tapered off their work, but not Elghanian.
During The Times of Israel’s recent Thursday visit, the menu was Israeli-style home cooking: mujadara (rice and lentils), oven-cooked chicken and potatoes, pasta with meat sauce, salads, harif (spicy chili sauce), cakes and more. Everything is strictly kosher, and Elghanian is involved in the tiniest details of the preparation.
“I have this wish to keep my soldiers happy, to give a little touch of home. The smell of food reminds them of their mothers. That’s my satisfaction. The more I give, the more I receive. The soldiers take my number, they call me, they really are like my own children,” she says, showing dozens of video messages of appreciation the troops have sent her.
Elghanian has been funding the entire effort out of her own pocket. “This is my inheritance I am using,” she notes wryly, but adds that she has “already taken care of my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
Despite her personal resources, the expenses are great, and recently an enterprising grandson in the United States set up a way to donate to her efforts via a New Jersey Chabad house.
A very personal war
The conversation turns to Elghanian’s experiences as a Jewish Iranian. “Like yesterday, I remember everything,” she says about her early life in Iran. After her father’s business was threatened by a government movement in the 1940s toward communist economics and resource nationalization, her immediate family left for greener pastures.
Coming to New York was a shock, and she recalls her mother, who “always had five or six maids and a butler,” having to learn not only a new language but also how to cook, clean and shop.
Despite her background, Elghanian went to a regular public school in Forest Hills. “I am not letting you get spoiled,” she recalls being told by her father, who continued to work in business and was able to consolidate the family’s situation in their new home.
She would marry at 20 and have four children, two of whom are now religious and live in Israel, which was the main impetus for Elghanian to finally immigrate after years of going back and forth between the two countries. In the US she owned a jewelry company, which she ran with one of her sons for many years, and always took time to be involved with caring for children and the sick.
Her Persian heritage was always a factor in her life, but everything changed in 1979 when the Ayatollahs came to power. The execution of her uncle Habib Elghanian, which took place just a few months after the Islamic Revolution began, made headlines around the world and is considered a watershed moment that galvanized many Iranian Jews to flee the country.
His death was “a tragedy, he was a powerhouse,” she says, recalling that her father fainted dead away at the news of his brother’s death.
Given her family history, Elghanian has long regarded the Iranian Islamic regime as a personal enemy and sees the current war Israel is waging against Hamas, which is largely funded by the Iranian government, as “a very direct” extension of the same struggle.
“I have family still in Iran, we have friends… it hurts me that they are suffering. It really is a horrific regime.” She describes Iran’s rulers as “ignorant fools” who are unfortunately “running the world right now… They should all be shot in front of a firing squad. I will gladly pull the trigger.”
From some of the soldiers she has fed, she recently learned that they expressed their appreciation for her in a unique way: “I have a rocket with my name on it, it says ‘The IDF loves Chicki,'” Elghanian says with a smile.
They should all be shot in front of a firing squad. I will gladly pull the trigger
“I wish I could send it directly to all the mullahs, to send them off the face of the Earth. Believe me. They murdered my uncle with their guns, you have no idea, he did nothing. They called him a spy for Israel… they destroyed everything,” she says firmly.
Gazing out of her window before going back to cooking, she spies an IDF helicopter flying south over the Mediterranean.
“Oh my God, they are going to Gaza,” Elghanian says, and stops everything to whisper a quick prayer for their safety.
“I pray for them every single time because I worry so much. I go to bed at two in the morning and I wake up at four or five like a soldier. I don’t know how I am surviving, but it’s okay, I don’t mind. It’s in my heart to do the most I can, and I say thank you God for giving me one more day of life.”
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