Hillel partners open Odessa cafe

Kiril Alexanrovich, the proprietor of Cafe Hillel, enjoys a cup of coffee in his Odessa cafe. (Matt Siegel)

Kiril Alexanrovich, the proprietor of Cafe Hillel, enjoys a cup of coffee in his Odessa cafe. (Matt Siegel)

ODESSA, Ukraine (JTA) – Ambling down one of the many picturesque side streets of crumbling copper and golden-colored slate that lend the old quarter of this city an aura of decaying grandeur, Kiril Alexandrovich was reminded of a famous Russian adage.

“He who doesn’t take risks,” the 22-year-old Jewish entrepreneur said with a sly smile, “will never drink champagne.”

In Alexandrovich’s case, his first restaurant isn’t a risk simply for him, and he won’t be the only one waiting eagerly to hear the pop of a champagne bottle.

His Cafe Hillel, which was expected to open this week, is the first effort here at co-branding undertaken by Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. The partnership aims to transform Jewish youth organizing in the former Soviet Union, leaving behind the club model and heading out into the cities where young Jews work and play.

Hillel Associate Vice President Aaron Goldberg said the organization is constantly searching for ways to improve Jewish life and reach more students beyond just a physical presence.

Goldberg said that if Hillel wants to continue to expand the number of young people it is working with, “then we have to find the places or create the spaces in which they are interested in spending time.”

With a prime location in the university district of this seaside town, once a hub of Jewish culture, Cafe Hillel is at the center of what Hillel’s Moscow director, Dimitry Maryasis, calls the “new Hillel ideology” – an attempt to reverse and rebrand its fortunes in the former Soviet Union.

Having struggled publicly over the last decade here, where the lack of Western-style college campuses have precluded its traditional modes of operation, Hillel is counting on branding partnerships and quasi-commercial ventures like Cafe Hillel to form the backbone of its reinvigorated brand.

For Alexandrovich, who dreamed of opening his own restaurant while toiling behind the scenes in innumerable commercial kitchens, the co-branding plan is the perfect opportunity to accomplish both his goals: running an affordable cafe for students and giving back to his community.

When he decided this spring to move back from Beersheba, Israel, where he moved when he was 9, Alexandrovich already knew he would be opening a cafe and that he wanted its identity rooted in Israel. He was educated there and fought as a paratrooper during the waning years of the second intifada.

He chose Ukraine not out of any strong desire to return to his native land but to take advantage of a business environment not much different than that of Russia in the early 1990s: lower prices and a lack of savvy competition.

Originally set to open under the name Nisha, Hebrew for “niche,” the cafe was planned as a meeting place for students. Feeling lonely in a city where he knew no one but his longtime girlfriend and aching for contact with fellow Jews, Alexandrovich ended up at a birthday party for Hillel, where regional director Iosif Akselrud broached the idea of a partnership.

Alexandrovich was all ears.

“It is my pleasure to be the first Cafe Hillel in the USSR,” he said.

Housed in a newly renovated space flooded with sunlight through its floor-to-ceiling windows, the cafe has a capacity to hold nearly 150 people.

In the coming months it will move gradually from serving the low-cost lunch specials found throughout the region to more traditional Israeli food.

Cafe Hillel will provide 10 percent discount cards to Hillel members and host Jewish-themed cultural and educational events. It will cater to students during the busy school days while leaving available the evenings for programming that attracts visiting Jewish delegations and local community workers.

“I want a lot of Jews that are in Hillel, in the Joint [American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee], in all of these groups,” he said. “They work in the morning and during the day, and in the evening I want them to come to my place. It’s not my place; it’s their place.”

Although the cafe will not be kosher due to prohibitive costs and Alexandrovich’s desire to be more welcoming of non-Jews, he plans to install a kosher-capable section in his kitchen that will be helpful for visiting delegations.

And lest his customers forget where his restaurant lands in the Hillel constellation, a compass will adorn the ceiling with points delineating the cities that host a branch of the campus group.

In a region that still harbors a great deal of popular anti-Semitism, and with a string of anti-Semitic attacks having hit Ukraine in the past few weeks, some are wondering whether the time is right for Jewish groups to be venturing beyond the anonymous and often secure walls of their offices.

The security situation weighs heavily on Alexandrovich’s mind – and with good reason.

The night before JTA visited the cafe last month, an unknown vandal smashed the glass on the building’s front door in an incident that Alexandrovich implied may have been motivated by anti-Semitism.

Motivated partly by this suspicion, Alexandrovich was adamant that the cafe not be advertised as Jewish. He will provide heightened security for his customers.

“Cafe Hillel is a student lounge, not a Jewish lounge cafe,” he said. “Because you understand, not a lot of people love me and you in the world, and I see these things.”

If anti-Semitism is a concern for Alexandrovich, it certainly doesn’t seem to be among the Hillel students in whose name the cafe is being launched.

One Hillel member described a great deal of excitement and growing sense of anticipation among young Jews in Odessa.

“We are very excited about the cafe,” said Sasha Zlobina, 21, a Hillel member . “We expect that it will be like a second home for us. Our first home is the office, and our second home will be Cafe Hillel.”

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