Billed by organizers as a “reunion of friends,” hundreds of Israelis filled an event hall in the central city of Nes Tziyona on a Saturday night to show support for Chabad-Lubavitch of Cyprus, a Jewish community center based in the coastal resort of Larnaca.

For Shlomo and Bracha Barzilai of Tel Aviv’s Ramat Hachayal neighborhood, all it took was one visit to the Mediterranean island to kindle a friendship with Rabbi Arie Zeev and Shaindel Raskin, who founded the Chabad House seven years ago. Their presence at the Feb. 13 dinner was a tribute to that bond.

“We were there for a trip and we were so impressed with all the work that they do,” said Bracha Barzilai, whose daughter travelled to Cyprus on her own some time later.

The Barzilais spent just one Shabbat with the Raskins four years ago, but the couple wants the rabbi to officiate at their son’s wedding this August. They stressed that although they hail from Yeminite ancestry, they want to give the honor to Arie Zeev Raskin, because he would do it, they said, “in the best, most beautiful way.”

Admiration for Raskin, a Kiryat Malachi native, and his wife was shared among many guests of the weekend dinner. Attendees represented a cross-section of Israeli society, from post-military service backpackers with dreadlocks to housewives, venture capitalists and retirees. Many had met the Raskins by chance as tourists who took a less-than hour-long flight to Cyprus for a holiday.

Tzila Rachamim, though, shared a different story, one going back decades to when she was a neighbor of Raskin and his parents and worked in their home as a domestic helper.

“They are a model family,” said Rachamim, 46, “always helping others.”

After her older son died three years ago, the rabbi invited Rachamim and her younger son to spend Chanukah in Cyprus.

“They wanted me to have some happiness,” she said. “It gave me the strength to cope after all the tragedy.”

Rabbi Arie Zeev Raskin, left, greets a dinner guest.
Rabbi Arie Zeev Raskin, left, greets a dinner guest.

Feeling of Home

Following a musical interlude and a slideshow presentation of activities in Cyprus – from kosher winemaking to holiday parties – the crowd hushed as Raskin took the stage to thank everyone for coming. But the rabbi also had a request: He asked anyone who was able to help fund renovations at the Larnaca center they knew so well.

“Every one of you is a real and close friend,” he said. “We should only meet at happy occasions, and with a happy heart.”

At each place setting was a paper leaf, which the rabbi encouraged people to fill out with their names. Each leaf represented a 1,000 euro donation, and after volunteers walked through the hall picking them up, a screen behind Raskin displayed each donor’s name.

Despite the economic crisis, and the value of the Israeli shekel to the euro, more than 150 leaves had been filled out by the end of the evening.

“I am so excited,” said Shaindel Raskin, “to see so much support and love.”

During a fish course served around long tables decorated with silver candelabras and white flowers, singer Assaf Ashtar performed traditional melodies that soon had the crowd dancing around the room.

Meital Abramovitz-Pacter of Ra’anana, who brought her husband and two daughters to the evening, said that her Passover visit to Cyprus last year was so memorable that she wants to return this year, with a baby in-tow.

“They were the most beautiful Passover Seders,” said Abramovitz-Pacter, 35, full of “atmosphere, love and happiness.”

Another guest, Segal Yom-Tov, said that she was at the dinner because of a “deep and close connection” to the Raskins. She met them when she visited the island twice a month for almost two years to visit her then-boyfriend, Chaim Harrari. Their wedding a year-and-a-half ago, at which Arie Zeev Raskin officiated, was Cyprus’ first traditional Jewish wedding ceremony in modern memory.

“There was always a feeling of home, like parents embracing us,” Yom-Tov said of her visits. “Like a ballet, they bring people closer to love and to know everything connected to tradition and the Torah.”