March 2022 Ruminations & Ronnifications

by Rabbi Paul Plotkin, Rav Hamachshir (Supervising Rabbi) of Ben’s

Is it important for Ben’s to be kosher?

Not really, if you have no sense of the Jewish community, but that has never been Ronnie’s way. Ronnie understood that the synagogue and the deli were two of the institutions that Jews came to, to be amongst Jews, and to feel like they were part of a community.

Seventy years ago, most Jews went to Temple and most Jews went to the deli. Some went to the synagogue to talk to God others went to talk to their shule buddies. Some went to the deli primarily to eat; many went to hang out with their buddies in a Jewish space.

As Jews have increasingly assimilated, they have attended both spaces less frequently. Synagogues are shrinking, merging, or closing, and Jewish Delis have almost disappeared. Both are struggling to stay alive and relevant, not only for their own survival but for the ethnic and religious survival of our people, which brings me to why Ben’s needs to be kosher.

The majority of non-Orthodox Jews do not keep kosher. The majority of Orthodox Jews and certainly all the Ultra-Orthodox not only eat kosher they eat a very stringent version of kosher, invoking ever increasingly difficult and restrictive rules that go far beyond being kosher. I once wrote an article for a Conservative Magazine arguing that we needed a new kosher symbol, The KE, Kosher Enough. Make sure the food is kosher and that no dairy enters the store, but it is enough that the meat is kosher, it doesn’t have to be Glatt Kosher. Through a rental arrangement that follows Jewish law, the store can be rented to a non-Jew for shabbat and Yom Tov and remain open. In such a way the cost of food would only be expensive not exorbitant, and the store would not have to pay for over 2 months of closure while paying full market price for the rent. This enables the store to offer a higher quality of food at lower cost than a Glatt Kosher restaurant.

Ronnie read that article and invited me to look at his restaurants. Eventually he asked me to supervise the chain.

But again, why be kosher at all?

Because there is a cross section of people who still keep kosher and want to have a place to go to eat and to schmooze with their friends and family who may not keep kosher.

The Synagogue that I served as Rabbi for 33 years was called Beth Am, the House of the People. We were a traditional Conservative synagogue and of course kosher, but I enforced a stricter standard such as only using kosher cheese and kosher wine while some synagogues permitted non supervised versions of both(and they had legitimate reasons to do so) but I wanted the House of the People to reach out to a wider population. I wanted the families of those coming to a simcha to feel comfortable to eat in our synagogue and celebrate together at the parties. At the same time, I drew the line at the “extra stringencies” as that would have backfired and precisely alienated the people I wanted to attend.

Ultra-Orthodox were not walking into my building let alone eating there, but the more traditional Jews including the modern Orthodox would come and we could be a more expansive community.

About 12 % of Bens’ customers come because we are kosher, and they can come with their non-kosher friends and family and enjoy together. The food is great so non-kosher Jews (and gentiles are always invited) can be comfortable with Ben’s, and the food is kosher so kashruth observers can come and hang with their non-kosher buddies. We are still a place that many in the community can gather in a warm, comfortable, maybe even nostalgic environment. (I would have said “Haymish” but to explain would have necessitated another paragraph)

Is it important for Ben’s to be kosher?

I think so. I hope you do too.

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