November 19, 2018

Shabbat’s host with the most welcomes all to the table

On a typical Friday morning, Yaniv Cohen makes several stops in his extensive round of grocery shopping. He begins at Costco in Van Nuys, then visits Cambridge Farms in Valley Village before moving on to Pistachio and Super Sal Market in Encino.

Then he goes home and starts preparing for the 80-plus guests he has invited for Shabbat dinner. The 35-year-old will hardly know most of his guests. Some he invited only that morning, when he met them in the fruit aisles at Costco or while perusing the sunflower seeds and almonds at Pistachio.

“If I hear people talk in Hebrew, I start talking to them and invite them over to my house for Shabbat dinner,” Cohen said. “I also publish my dinners on my Facebook page and on the pages of Jewish communities in the Unites States as well as Israel and South America. I love having people over for Shabbat, and I hope that one day I’ll host Shabbat dinner for a thousand people.”

Cohen was born in Haifa and immigrated to the United States 12 years ago. He became obsessed with sharing Shabbat hospitality in 2008, while living in Maryland.

“A friend [showed] me the beauty of Kabbalat Shabbat and how fun it is to have guests over and teach them the meaning of this Jewish tradition, and so it started then,” he said. “I used to meet people in the mall, the street, the supermarket, and after a two-minute conversation, I’d already invited them over for Shabbat dinner.”

In time, Cohen’s periodic dinners became more and more elaborate, with dozens of participants. Nine months ago, shortly after he purchased his 2,700-square-foot house in North Hollywood, his Friday night gatherings became a regular thing with guests coming for dinner and sometimes staying overnight.

“Before I had purchased my house, I used to live in a guest house not far from here, and although I was invited to Shabbat dinners, I always came back to a dark and quiet home and was pretty lonely,” he said. “So, when I saw this house in North Hollywood and saw how spacious the living room is, I immediately thought that it would be the perfect place to host, and I put an offer on it.”

While he enjoys meeting new people and sharing Shabbat with them, he admits he has an ulterior motive, as well. Cohen, who takes Friday off from his air-duct and carpet cleaning company to get ready for his guests, is a bachelor seeking a wife, and he wouldn’t mind meeting her at one of his dinners. In fact, a couple who met at one of his dinner parties are planning a September wedding in Israel.

“It’s amazing how many connections are being made between total strangers in my home — and not only love connections,” Cohen said. “People found jobs, apartments for rent, play dates for their children. I feel blessed that I’m able to do this mitzvah. Sometimes, I see women who are divorced or widowed and they come over with their children who had never experienced a real Kabbalat Shabbat, with all the blessings, the cup of wine and the songs, and they enjoy it so much. It gives them a sense of belonging, of a family.”

Cohen estimates it costs between $800 and $1,000 to host guests each Friday night. He gets some financial help from friends and a GoFundMe page on the web, and some of the food is donated by Pacific Kosher Grill in North Hollywood.

When guests arrive at his home, Cohen greets each of them with a warm hug. They find long tables covered with white tablecloths, set up perfectly with plates and utensils. Among his guests have been new immigrants, tourists from Israel, bachelors and bachelorettes, families with young children, single moms and some regulars. With the help of a few friends, Cohen serves chicken, fish and Israeli salads, with cake for dessert, along with cookies, fruits and a variety of nuts.

In August, he broke a personal record for one night with 125 guests who accepted his persistent invitations.

Cohen’s generosity extends beyond the Friday night dinner.

Observant Jews who don’t drive on Shabbat and live too far to walk home often spend Friday night at Cohen’s house. He lets them sleep in guest rooms and in a recreational vehicle he bought especially for this purpose, where six people can sleep comfortably.

“I bought bunk beds, closed the patio and purchased a sofa bed,” he said. “If needed, I also give my own bedroom and move to sleep on the patio myself.”

After most dinners, Cohen does the cleanup mostly by himself, finishing around 3 a.m. He gets a few hours of sleep before waking his guests at 8 a.m. and inviting them to walk with him to services at Adat Yeshurun Valley Sephardic Congregation in North Hollywood.

Guests who don’t wish to accompany him to services can stay at his home and wait for his return around noon, when Cohen serves a lunch of cholent that, per tradition, he prepares the night before, with the help of a neighbor.

His seemingly boundless giving amazes his guests.

“I came with my daughter to one of his Shabbat dinners after hearing about him from friends,” said Rachel Dror, 45. “It was pretty incredible. I’m a divorced mother and we don’t exactly celebrate Friday night with the Kiddush because it’s different doing it alone and doing it with a group of people. Yaniv made us feel immediately welcomed and at home. The food was fantastic, as was the company.”

Liron Abutbul, 25, came to Cohen’s dinner with a friend whom Cohen had met at the Super Sal Market. “It was such an experience to celebrate the Shabbat with dozens of people,” Abutbul said. “We didn’t know anyone there and we felt at home. I arrived in Los Angeles a year ago. I don’t have a family here. And Yaniv made me feel like I have a home to go to. He is a very unique guy.”

Jonathan Levin, 33, decided to check out Cohen because friends couldn’t stop talking about the dinners.

“I called Yaniv, who was only too happy for me to come over. Actually, he kind of pressured me to come and bring friends with me if I like,” Levin said. “I went to his house one Friday in August and it felt like a holiday. I don’t know how he manages to do it, but there was plenty of food and enough room for everybody to sit around the table. He is a pretty cool guy.”

Many of Cohen’s guests stay until the Havdalah ceremony that ends Shabbat. But no matter when they leave, Cohen makes sure no one goes home hungry.

”I never know how many guests will show up each time, but, miraculously, the food is always enough for everybody,” he said. “I feel blessed that I can do this. I’m already thinking about breaking some walls, enlarging the living room, so I can have even more people over.” n