On Shabbat afternoon between minchah and ma’ariv, the men of Congregation Ahavat Shalom of Ocean City, Maryland, sit around a small table. It is a welcomed respite from the 16-hour days they work during the week. As the rabbi discusses the Torah portion, salads are served, including traditional Moroccan dishes. Cans of soda are brought to the table, but there are few takers, as the men brag about giving up carbonated drinks.
The unopened soda cans are sitting on the table like a sore thumb. This prompts David Cohen, the owner of Sunglasses City, to make a confession, “I never drink soda, except for Friday night. Moroccan fish and a can of cola ... haval al hazman (roughly translated: “the absolute best!).”
Cohen’s Moroccan fish is legendary, and so he gets the attention of the others as the conversation shifts to how the fish is best prepared. Tilapia or Salmon? High flame or low flame? How spicy? How many layers of cilentra? With or without olives?
Ahavat Shalom is a Sephardic synagogue, comprised mostly of Israelis of Moroccan descent who work in stores along the boardwalk. It has a membership of about 70 families during the summer. This number shrinks dramatically during the rest of the year, as congregants relocate to Florida and elsewhere, often so that their children will be able to attend Jewish day schools. There are services every morning, although on weekdays it is difficult to get a minyan, and even on Shabbat and holidays, a minyan is not always certain.
What is certain at Ahavat Shalom is that there will always be good food. On Shabbat, immediately after singing “Adon Olom,” the congregants move to the social hall for a full meal that includes hamim and, of course, Moroccan fish. On holidays and special celebrations, the meal is even more lavish.
The Sibony family founded Ahavat Shalom. David Sibony played professional soccer for Maccabbi Yafo until an injury caused him to give up the sport. He came to the United States and, in 1983, with his father and three brothers, opened Sunsations, a beach department store with locations across six states.
The family’s success brought others to the area. Yaakov Dray (Cool Topics) came to Ocean City after living many years in Finland. Eli Omer (Sunsations, Chincoteague) came to Ocean City after finishing his army service and traveling around the world. Efi Sasi (Sassy Beachwear) came to Ocean City, marrying a local woman. David Shachmarov (Assateague Market) came to Ocean City to manage his father’s properties.
Recognizing the needs of the growing Jewish community, the Sibony family built a synagogue and mikvah, and hired a rabbi. Shalom Hadad, 28, the current rabbi, has been at the synagogue for two years.
Rabbi Hadad is originally from Moshav Kerem Ben Zimra in northern Israel, where his father owned a vineyard. He studied in a Jerusalem Yeshiva and was sent on shlichut by the Midrash Sephardi, an organization that sends rabbis to support Sephardic communities around the world. Before coming to Ocean City, Rabbi Hadad held positions in San Jose and Los Angeles. He is married to Revital and they have three children.
Rabbi Hadad has many talents and interests. As a rabbi, he prides himself in his open-minded approach to Judaism and his ability to look at perspectives from across the religious spectrum. He studied hazzanut (cantorial music) in Israel and trained to be a shochet (kosher slaughterer) in Turkey. He enjoys participating in extreme sports. In addition, both he and his wife are accomplished chefs and frequently invite people to their home for a gourmet Shabbat dinner, which will include, invariably, their own special version of Moroccan fish.
The couple prepares and brings lunches to congregants working on the boardwalk, including falafel, schnitzel, and fried fish. Rabbi Hadad has a simple philosophy taken from Sanhedrin 103b: “Great is the power of food that brings those who are far away near to you.” This is his special form of kiruv (outreach). As I was interviewing the rabbi, he prepared for me, unsolicited, a vegetarian wrap with eggs and feta cheese. It was delicious.
Ocean City is the most popular summer resort in Maryland, with over eight million visitors annually. It has miles of beach and a wooden boardwalk lined with restaurants, shops, and hotels. There are theme parks and waters sports. It is nearby to Assateague Island, where one can encounter wild horses. Fishing competitions, helicopter rides, and outlet shopping are popular activities. There are concerts on the beach almost every evening.
Despite Ocean City’s well-known attractions, few are aware of Ahavat Shalom on Elm Street. It’s conveniently located right off the Coastal Highway, a mile from the boardwalk, moments from the bay, across the street from outlet stores, and within walking distance of many hotels.
Rabbi Hadad is convinced that, as the synagogue and the mikvah become known, and if kosher food is available, Ocean City will become a popular vacation destination for religiously observant Jews. His goal is to use his culinary skills to make this happen.
Ocean City Party Market on Dorchester Street already sells kosher food products. However, there has been no possibility of getting prepared kosher food. Rabbi Hadad and his wife are pleased to announce that they will now be providing kosher food for visitors to Ocean City. They will prepare food, according to the needs of the visitors, and deliver directly to their hotel. They can even make the social hall of the synagogue available for larger catered meals. This writer highly recommends the Moroccan fish.
Rabbi Hadad wants religiously observant Jewish tourists to know that Ocean City has a synagogue with daily services, a mikvah and, now, the possibility of kosher, prepared food. The entire congregation of Ahavat Shalom hopes that you will consider Ocean City for your next vacation.
By Paul J. Blank
Paul J. Blank is a teacher at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland.