Jewish NYC restaurants win new fans — and lose others — through Israel fundraisers


(New York Jewish Week) — New York City-based restaurateurs Yuval Dekel and Ari Bokovza, friends since high school, have deep roots in Israel and a shared love of Jewish cuisine. Dekel owns Liebman’s, the last kosher deli in the Bronx, and Bokovza is the executive chef of Dagon on New York’s Upper West Side, a restaurant that features food from the Levant.

Like Jews around the world, the two friends were devastated when they learned of the deadly attacks by Hamas on southern Israel on Oct. 7. The pair quickly devised a plan to do what they do best: prepare delicious food and bring people together, this time in support of Israel. 

On Wednesday, the two restaurants are joining forces to raise money for Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. The four-course dinner, held at Dagon at Broadway and 91st street, composed of Ashkenazi and Sephardi foods from both establishments, is priced at $250 per person, all of which goes directly to FIDF. 

“The reaction has been very positive,” Bokovza told the New York Jewish Week. “Every day the [number of] reservations are growing.” 

Dekel and Bokovza are far from the only ones who are raising money and offering support for Israel at this fraught time. Thousands of other New Yorkers are contributing to an aid effort that is widely considered unparalleled in recent times; as of last Friday, UJA-Federation of New York had raised $105 million for an Israel Emergency Fund

New York’s plethora of Jewish restaurants and famous foodies are getting in on the action, too. Immediately in the aftermath of the attack, Jewish celebrity chefs including Einat Admony and Jake Cohen joined forces with members of the Jewish Food Society at Chelsea Market on Oct. 11 for a “community hug and bake sale” that raised $27,000 for ASIF, an Israeli organization preparing meals for displaced families and hospital workers in Israel. 

As the war between Hamas and Israel intensifies, numerous other restaurants across the city — from old-school classics like 2nd Avenue Deli to catering outfits to high-end dining destinations — are also raising funds to help Israel and its citizens. Among them is Mediterranean restaurant Barbounia, where Chef Amitzur Mor will host three sold-out seatings for a special menu and fundraiser to benefit Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces on Monday night. Other eateries, like Michael Solomonov’s Kfar and Laser Wolf, along with the kosher steakhouse Reserve Cut, are giving a percentage of their restaurants’ proceeds to support of a variety of Israeli humanitarian organizations.

“We are happy to stand with Israel and heartwarmed by the number of people joining us,” 2nd Avenue Deli co-owner Josh Lebewohl told the New York Jewish Week. 

Since Hamas’ attack on Israel on Oct. 7, the iconic deli’s Instagram feed has turned decidedly pro-Israel. On Oct. 13 — the day a former Hamas leader had called for global protests — the restaurant donated their proceeds to United Hatzalah, Israel’s volunteer emergency medical service. “They love jihad. We love chicken soup,” the deli posted on Instagram. 

“We were touched by the outpouring of support we received,” Lebewohl said, declining to share how much money was raised. 

The week following the fundraiser, the deli’s Upper East Side location was defaced with antisemitic graffiti — but the owners remain determined to show their support for Israel. “We definitely lost some followers but overall we have gained [some],” Lebewohl told the New York Jewish Week about the deli’s social media following. ”Just the number of messages of people writing in support of us, in regard to the hate crime and, more importantly, in regards to standing with Israel, has been amazing.”

Dagon’s Bokovza, too, said his restaurant has received some social media backlash. “That stuff can only make you stronger, more determined, more motivated,” he said. “Everybody has big balls behind the keyboard.”

Over at Chef Eyal Shani’s Manhattan restaurants  — which includes Miznon, Shmoné, Port Sa’id and HaSalon — the management has been looking for ways to support their U.S.-based employees, some of whom have loved ones who were murdered in the attack. In addition to donating food to a memorial dinner for a former employee, and hosting a lunch for staff to grieve together, Shani’s high-end Hell’s Kitchen eatery HaSalon will host a fundraising dinner on Wednesday priced at $450 per person

The proceeds will go to humanitarian relief in Israel, including donations to American Friends of Rambam Hospital, Soroka Medical Center and Sheba Medical Center. This is in addition donating 10% of all sales at the Miznon locations in New York, as well as the 20,000 meals Shani’s restaurants in Israel have provided thus far to people in hospitals or to those who have been removed from their homes.

Their strong support of Israel comes with a price. “We have gotten negative reviews online from people who have never dined with us,” said Mika Ziv, CEO of Good People Group, Shani’s global hospitality brand. “People are calling our restaurant and screaming ‘Free Palestine!’ and hanging up. It is obviously not going to stop us from doing what is right but that is the situation.”

Rotem Itzhaky, general manager of the 12 Chairs Cafes in the West Village and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is not looking at negative posts online. “I am focusing on the positive and what we can do and how we can help,” she said.  

On Tuesday, 12 Chairs will hold a dinner benefiting United Hatzalah at their Williamsburg location priced at $150 per person, hosted by influencers Batsheva Haart, Audrey Jongens and Meg Radice. As of Sunday, the restaurant has sold all of their 65 tickets to the event, which promises their signature Israeli food as well as an “open bar to help raise spirits and donations.”

Meanwhile, since the conflict began, the owners of kosher caterer Good Shabbos by ChiChi Eats have given their customers the option, when placing a food order, to make a donation to support feeding Israeli soldiers and supplying them with critical gear like warm jackets, knee pads and tactical equipment. Approximately 75% of their customers have made a donation, according to co-owner Rachel Fuchs. 

“People were super excited last week and this week,” Fuchs said. “People are looking for a way to help. If we lost Instagram followers, we wouldn’t have noticed and I think we will be better without those people.”

Gadi Peleg, the owner of Breads, the New York City bakery chain with roots in Israel, was pleasantly surprised by the reaction to the plan that he and baker Ben Siman Tov, aka BenGingi on TikTok, devised following the Oct. 7 attack. BenGingi had contacted Peleg and suggested that on Friday, Oct. 13, Breads should sell heart-shaped challahs. The challahs — shaped by BenGingi and using Breads’ signature recipe — would sell for $36 and proceeds would go to support Magen David Adom, Israel’s national organization responsible for emergency pre-hospital medical care and blood services.

Intended to be a one-day event, the heart-shaped challahs were so popular the bakery has made and sold them every day since, raising more than $20,000 so far, according to Peleg. “We make hundreds of challahs a day,” he said. “Our bakeries open at 7 a.m. We are sold out by 8 a.m. Breads is a community — people come into the stores, and they are excited to see what we are doing and there are other people who feel like them. 

“What happened in Israel was an act of pure evil,” he added. “What we are doing is an act of pure good.”

Update, Oct. 24: A previous version of this story reported that the beneficiary of the Liebman’s Deli/Dagon fundraiser on Oct. 25 was Yatar. After the piece was published, the organizers changed the beneficiary to Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF). This version reflects that change.