Voices of Jerusalem: Cooperation through coffee

Loren Minsky speaks to Elyasaf Ish-Shalom, owner of hip café Salon Shabazi that draws an eclectic mix from Nachlaot.

By LOREN MINSKY/ ITRAVELJERUSALEM.COM TEAM
October 18, 2012 10:27
Elyasaf Ish-Shalom, owner of Salon Shabazi

Elyasaf Ish-Shalom, owner of Salon Shabazi 370. (photo credit: iTRAVELJERUSALEM)

“I’ve been involved in a leading role in the community and in social organizations since I was 14,” says Elyasaf Ish-Shalom, the owner and visionary behind Salon Shabazi. A café in Nachlaot, Salon Shabazi’s main aim is to act as a gathering place for people from the community and to provide a platform for social activism and change.

At any time of day, you could see young bohemian students chatting to older Orthodox Jewish men, and everything in-between.

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Elyasaf is multi-talented with a broad range of interests and abilities. He served as an officer in the IDF for six years, before staying on in a kibbutz in the North and studying business management. He then returned to Jerusalem and worked as a stage manager at the Khan Theater, and later with Ensemble Herzliya. Elyasaf then went on to work in agriculture where he developed systems and machines.

“I went through an ideological crisis after the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006,” recalls Elyasaf. “When [IDF soldier] Gilad Shalit was captured, I decided to go to Switzerland for a while.” There, Elyasaf worked with the disabled Jewish community and began studying philosophy.

At the time Elyasaf began researching social organization models as well as business models. “I realized that one can apply lessons learned from successful and sustainable business start-ups to the social world,” explains Elyasaf. “I began to see the value in social organizations remaining independent without pressure from philanthropists and their own potential agendas.”

The social business and entrepreneurship combination was still extremely rare in Israel when Elyasaf opened up Salon Shabazi a year and a half ago. “I decided not to focus on saying what I believe in, but rather to do it and serve as an example and inspiration for others,” reflects Elyasaf.

Near the beginning, Elyasaf began working with Chaya Gilboa, who brought a lot of fire to the table. Without sponsorship, Salon Shabazi makes money in a number of ways – as an amazing café with really good food, by selling local handmade products and by inviting ideological and educational groups to learn how they can make a difference to their community.

In addition to a rich calendar of events, the Salon produces a quarterly newspaper featuring unedited poetry and stories.

Salon Shabazi serves the community’s need for a meeting place, for culture and for the chance to be outside their four walls. “There is an emphasis on communal space in the neighborhood’s traditional homes, which reflects what people are looking for,” explains Elyasaf. Salon Shabazi meets this need in contemporary language by acting as a communal living room.

“There is huge potential that exists in so many individuals, which can get lost without a forum or place to come together,” says Elyasaf. “The best ideas are created when people sit together in a group, and we try to bring together people with ideas and those with power to make them into reality.” Elyasaf shares how he tries to create a facilitative atmosphere with the chairs facing inward. The layout in most coffee shops usually creates individual bubbles, but this is exactly the opposite.

Elyasaf is known for his ability to draw all types to him. “Salon Shabazi is not just for young people. The Salon makes culture accessible and affordable for older people, and they like to come hang out. You can see young families meeting, the local kindergarten making Succa decorations, left-wing and right-wing groups in their respective meetings.”

“In life I try to focus on commonalities between people rather than our differences,” he explains. “I try my hardest not to judge, to empathize with people and to be as close to their point of view as possible with the awareness that you can never walk in another’s shoes.”

Salon Shabazi is tastefully decorated, mainly by volunteers, using second-hand vintage or retro items, which creates a nostalgic atmosphere. “I wanted to challenge the Ikea-style consumer culture,” says Elyasaf. “People are creating more trash than ever yet we used to have such beautiful things that lasted for a long time. I love that the furniture in the Salon has a story – we know who the chairs belonged to, what was in their minds 50 years ago.”

It was also important to fill the place with special things connected to the area like the authentic flooring. “We have so much to learn from old people and our traditions,” recounts Elyasaf. “We stand on their shoulders.”

My grandmother is one of the best marketing people I have,” grins Elyasaf. “My parents are concerned about the unconventionality of my path, but they stand behind me and try to help where they come. My five brothers and I are like best friends.”

Elyasaf is a ninth generation Jerusalemite with a Swiss background on his mother’s side. “I am Yerushalmi (Jerusalemite) before Israeli,” exclaims Elyasaf proudly. “As a Jerusalemite, I’m a mix of everything. We are a pluralistic people always in search of definitions. Nobody is a stranger because we’re all strangers.”

Salon Shabazi promises a kosher dairy menu, but ideologically avoids outside kosher certification. Instead, they place responsibility in the hands of those preparing the food, some of whom need to be trained in the laws of Kashrut. But, the end result is an atmosphere of effort, trust and honesty. The kitchen is open, which contributes to the feeling of transparency. When issues of Kashrut arise, the Salon consults a Rabbi and his kollel students.

“What do I love most? Overhearing the bizarre conversations, which form the soundtrack of the place,” he explains. “You can have two people fighting about prayer times the following day sitting next to art students discussing their naked model. I feel like the Salon is a light on the streets in the neighbourhood. So many people have said that they wanted to move away but then thanks to the Salon decided to stay. I’ve even been to a wedding of a couple that met here.”

“I’m really just an old fashioned social worker,” chuckles Elyasaf. “I’m not into Facebook and enjoy really listening to people. Even in a crowd, I try find a few people to talk to. When I chat to students, see the flash in their eyes when they realize that their dreams can become a reality and then help them make connections, I can go to sleep peacefully.”

“At the moment my biggest challenge it’s trying to create a community center that really connects people from such different backgrounds,” he explains. “Also, I have internal dissonance between two sides of me: the pull between the activist making real changes in the city and the part of me that wants to live somewhere in the dessert writing poetry and philosophy. I feel this conflict every day but I’m doing what I feel is right for now.”

“To unwind, I go with my dog to the desert or to a quiet place. I am not an urbanite and enjoy the stillness of nature,” says Elyasaf. “I am also a ski guide and when I can, I try to go skiing in Switzerland.”

“There are a number of opportunities on the horizon and I’m excited that we may transform the space next door into a hub for students,” says Elyasaf. “I am also teaching entrepreneurship at the Reali School in Haifa.”

“Since I choose what I want to do in my life, I have no regrets or unfulfilled dreams. It’s not an easy path, but I would do the same again.”

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