close
close

While Israeli tourism to Georgia is booming, these Israelis have put down roots in Tbilisi

TBILISI, Georgia – In the ancient land of khachapuri cheese bread and the famous clay-vessel-fermented qvevri wine, Danny Licht now offers a competing 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, delicious and affordable – not a restaurant, but real street food,” says Licht, who charges 19 lari (about $7) for a complete falafel meal with all the side dishes.

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

“We don't have any family ties here, but we love the culture and are passionate about art,” she said. “Our dream was to open a gallery and this is one of the places where we could make that happen.”

Danny Licht, a Swiss-Israeli newcomer to Georgia, stands outside his Ashkara Falafel restaurant on Lermontov Street in Tbilisi. (Larry Luxner via JTA.org)

Danny and Rita Licht are among about 200 Israelis for whom Georgia – a former Soviet republic about three hours' flight from Tel Aviv – is a new promised land. Frustrated by Israel's high prices, toxic policies and deteriorating security situation, they have decided to permanently resettle in this mountainous, landlocked country in the Caucasus.

They may have left one divided country behind and moved to another. Over the past two months, Georgia has seen massive anti-government protests against a new law, modeled on Russia, that requires any organization that receives more than 20 percent of its funding from abroad to register as a “foreign agent.”

Critics say the law is aimed at stifling dissent and bringing the country closer to Moscow and away from the European Union. Polls show that 80 percent of Georgians support their country joining the EU. Protesters are vowing not to back down until the law – which they say smacks of Putin's repression – is repealed.

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

Overall, Israeli investments in tourism, finance, agriculture and healthcare already amount to around $500 million, said Itsik Moshe, founder of Israeli House and the Israel-Georgia Chamber of Commerce.

“Georgia is a small country, but it is 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 a difficult history and the same fate. According to Georgian history, it was the Jews who helped them adopt Christianity.”

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

According to legend, a Georgian Jew named Elias brought the robe of Jesus Christ home from Jerusalem after the crucifixion, having received it from a Roman soldier on Golgotha.

Before October 7, four or five airlines offered nonstop flights between Tel Aviv and Tbilisi – sometimes even two flights a day on the same airline. Even today, El Al and Israir still offer daily flights on this route. And posters of Israelis kidnapped by Hamas and held captive in Gaza can be seen on billboards and on the sides of buses in Tbilisi.

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

In November 2022, Pakistani agents linked to al-Qaeda and dispatched by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force attempted to assassinate Moshe in the street in front of the Israeli flag above his office. Fortunately, the plot was discovered by local security officials, who arrested several suspects, including two Georgian-Iranian dual nationals.

Moshe, who remains tight-lipped, said he expects a record 250,000 Israelis to be in Georgia by 2024. In November, his organization plans to hold an economic conference in Tbilisi to celebrate the 35th anniversary of bilateral trade relations.

Itsik Moshe, one of Georgia's most prominent Jews, is founder of the Israel House and president of the Israel-Georgia Chamber of Commerce. (Larry Luxner via JTA.org)

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

“I have not met a single Israeli tourist who does not 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 population. In addition to the Israeli Jews who have moved to Georgia, 1,500 Israeli Arabs – mostly Christians from Nazareth and elsewhere – are also studying medicine here.

Similarly, there are about 120,000 Jews from Georgia living in Israel. Known in Hebrew as Gruzinim, they originally settled in Ashdod, Beersheba, Ashkelon and Haifa, but have now spread throughout the country – and some have even returned.

Originally from Orenburg in southern Russia, Ilana Slutsky grew up in Haifa and worked for years as an architect. The company she worked for signed a contract with a cardiovascular center in Georgia, which required her to travel there from Israel every ten days for four years.

Eventually, Slutsky moved to Tbilisi and opened her own interior design, real estate and architectural consulting firm a few years ago. Her Georgian husband Tedo is an artist and she is currently restoring an 1872 residential building.

Froml

From left: Gallery owner Rita Licht; Itsik Moshe, president of the Israel-Georgia Chamber of Commerce; Daniel Licht, who runs Ashkara Falafel; architect Ilana Slutsky; and jewelry designer Mikhail Gilichinski all gather at the House of Lights in Tbilisi to enjoy a Shabbat afternoon with their fellow Israelis. (Larry Luxner via JTA.org)

The only time she felt uncomfortable, she remembers, was when she recently saw an Instagram post from Mutant Radio Tbilisi asking for donations for Palestinian children displaced by the war in Gaza.

“I feel sorry for all the victims of the war, but we know that this money goes directly to Hamas,” said Slutsky, who speaks Georgian as well as English, Hebrew and her native Russian. “For me, this 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 imitation of their homeland, Russians are not particularly welcome in Georgia. The country seems to be awash with Ukrainian flags to show support for the former Soviet republic. That's a legacy of the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, which began when pro-Russian separatists from 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 Georgia's territory.

A retaining wall across from Danny Licht's falafel shop is covered in anti-Russian obscenities, and some nightclubs require customers to sign statements of support for Ukraine, which, like Georgia, is a victim of Putin's aggression.

“When the war between Russia and Ukraine started, Georgia was 30 to 40 percent cheaper than it is today,” Licht said. “But then housing prices doubled or tripled. The market was faltering because so many Russians were running away and coming here. They could no longer use their credit cards in Russia. 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: “Prices peaked about half a year ago and now they are falling. But 20 percent of the country is still occupied by Russia and Georgians are very suspicious of them.”

A woman waves the Georgian national flag while protesting against the law against “foreign influence” outside the parliament building in central Tbilisi on May 28. (Giorgi Arjevanidze/AFP via Getty Images via JTA.org)

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

“After a week, I said, 'We're moving here,'” he recalled. “We're very happy in Georgia.”

This also applies to 40-year-old Mikhail Gilichinski, an Orthodox Jew from the Russian city of Tula. He lived all over Israel – in Kibbutz Bar'am, in Jerusalem and Ramat Gan – before coming to Georgia five years ago with his Moscow-born wife Miriam. Both had been here on holiday before.

Neither Mikhail nor Miriam Gilichinski speak Georgian. They communicate with the locals in English 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 I can work from anywhere,” he said. “We love Israel, but financially it's difficult. You have to work all the time, from morning to night. That's why we came here.”

Anna Harden

Learn More →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *