At first, Yalli Avitan thought that one of her employees had moved the restaurant’s tip jar to empty it — that it had been misplaced after a busy dinner rush on Christmas night.
She didn’t want to believe that someone would take advantage of the bustle inside Judah Mediterranean Grille, the kosher takeout joint her father opened 10 years ago, to steal $250 from her hardworking staff.
But video surveillance held the truth: An unidentified man, under the pretext of reading a menu, snagged the jar and walked out of the Bustleton eatery with the smooth reflexes of someone who may have stolen before. He swiped about a week’s worth of tips meant for the four waitresses.
“Forget the money," Avitan, 39, said Friday during a quick break from plating falafel and shakshuka. "I hope he sees this and says, ‘What a fool I’ve been.' Maybe he’ll decide to do something good with it.”
Philadelphia police said the theft took place just after 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, when the dinner crowd in Judah’s was at its peak. Investigators didn’t have much more than the video from Avitan’s camera, which shows the thief wearing a distinctive knit hat with the words “I BELIEVE” sewn into it.
That hat helped investigators spot the suspect in surveillance footage taken next door, at the Royal Passion Restaurant. He went there first and, not finding a tip jar at the mostly empty business, headed next door. Police said the investigation was ongoing.
“When I realized what happened, I was hurt,” Avitan said. “Especially on Christmas Day, when people are putting in hours that they could be spending with their families.”
After posting the video to local Facebook groups, Avitan said, amateur sleuths claimed to have identified the thief. But she was reluctant to give details, waiting for police to make the arrest.
In the meantime, life went on Friday inside the restaurant, in a strip mall on Krewstown Road.
Judah Avitan, who came to Philadelphia 30 years ago from Jerusalem, opened the restaurant a decade ago. In 2014, after his legs were amputated due to complications from diabetes, his eponymous restaurant was taken over by his oldest daughter.
It was a smooth transition: She had spent most of her life working in the kitchens at her father’s restaurants, starting with the long-closed Shish Kebab on Spruce Street in Center City.
“This is a family passion,” she said. “And thank God I like what I’m doing, because it’s a lot of work.”
Wednesday’s theft was the first time any of her father’s eateries had been victimized, she said.
“With enough people sharing this video online, I hope something comes out of this,” she said. “I hope he sees it himself, and even if he doesn’t turn himself in, maybe he’ll think twice before doing something like this again.”