Sixteen years in, Oded Rauvenpoor has built a steady business with a restaurant called Falafel Bar in Amherst, and a food truck of the same name.
He has had to deal with racists before. You can only do so much about your face. Especially since 9-11, Rauvenpoor’s has occasionally emboldened strangers to call him a Muslim terrorist, or treat him like one. The fact that he is an Israeli Jew has never mattered. “They see this,” he said, indicating his black hair and olive features.
“I’m a strong, big guy,” he said. He’s also ex-military, as service is mandatory in Israel. He has largely learned to shrug off the comments.
But when racism barged into his restaurant, and into his food truck line, he couldn’t shrug it off any more, he said. “Our kids work here,” he said. Between his wife Keri’s children, and his own, there are four.
So on Thursday, he took to Facebook to describe it and decry it.
“Our staff should not be abused this way, neither at work or anywhere. We are choosing to share these stories, because hiding it seems to imply we have done something shameful, but we have not.
Being an immigrant is not shameful.
Speaking multiple languages is not shameful.
Practicing the religion of your choosing is not shameful.
We choose to raise our voices against bigotry.”
The post got more than 1,700 reactions, more than 500 comments, and was shared more than 700 times.
"I’m so sorry to read this, but thank you for sharing," said one. "Those jerks don’t speak for me. I will stand with you, and eat your delicious food more often so that you know you are loved all the way to the bank!!"
"This absolutely breaks my heart. We are so lucky to have you in our community sharing your food with us," said another.
"I love your food, but more importantly if I ever see someone treating someone else in this way, I vow to stand up and say it’s not okay," said another. "We can not be pedestrians in this."
Those comments stand in stark contrast to some of the abuse Rauvenpoor said he has endured. Incidents included a customer who spit in his face and one who ordered $200 in food, ate, then refused to pay, yelling that immigrant food and labor should be cheap and followed with a racist diatribe that filled the small dining room. Truck customers had to endure a woman yelling at the workers to go back where they came from, and a man who blocked the line and tried to drive away customers with a racist verbal assault.
Rauvenpoor said he spoke up because shrugging that off would show his children the wrong thing.
“I want them to know that they're in America, and in America, everybody's equal,” he said. “And that's what we’re trying to teach them. So when somebody comes here and offends my staff, it makes us very, very, very sad.”
Then there is his crew. “We speak seven languages in this restaurant,” he said. “We have people from India, Syria, Iraq, Israel, American Italians, we have everything, we do everything, we don't discriminate against anybody.”
One of his employees is a refugee who’s worked at Falafel Bar for seven years. “He's been here for so long, is an amazing person, a beautiful family. To have him be concerned because somebody is looking at him in the wrong way, or saying things in the wrong way — that's not what we want,” Rauvenpoor said. “We want what the community wants — to help each other.”
Later, he said that he had the privilege of speaking up. "There's a lot of other businesses and people that maybe look like us, maybe talk like us, maybe make the same food that we make or different, that will never speak up, because they will be terrified to speak up. I'm not afraid to speak up because I'm proud of who I am," he said.
In line at the Dent Tower food truck stop Friday, Carol Goldstein of the Town of Tonawanda said she was there for the “best hummus in the city” — and to support Falafel Bar, after seeing the Facebook post.
“I was hurt,” said Goldstein. “I’m a Jew as well. The fact that they would spit on his workers, that they would show so much hate, is just, well, deplorable.”
As long as people made a point of showing their hate in public, she wanted to show her support, she said.
Another person who saw the post messaged from Pittsburgh, saying they wanted to support Rauvenpoor and his crew, but they were out of town. Could he make a donation for food to be given away?
As it happened, the restaurant has just gotten a catering order of about $230 from the International Institute of Buffalo. The 100-year-old nonprofit organization serves immigrants in Buffalo. Perfect, the donor said. The institute employee who picked up the order was moved to tears, said server Ralph Ferrini.
“I don’t want to make it political,” Rauvenpoor said. “In our countries, food is what unites people, no matter what religion you believe. That’s all I want: to bring people together to eat good food.”
Story topics: Instagram