As Israeli tourism to Georgia has boomed, these Israelis have put down roots in Tbilisi


TBILISI, Georgia — In the ancient land of khachapuri cheese bread and famous qvevri wine fermented in earthenware vessels, Danny Licht now offers a rival ethnic delicacy: falafel.

Three years ago, the Swiss-Israeli entrepreneur moved here from Jerusalem with his Russian-born wife, Rita. In January, they opened Ashkara Falafel in the heart of Tbilisi’s tourist district.

“We wanted to offer something fresh, tasty and inexpensive — not a restaurant but real street food,” said Licht, who charges 19 lari (about $7) for a complete falafel meal with all the fixings.

Meanwhile, Rita, who has a doctorate in molecular genetics from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, runs a contemporary art gallery housed in the same building as their residence.

“We don’t have any family ties here, but we love the culture and we have a passion for art,” she said. “Our dream was to open a gallery, and this is one of the places we could make it happen.”

Danny Licht, a Swiss-Israeli newcomer to Georgia, stands in front of his Ashkara Falafel eatery along Lermontov Street in Tbilisi. (Larry Luxner)

Danny and Rita Licht are among 200 or so Israelis for whom Georgia — a former Soviet republic about three hours’ flying time from Tel Aviv — is a new promised land. Frustrated with Israel’s high prices, toxic politics and worsening security situation, they’ve decided to relocate permanently to this mountainous, landlocked country in the Caucasus.

They may have left behind one divided country for another. For the last two months, Georgia has experienced massive anti-government protests against a new law, modeled after one in Russia, that requires any organization receiving more than 20% of its funding from overseas to register as a “foreign agent.”

Critics say the law is aimed at stifling dissent while moving the country closer to Moscow and away from the European Union. Polls show that 80% of Georgians want their country to join the EU, and protesters vow not to back down until the law — which they say smacks of Putin-like repression — is repealed.

It remains to be seen whether the new law or the backlash have any effect on Israeli tourism, which has long been strong. Last year, according to government statistics, 217,065 Israelis visited Georgia, making them the fourth-largest source of foreign tourism after Russia, Turkey and Armenia. But Israelis stayed longer and spent an average 3,782 lari (about $1,400) per visit — far more than any other group. It’s not uncommon to hear Hebrew in the streets, and one of Tbilisi’s top tourist attractions is the Museum of Georgian Jewish History, which chronicles 2,600 years of Jewish life in this country.

All told, Israeli investment in tourism, finance, agriculture and healthcare already totals around $500 million, said Itsik Moshe, founder of both Israeli House and the Israel-Georgia Chamber of Business.

“Georgia is a small country, but it’s one of Israel’s best friends in the world,” said Moshe, who in 1990 became the first Israeli to represent the Jewish Agency in the former Soviet Union. “We are two ancient peoples with difficult histories and the same fate. According to Georgian history, it was the Jews who helped prepare them to adopt Christianity.”

The Georgian-Jewish Museum is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Tbilisi, Georgia. (Larry Luxner)

In fact, legend has it that a Georgian Jew called Elias brought the robe of Jesus Christ back home from Jerusalem after the crucifixion, having acquired it from a Roman soldier at Golgotha.

Before Oct. 7, four or five airlines were offering nonstop flights between Tel Aviv and Tbilisi — sometimes two flights a day by the same airline. Even now, El Al and Israir still offer daily service on that route. And posters of Israelis kidnapped by Hamas and held captive in Gaza are plastered on billboards and the sides of buses in Tbilisi.

Despite the warm feelings, not everyone here loves Jews or Israel.

In November 2022, Pakistani agents affiliated with al-Qaeda and sent by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Quds Force attempted to assassinate Moshe on the street, in front of the Israeli flag over his office. Fortunately, the plot was discovered by local security officials, who arrested several suspects including two Georgian-Iranian dual citizens.

Moshe, who remains closely guarded, said he expects a record 250,000 Israelis in Georgia in 2024. In November, his organization is planning a business conference in Tbilisi to mark 35 years of bilateral commercial ties.

Itsik Moshe, one of Georgia’s most prominent Jews, is founder of the Israeli House as well as president of the Israel-Georgia Chamber of Business. (Larry Luxner)

In fact, many Israelis have purchased timeshares in the Black Sea resort of Batumi, and the country is considered a prime destination for skiing and hiking as well as travel focused on food and wine. Also unique to Georgia are its ancient 33-letter alphabet, which is nearly 1,500 years old, as well as its hauntingly beautiful chant, the traditional music sung in the Georgian Orthodox Church for daily and weekly services in three-voiced polyphony without instruments.

