Voices of Jerusalem: Mind over matter

Loren Minsky speaks to Sima Ben Haim,one of the partners behind Itamar Cafe.

Sima Ben Haim (photo credit: Courtesy)
Sima Ben Haim
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"Café Itamar was built to continue Itamar Doron's legacy," says Sima Ben Haim, one of the partners of Café Itamar on Moshav Ora. Itamar was killed in 1998 at the age of 24 in a terrorist attack when he was bathing in a spring with a friend near the farm of Ora west of Jerusalem. Six years ago, Itamar's brothers Dror and Lahav bought land in Ora and opened up a nursery and coffee shop. "Itamar loved life and the restaurant is testimony to this," says Sima.
After the army, Itamar spent time in America. Though he had a secular background, whilst overseas he started to return to his Jewish faith, recalls Sima, who was in America at the time too. Sima remembers fondly how they worked in a restaurant in Brooklyn; Itamar on the grill and Sima as a waitress.
"Itamar was a beautiful person inside and out, who always helped others," says Sima. "His brother Dror says that Itamar was someone who loved justice."
When Itamar returned to Jerusalem, he went down to Eilat, where he found the contrast to his newly adapted values challenging. He returned to Jerusalem committed to learning Torah and becoming closer to God. As it turns out, he got the opportunity to spend all the Jewish holidays in Israel before his death. 
"I have known Itamar's family for many years and we are like family," says Sima, who is still close to Itamar's mother Sarit and has worked closely with his brothers for the past five years. Sima is moved by the family's approach to life and how they took pain and transformed it into something so happy and beautiful. The brothers honored Itamar's memory by buying the land in Ora and opening Café Itamar.
Originally from Haifa, Sima studied to be a criminal lawyer, but decided after two days of work that it was not for her. "Though I was thankful for the education, I decided that I want a different energy in my life," says Sima. She then worked as a manager in a sunglasses company. Itamar's brothers knew Sima had what it took to make the business something and encouraged her to join them in running Café Itamar. Eventually she acquiesced and hasn’t looked back.
Sima is a natural hostess and enjoys making people feel welcome and serving them great food. Whereas Dror mainly deals with the nursery and Lahav manages things on the back-end, Sima is very involved with the front-end thrives on the interaction with customers and the compliment of around 100 staff members. She spends half her day in Beit Zayit and half in Ora.
Sima is kept very busy from early in the morning till late at night. The restaurant not only caters to small groups of regular customers but holds events for up to 90 people on a regular basis.
Although Sima is passionate about food, she knows very little about cooking, but emphasizes that she knows how to choose the best staff. Her focus is on creating a homely atmosphere and 90 percentof the regular customers know her. "I enjoy adding little touches, such aschoosing tasteful crockery that makes all the difference," says Sima.She also enjoys the opportunity to inspire and teach, and believes in giving every worker something to take away with them, and to help them achieve their dreams.
Sima speaks of how the business grew into what it is today. "We started off very small and grew mainly by word of mouth. Originally, we put all the money that we made back into growing the business." Sima also believes a huge selling point is the restaurants' magnificent locations, with both indoor and outdoor seating depending on the weather. "Ironically it was real estate agents in Tel Aviv that found the place in Beit Zayit. People told us we were crazy to open up a restaurant there but thank God it has been full from day one," says Sima.
Café Itamar recently changed its menu and now offers a dedicated breakfast menu and afternoon and dinner menu. Chef Nadav Elbaz came from working at one of the finest hotels in Jerusalem, Alrov Mamilla, and he not only draws inspiration from the restaurant's special location but integrates fresh herbs and edible flowers from the nursery into the dishes."The ingredients and products are of the highest quality and most of the food is completely home-made," says Sima.
Sima lived with her ex-husband in Ora, but they had different views on life, divorced and she moved to Tel Aviv, whereshe currently commutes from.
However, she is searching for an apartment in Beit Zayit." I love Tel Aviv but I see my life nearer to Jerusalem, and God willing raising a family in this environment. The people in Jerusalem are different and warm."
Though she is not outwardly religious, Sima is proud of her Jewish identity and believes in God. "I will only open kosher restaurants," says Sima. "Closing on Shabbat is common sense. People need to rest and there is nothing more special than being with your family after a long, hard week of work. Even though we are closed on Shabbat, we still make money."
On the side, Sima is studying neo-humanology, which is focused on the power of living in the present, and the ability of words and thoughts to change the programming of the brain. "I believe that we should not give energy to what's happened in the past or what's going to happen," says Sima. This type of therapy transformed her life and she is eager to pass its "valuable teachings" on.
The word "hard" is not in Sima's lexiconand she is big on living in the now.
"Everything happens in the right time," says Sima. To unwind, she likes to meditate, be close to the sea and nature, to eat good food and go to the cinema. "I love this country[Israel] and enjoy living here," shares Sima. "I lived in America but there is nothing like Israel."
"Plans for the future? In addition to continuing striving to be the best in Jerusalem, we are currently looking to open another restaurant," says Sima.
"But we choose very discerningly and will only go for something very special. " Sima also speaks of a personal dream to open a kosher tapas bar with good Spanish music.
"I wake up in the morning with a smile, and say thank you that I get to come to this job, and live my life. I am grateful as I know that such happiness is unusual," says Sima. She confides that everything that she touches turns to gold. "It may notsound modest but it's true and it is my positive thoughts that are creating my life."

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