Introducing: Jerk falafel.
With the opening of the Kosher Hot Spot & Welcome Center in Montego Bay, Chabad of Jamaica is fusing two different food styles into an incredible Israeli-Jamaican culinary experience.
Their menu features classic Israeli falafel dished out in warm pita bread (or, for the carb-conscious, served with a side of salad), fries with various seasoning options, and, of course, the now-famous jerk falafel, which wows diners with its distinct crunch and tangy flavor.
“[It’s] the most unbelievable falafel I’ve had in a long time,” Ari Benjamin, who resides in the nearby city of Negril, shared in a Facebook review. “Jamaican spices combined with traditional Israeli recipes… [it’s my] first stop every time I’m in Montego Bay.”
The center serves as one-stop-shop for everything Jewish, from authentic kosher falafel to daily tefillin wrappings and synagogue services. Often, customers stop by for lunch and stay for a Torah lesson—an informal lunch-‘n-learn, if you will.
For tourist Patrick Elmaleh, it was the warmth and friendly service that stood out. “Amazing restaurant with amazing staff!” he commented. “It really felt like home.”
Lilach Delman, an Israeli transplant to Jamaica, travelled two and a half hours from Kingston to join the Hot Spot’s soft opening. “The new Hot Spot brings us our homeland flavor here in Jamaica,” she says. “We will definitely become regulars here.”
The restaurant is completely vegetarian and can seat up to sixteen people at a time. To sweeten the deal, all proceeds from the Kosher Hot Spot directly support the Welcome Center, which, Chabad emissary Rabbi Yaakov Raskin says, will eventually include a synagogue, Jewish heritage museum, and Hebrew School.
In addition to the Kosher Hot Spot, Chabad offers a kosher takeout service, delivering orders to hotels, villas, and private homes in the area. During the high season of December through January, they also host lavish Friday night dinners at a five-star hotel, a weekly highlight for locals and residents alike.
With 350 permanent Jewish residents and 200,000 Jewish tourists visiting Jamaica each year, the kosher food services that Chabad provides are filling a void.
According to Raskin, the restaurant heralds “a new era” for Chabad outreach on the Caribbean island. “Ever since we opened the restaurant, we’ve been finding and making contact with both local and visiting Jews whom we never would have met before this. Even the non-Jewish locals are excited for the chance to try a different cuisine.”
Having spent nearly two years searching for the perfect site, Raskin says the wait was worthwhile. “Our weekly attendance numbers are jumping,” and with the new center’s official grand opening ceremony scheduled to take place this upcoming Chanukah, numbers are only expected to rise.
Chabad’s history in Jamaica dates back 60 years to 1957 when Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky , now the chairman of Chabad’s Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, and the late Rabbi Leibel Raskin, who went on to serve as a Chabad emissary in Morocco, were sent to the Caribbean by the the Lubavitcher Rebbe to bring Torah and a personal connection to Jews in Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic.
Over the years, young men from the “Roving Rabbis” program did the same, some even making clandestine visits to Cuba as they hopped from island to island, reaching out to Jews of all stripes.
Finally, in 2014, Rabbi Yaakov—a grandson of the original Rabbi Raskin—and his wife Mushkee settled in Jamaica full-time to serve local Jewish residents and the thousands of tourists who flock to the island year-round.
“The presence of Chabad here is a huge improvement to Jews living or vacationing in Jamaica,” notes Montego Bay resident James Goren.
“That’s what we’re here for,” the Rabbi concludes, “to reach out to every Jew in every corner.”