It seems that just as the Book of Life might have been closing on the Jewish community in Georgia, Israeli tourism is breathing a second chance into its cities and institutions.
At least three new Jewish restaurants and several new hostels have opened in Georgia’s capital city of Tbilisi due to Israeli tourism, according to Israel’s Tourism Ministry.
The “Restaurant Jerusalem” in central Tbilisi – it’s run by Israeli Georgians – or the King David restaurant, run by native Georgian Jews, which can be found in the courtyard of the synagogue.
Chabad-Lubavitch emissary to Tbilisi Rabbi Meir Kozlovsky says Israelis have found the city to be a new alternative to Turkey.
The spiritual leader of the Great Synagogue of Tbilisi, Rabbi Rachamim Murdukhashvili is also the shochet (ritual slaughterer) of the community.
A second synagogue in Oni, about 120 miles northwest of the city, was visited last month by Prime Minister Iralki Garibashvili to mark its 120th anniversary. But only 16 Jews remain in Oni, and it’s not clear how much longer that community can hang on.
The Georgian government under Garibashvili partly funded renovations at both synagogues, calling Georgia “the second homeland of the Jewish people.”
The traditions of the Jewish community in the country go back as far as 1,500 years, although today there are just 4,000 Jews left in Georgia.
A veritable tidal wave of some 60,000 new tourists are now visiting the country annually, according to the Tourism Ministry, tripling the number that visited Tbilisi in 2010 – when Turkey severed ties with Israel.
Israeli Jewish tourists have been searching for a new tourism “hot spot” ever since the bottom fell out of tourism to Turkey, the annual vacation destination everyone chose.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rage at Israel had escalated step by step since the 2006 Second Lebanon War over the IDF’s defense of southern Israeli communities from Gaza terrorist attacks.
It finally reached the breaking point in 2010 over the deaths of nine violent Turkish terror activists in clashes with IDF commandos they attacked when they boarded a flotilla vessel that had brazenly attempted to illegally breach Israel’s maritime blockade of Gaza.
Countless attempts by diplomats and others on both sides since to heal the broken ties have only been partly successful; each time there appears to be any chance of renewal of ties, Erdogan appears to deliberately sabotage the effort with anti-Semitic rhetoric.
Thus the Israeli public has made its peace with the fact that at least for now, Turkey is no longer likely to return as a popular tourism destination; it is clear “from the top” that Israelis are neither liked nor wanted there.
Hana Levi Julian