Known for financing immigration to Israel, the La’Aretz foundation retooled to deliver immediate funds to those rendered homeless by the Hamas terror attacks.
When Israeli celebrity chef Eyal Shani opened his new restaurant, Malka, in Manhattan on Nov. 16, it was a celebration to be sure. But the evening also carried a deeper meaning as a benefit for those forced out of their homes due to the Oct. 7 terror attacks perpetrated by Hamas from Gaza.
The nonprofit La’Aretz, which the restaurant opening benefited, is collecting money to give to those people individually, he said. “It’s a big hope that somebody’s caring about them.”
New York-based, Israeli ex-patriates Mike and Shelly Pitman are co-founders—and president and executive director, respectively—of La’Aretz, which once focused on helping people immigrate to Israel. Now the nonprofit has shifted its mission into a full-on focus on the war, raising about $1 million since Oct. 7.
The Pitmans organized the Malka opening, which drew about 180 people, Shelly Pitman told JNS, in the restaurant’s cozy quarters. She said the event was intended to make connections that would lay the groundwork for fundraising, with a goal to raise $250,000 in order to distribute $2,500 each to 100 families.
“On Oct. 7, my husband and I woke up—like all the Jewish people around the world—seeing the terrible images of what happened in Israel,” she told JNS. “We decided to take all the efforts of the foundation and start raising money for the war efforts.”
That meant initially paying for charter planes for military reservists and purchasing military gear. After a week, the effort turned to direct support grants for families who had lost their homes as a result of the massacre.
“It’s not easy to hear the stories. We have one woman whose husband was murdered, whose 9-month-old daughter was murdered, and she’s left with two kids and hospitalized,” she said. “She needed the support immediately.”
Another family from Ofakim saw their house burnt completely. “They rent a new house with no support from the state at all, and they used the $2,500 grant from us to purchase furniture for the new home,” Shelly added.
Ofri Haggai, whose aunt and uncle, both U.S. citizens, have been missing from Kibbutz Nir Oz since Oct. 7, served as keynote speakers at the restaurant opening. There was also an exhibition of Israeli-born artist Omer Kaplan, titled “Otef Gaza” (“Gaza Envelope”), showcasing works that document demonstrations in New York City and connect personal stories of war to the broader historical context.
‘Celebration based on pain’
Mike Pitman told JNS that he and Shelly, parents to a 3-month-old, have barely had time to sleep, let alone begin to truly process what happened in Israel on Oct. 7. At this point, the nonprofit’s mission overrides everything else.
“The most important thing for us is to help those families. When we’re with them over the phone. I have tears in my eyes so many times,” he said. “This is what moves people to actually hear the families talk, and this is what gives us that inspiration to move ahead.”
Guests at the opening were treated to a kosher offering of heaping plates of hummus and pita, vegetables and meat dishes. The restaurant is Shani’s first kosher one, and its opening came a week after another of his Big Apple establishments was honored with a prestigious Michelin star.
“It’s a celebration, but it’s a celebration that’s based on a big pain that we are carrying in our hearts,” Shani, the chef, told JNS of his restaurant’s opening. “So, the celebration is for the future—to keep the hope inside the heart. You are not becoming happy out of it. But you feel that you are maybe doing the right steps for the future.”