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Mary Grossman

Citizen’s Kitchen Unites Olim

In the midst of war, immigrants find mishpocha
Citizen's Kitchen volunteers and a busy day of cooking and packing 500 meals by singing Hatikvah before Shabbat Dinner. (Image courtesy of author)

(Tel Aviv, Israel) After the October 7 Simchat Torah massacre – the deadliest atrocity to take place in Israel in modern times – a Times of Israel headline read: “El Al says it’s flown 200,000 people since war erupted, details efforts to repatriate Israelis.” More than half of El Al’s passengers have flown to Israel, not away from it, since the war began.

In the aftermath of the massacre, Israel’s citizens have united after nearly a year of bitter political infighting. The robust protest movement, which focused on Israel’s political reforms, has pivoted to massive volunteer efforts. A hip art collective in Florentine called Hamehoga Culture TLV has been assembling arts and crafts goodie bags for children affected by the massacre. Jessica Steinberg of The Times of Israel describes how students at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design and Shenkar College have been “designing, cutting, sewing and stitching,” supporting the more than 300,000 reservists called up for service. Many restaurants, including upscale chef-driven hotspots, have morphed into massive institutional kitchens that produce hundreds of donated meals every day.

Citizen’s Kitchen, located in the heart of Tel Aviv’s gritty Florentine neighborhood, is one such place. A collaboration between the Citrus and Salt cooking school and the Hamashbir restaurant, Citizen’s Kitchen cooks meals for soldiers and displaced Israelis. It also serves as a supportive family for olim – immigrants to Israel – who have found themselves alone during wartime.

Citizen’s Kitchen co-founder, Aliya Fastman, lights Shabbat Candles with her daughter (Image courtesy of author)

“I wanted olim, or immigrants, to run this operation as a source of therapy,” said co-founder Aliya Fastman, the daughter of two rabbis from Berkeley, California, who made aliyah in 2010. “We realized we needed to do something around cooking.” Aliya and her husband, a psychiatric nurse, have two toddlers. Her business partner, chef Alon Sharaby, and her sister, Shaendl Davis, are co-founders as well.

Fastman started Citrus and Salt Cooking Lessons and Market Tours seven years ago from her apartment in Tel Aviv. The school offers cooking classes and tours for tourists and locals alike. She moved to a studio in Florentine and signed a lease on a new space a week before the war.

“Many immigrants who have chosen to stay rather than go back needed a place to come together, share their pain, and feel useful,” she said. Citizen’s Kitchen also offers its volunteers group therapy via Zoom and Shabbat dinners in English. The work is done in English, and all positions are self-appointed. 

Fastman and her team need to raise funds quickly to keep going. They have launched an impressive social media campaign, PayPal and GoFundMe pages, and a WhatsApp group. (The links are at the end of this article.)

Alicia Schneider, who made aliya from Montreal and manages media and fundraising for Citizen’s Kitchen, said they have set a goal of $40,000 to get them through another month. They have raised about $24,000 so far. She hopes to attract the attention from notable Israeli chefs. Local culinary icon Adeena Sussman, who is touring the US with her new cookbook, Shabbat: Recipes and Rituals from My Table to Yours, has been sharing Citizen’s Kitchen’s Instagram posts.

“Many Americans are asking how they can help Israel right now. You don’t need to come to Israel to be helpful,” said Fastman, noting that sending financial or moral support are excellent – and much-needed – ways to help.

Production is staged out of Hamishbir restaurant in Florentine, Tel Aviv (Image courtesy of author)

Citizen’s Kitchen is operated out of Hamashbir, a quirky, busy neighborhood restaurant and bar in Florentine. “When the war began, Alon and Aliya came to us as friends and asked: ‘What can we do for the people?’” said Dana Brodstein and Gil Rushansky, co-partners in Hamashbir. 

“They were looking for a place to cook for a lot of people. We have five partners in Hamashbir, and we were very excited to do something for volunteers,” she said.

Brodstein said Hamashbir is usually a happy place with good vibes and lots of people laughing and drinking. “This is not the case right now,” she said, adding that Hamashbir is not open to the public during wartime because the mood isn’t right. “I hope the war will be finished soon. We are losing a lot of money.”

Citizen’s Kitchen hopes to raise enough money to pay Hamashbir for the use of the restaurant.

The vibe is welcoming outside Hamishbir. Volunteers chat, smoke cigarettes and sip coffee while loud music keeps the energy high. Volunteers agreed that focusing on tasks like cooking, packaging and even writing notes to the soldiers on the take-away containers is a therapeutic diversion and a chance to bond with other olim experiencing similar feelings. Fastman hopes she can continue the weekly group therapy sessions via Zoom with a volunteer therapist.

One of the volunteers most often seen there is Brandon Sayovitz, who made aliyah from Portland, Oregon, in February, and spends his days preparing meals.

“We tried to make fancy dishes at first, like sabich,” he laughs, nodding over to Alon, the head chef. “By the end of the day, we were just raccoon-eyed and exhausted.” Citizen’s Kitchen has since dialed back operations by setting a limit of 500 pre-ordered meals per day, taking Shabbat off, and offering a family-inspired communal space for olim that includes Shabbat dinner on Friday nights. The last such meal, which was attended by 40 olim from across the globe, and featured six bottles of arak.

“I have excellent drinking DNA,” Maria Melititskaya shouted above the noise as the guests passed shots of arak up and down the table. “I’m Russian, UK, and Jewish and Armenian. All of my ancestors have fled a place at some point and done well, surviving and having fun,” she assured me with a smile.

Originally from Moscow, Maria made aliyah a year and a half ago when Russia invaded Ukraine and bombed the Babi Yar Museum. “I realized I didn’t want anything to do with my government,” she said. After the massacre on October 7, she sought volunteer opportunities for people who are not fluent in Hebrew, and has been volunteering every day.

The volunteer crew is made up of a diverse, primarily under-40 international group of hipsters, young families, tech workers, members of the LGBTQ community, and progressive Zionists, all with stories about how Citizen’s Kitchen has become a source of strength for the olim community. Brandon recalls a moment when just before Shabbat, as they were cleaning up for the day, a man walked in off the street and said, “I just landed two hours ago. I’m here to help. Where am I needed?”

“Here’s this Jew from New York, and he knew his people needed him,” Brandon said. “I got really choked up.”

It’s anyone’s guess how the conflict will unfold. Most of the olim are here for the duration, but contingency plans have crossed their minds if things should escalate.

“I will probably go to Canada if I feel afraid for my life because I’m single and alone. I don’t have family in Israel,” said Maria.

Aliya Fastman says her children come first. She’d pack up and go if a war with Iran broke out or it became unsafe to be outside.

Brandon is staying put. “My mom thought about booking me a flight home. But she knew I wouldn’t get on it,” he said. “She wants me home, but as a Jew, she wants to be here, too.”

Yet even as Israelis unite in crisis, for these olim it’s a different matter back home. They are stunned to see the rapid rise in anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses and on the streets of major cities around the world, and how their own progressive social groups have ejected young Jews connected to Israel.

Israeli-born Jews haven’t been as affected. But olim from places like the United States, the UK, Germany, and Australia look with growing apprehension at images from their former college campuses and from mass street protests in support of Hamas.

“I’m super-liberal, yet I’ve known this was coming since college. I joined the IDF because I saw all this stuff going down back in the US. It’s obvious that antisemitism is being masked by anti-Zionism,” said Fastman. “Did I lose any friends in the last two weeks? No, because I don’t have those friends anymore.”

Alicia and her co-volunteer Jules Weiner mourn their sudden abandonment by their long-time friend groups back home. “Jules and I, we’ve been to BLM protests, Stop Asian Hate rallies, and we’ve always taken up these causes because Jews know what it is like to be a persecuted minority,” they said. “And now that we are the ones persecuted, no one is standing up for us. The only messages of support I get are from a few mostly Jewish friends.”

“I have to say, though, despite all the hate that is amplified, I have had a few people reach out to me in support, which has been monumental,” said Jules.

Gabriela (Hamishbir co-owner), Sapir, Gil, Dana (Hamishbir co-owner) and Bar rest after a night of donation-based Pizza and Beer dinner. (Image courtesy of author)

Bar Alkalay, the girlfriend of Hamashbir’s co-owner Dana, is from Chicago. She is trying to wrap her head around such irrational thinking, and says that she has lost almost every friend she grew up with since the October 7 massacre.

“I saw on social media all of these anti-Israel Free Palestine posts with so much ignorance and lack of understanding of the actual situation,” she said. “At first, it made me angry and sad. It’s like a stab in the back.” But she eventually realized that there was nothing she could say or do. Her friends were gone.

Bar’s younger brother, a member of the LGBTQ community in New York City, saw his community turn its back on him overnight. “These situations are the most ridiculous because he is a gay man, a queer person in the world,” she said.

Fastman hopes to reopen the Citrus and Salt cooking school and keep Citizen’s Kitchen alive after the war efforts subside.

“I want to help to empower the people who are going to protect my children and to honor the memory of the children who were murdered,” she said. “Jews need Israel, and Israel needs the Jews.”

Brandon remains positive. “I love Israel, and even if I hadn’t made aliyah, I would have come to help anyway. I’m where I need to be.”

Donate to Citizens Kitchen at www.gofundme.com/f/citizens-kitchen

About the Author
Mary Grossman, a member of the American Jewish Press Association, founded the first and only Wyoming Alt Weekly in 2002, called Planet Jackson Hole. Now, she is the Executive Director of the Jackson Hole Jewish Community. She travels toTel Aviv frequently to visit and explore.
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