By Larry Gordon –
The cholent being served this Shabbos at the ski slopes in the shadow of the Olympic Village in Sochi, Russia, is not from Gourmet Glatt in Cedarhurst. That would have been too much for Rabbi Yona Edelkopf—an affable and personable overseer of the meat-and-poultry department—to accomplish.
Rabbi Yona, as he is known to his friends and shoppers at Gourmet Glatt, left New York on Monday afternoon to join his brother, Ari, who is the Chabad emissary in Sochi, where he has lived with his wife and six children for the last 12 years. Rabbi Yona arrived in Sochi on Tuesday night after a Delta flight from New York to Moscow, followed by a two-hour trip with the Russian Aeroflot airline from Moscow to Krasnodar, and then it was on to Sochi by train.
As he was being driven around Sochi on Wednesday morning, Yona Edelkopf—who in addition to his local duties is the head of his own Chabad of South Bay in Massapequa—told me what Chabad is gearing up for over the upcoming second Shabbos of the winter Olympics and the closing ceremonies on Sunday afternoon. Yona will be back in Cedarhurst sometime on Monday, and I’m certain he will be ready, willing, and able to answer whatever questions you may have about the Chabad involvement in serving the thousands of Jews and others who descended on Sochi for these winter games.
Yona points out that there have been two Chabad Houses set up for the Olympics near the village provided to Chabad by the Russian government. He says that the stories about bathrooms not working and no doors on hotel rooms are isolated situations played up by the media but certainly exceptions to the routine reality on the ground.
The two locations are staffed by about a dozen emissaries, Yona says, including three who traveled from New York, several who came over from Israel, and the rest from different cities in Russia. “Sochi looks like a modern city,” the rabbi says. He is being driven around by his brother for his first look and to acquaint himself with the layout of the area. He says that all the roads are new, and even the Sochi airport, which he said was way too expensive to fly directly into, were built over the last few years specifically to accommodate the winter games.
On Wednesday, as he settled in, the Chabad staff were in full Shabbos-preparation mode. Ari Edelkopf’s wife, Chana, was in her kitchen preparing gefilte fish for 200 guests as well as overseeing the preparation of soup, salads, and other courses. People might be excited about traveling to watch the U.S. hockey team beat the Russians as well as some championship figure-skaters, but if you are a Jew, regardless of your level of observance, and you want to taste or feel Shabbos in this Olympic atmosphere, that is what these men and women are here in Sochi for.
Going over the menu before we conclude our conversation, Yona also points out that his sister-in-law is also preparing the cholent for the anticipated hundreds of guests and that she is known as an exemplary cook with great accolades about her culinary accomplishments and produces a gold-medal level of fish, cholent, and kugel.
How Rabbi Ari made his way from Los Angeles to become the Chabad shliach in Sochi is quite a story of its own. The fact is that he is there serving the local Jewish population and the businesspeople who travel through town and will be there for those who will now be drawn to the city now that it is on the map after the conclusion of these Olympic games.
Yona tells me that as far as his children’s education is concerned, they are still quite young and are attending a Chabad online yeshiva that has been set up for the children of Chabad shluchim who reside in remote cities around the world. In many Chabad families, once a young man is bar mitzvah, he goes to yeshiva out of town, usually in one of the larger Jewish population centers around the world.
As far as Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, is concerned, while his politics sometimes seem rather skewed—like his support for Syrian President Assad—for some reason when it comes to his relationship with Jews traveling through Russia and particularly with Chabad, the president is extremely helpful and accommodating. Rabbi Yona says that the Edelkopf family roots go back many decades in Russia and that as a result there was an allure and attraction for his brother to want to set up shop somewhere in the former Soviet Union.
For now, Yona, his brother, and their assistants are busy preparing for those Shabbos services followed by the big meals. He said that he had to get off the phone because he was about to enter a tunnel which may also have been built to move the traffic along at a good pace specifically for these two weeks of Olympic games. Did Mr. Putin forget to put cell towers in the tunnels? We will have to wait for Rabbi Yona to return from Sochi to get the real story.