“I haven’t met even one Israeli tourist who doesn’t want to come back here,” said Moshe, estimating Georgia’s native Jewish population at 500 to 1,000; the Great Synagogue of Tbilisi serves the predominantly elderly community. In addition to those Israeli Jews who have moved to Georgia, there’s also 1,500 Israeli Arabs — mainly Christians from Nazareth and elsewhere — studying medicine here.

Likewise, Israel is home to roughly 120,000 Jews from Georgia. Known in Hebrew as gruzinim, they originally settled in Ashdod, Beersheba, Ashkelon and Haifa, though they’ve since spread throughout the country — and a few have even returned.

Ilana Slutsky, a native of Orenburg in southern Russia, grew up in Haifa, and worked for years as an architect. The company that employed her landed a contract with a cardiovascular center in Georgia, which required her to travel there from Israel every 10 days over a four-year period.

Eventually, Slutsky moved to Tbilisi, and a few years ago she opened her own interior design, real estate and architectural consulting firm. Her Georgian husband, Tedo, is an artist, and she’s currently in the process of restoring an apartment building from 1872.

Gallery owner Rita Licht; Itsik Moshe, president of the Israel-Georgia Chamber of Business; Daniel Licht, who runs Ashkara Falafel; architect Ilana Slutsky; and jewelry designer Mikhail Gilichinski all gather at the Licht home in Tbilisi to enjoy a Shabbat afternoon with fellow Israelis. (Larry Luxner)

The only time she felt unpleasant, she recalled, was seeing a recent Instagram post by Mutant Radio Tbilisi seeking donations for Palestinian children displaced by the war in Gaza.

“I feel sorry for all victims of war, but we know that this money will go directly to Hamas,” said Slutsky, who understands the Georgian language as well as English, Hebrew and her native Russian. “For me, it was disappointing, especially after what happened at the Nova music festival. To be honest, I was shocked.”

Despite the money they spend and the government’s emulation of their native country, Russians aren’t particularly welcome in Georgia, which seems awash in Ukrainian flags as a show of support for the fellow ex-Soviet republic. That’s a legacy of the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, which began when pro-Russian separatists in the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia attacked Georgia, violating a 1992 ceasefire agreement. The fighting ended 16 days later with Russia controlling a fifth of Georgian territory.

Anti-Russian obscenities cover a retaining wall across the street from Danny Licht’s falafel shop, and some nightclubs now make customers sign statements of support for Ukraine — like Georgia, also a victim of Putin’s aggression — before they can enter the premises.

“When the Russia-Ukraine war started, Georgia was 30% or 40% cheaper than today,” Licht said. “But then apartment prices doubled and even tripled. The market went crazy because so many Russians ran away and came here. They couldn’t use their credit cards in Russia anymore. And last September there was a [military] mobilization. They didn’t come because they were against the war, but because they didn’t want to be killed.”

Licht added: “About half a year ago, prices reached a peak, and now they’re coming down. But 20% of this country is still occupied by Russia, and Georgians are very suspicious of them.”

A woman waves Georgia’s national flag as she protests the “foreign influence” law outside the parliament building in central Tbilisi on May 28, 2024. (Giorgi Arjevanidze/AFP via Getty Images)

Yaron Shmerkin, 39, has lived in Georgia nearly two years. Originally from Luhansk — a city in eastern Ukraine that’s been under Russian occupation for nearly a decade — he’s married to Georgian fashion designer Anuk Yosebashvili. Back in 2017, the jewelry designer, who specializes in Judaica art, took a Jeep trip with his wife and in-laws throughout the mountain republic, which is three times the size of Israel yet has less than half its population.

“After a week, I said, ‘We’re going to move here,’” he recalled. “We are very happy in Georgia.”

So is Mikhail Gilichinski, 40, an Orthodox Jew and a native of the Russian city of Tula. He lived throughout Israel — Kibbutz Bar’am, Jerusalem and Ramat Gan — before coming to Georgia five years ago with his Moscow-born wife, Miriam. Both had been here on vacation previously.

Neither Mikhail nor Miriam Gilichinski speak Georgian. They use English to communicate with locals because, he says, “I don’t feel comfortable speaking Russian with them.”

Nevertheless, Gilichinski has built a small hotel, which his wife runs as an Airbnb. Their children, 10 and 7, attend the local Chabad religious school.

“I’m a jewelry designer and can work from anywhere,” he said. “We love Israel, but financially it’s difficult. You have to work all the time, from morning to evening. That’s why we came here.”

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