In a dramatic farewell extravaganza to the athletes and countries participating at the games, the Olympics XXVIII closed last night. The three weeks of competitive sports which were followed internationally, brought new visibility to a city long resting on the memory of an ancient past.
Less predictable though, is a newfound sense of Jewish awareness among Athenians, for whom the opening of a first-ever kosher restaurant catering to Israeli and Jewish clientele, athletes and visitors alike, was a true novelty.
Ta Nea, the national daily newspaper reported on the new addition to the city just in time for the opening games, in a full story about this venture which would close shop on Saturdays. The article described at length the intricacies of kosher dietary laws, and a menu that curiously excluded any dairy foods. For the city’s Jewish population (4,000), the restaurant heightened their own profile, piquing interest in Jewish life and tradition.
New and novel for Greeks, Kol Tuv, as the restaurant was named, was a welcome discovery to Jewish tourists arriving from across the continent and around the globe. Thousands passed through the doors of the restaurant over the three-week stretch, says Chabad Rabbi and restaurant founder Mendel Hendel. It was truly an international clientele, with Jewish guests from England, France, Israel, Australia, South Africa, South America, and the U.S. among other countries.
More than a formal restaurant, Kol Tuv, says Rabbi Hendel, fast became a popular hangout among Jewish athletes and tourists. For Rachel Elbaumm, traveling alone from Baltimore, MD, finding Chabad in Athens was “enormously comforting.” The delicious food and warm atmosphere kept her coming back, each time feeling “like I was walking into the home of old friends.” These sentiments were shared by other visitors, like David Novack of Dayton, Ohio. “The food and atmosphere were excellent, and Shabbat meals were especially enjoyable as we celebrated with Jews from all over the world.”
Although guests were requested to make advance reservations for Shabbat meals, participants at Chabad’s Shabbat services were invited to join in the festive meals, which generally drew some 100 people each. In addition to running the restaurant that served simultaneously as a Jewish information center, Hendel and his team of seven rabbinical students recruited from the United States and Israel visited the numerous Olympic venues where they met with Israeli bronze medalist Arik Ze’evi and gold medalist Gal Fridman—a first ever in Israel’s history—among countless other Jewish athletes. Using the opportunity to help these athletes wrap tefillin, Chabad reached out to them with the challenge to reflect on their Jewish identity even at the Olympics.
It’s been a busy few weeks for Rabbi Hendel, whose initial plans to keep the restaurant operating through the Olympics and successive Paralympics which begin in September, may just stretch to accommodate a full-time, full service kosher restaurant. It’s a venture that will need to stand the test of time, but Hendel’s confidence and his desire to give Jews in Athens a stronger sense of community, portends well for Jews in this ancient Greek city. “Jews here are finally beginning to feel like they really matter, like they belong, and like there is a future here for them as Jews, as a community, with their own values and customs.”
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