Kosher in small communities

Plan ahead and be ready to shlep

By Marcus Dysch, February 16, 2012
Not taken for granted: a Pesach seder plate

Not taken for granted: a Pesach seder plate

No kosher butcher, no kosher baker, and not even any Shabbat candles for sale.

What do you do when you want to keep kosher but your nearest kashrut-friendly store is three hours away by car?

While British Jews living in more sizeable communities are accustomed to popping out at any time to their local store for hechshered items of all descriptions, those in more modest-sized communities face considerable problems.

For many a choice has to be made between going to great lengths to source and store kosher food, or taking the difficult decision to have either a non-kosher – or at least largely vegetarian – diet. Despite the difficulties, few Jews find it impossible to have at least some kosher provision. The efforts made to keep kosher represent a dedicated personal mission for many people.

Sandy Bennett explained how she meticulously plans ahead at home in Norwich: "I have to think about what we are going to do, and what we will eat, when. I used to have an extra freezer in the garage. I keep 'emergency' frozen schnitzels in for unforeseen occasions.

"We get regular deliveries from Titanics kosher store in Manchester. That's the easiest way, although you cannot be sure what you're going to get – it's not quite the same as going into a shop and selecting something yourself."

Mrs Bennett and other Norwich Hebrew Congregation members often order pre-made meals from London-based catering firm Hermolis. But they regularly revert to a simple tried-and-tested method – shlepping.


1. Living outside a big jewish community means being prepared either to drive - or rely on deliveries.
2. If in doubt, chabad will help out. Chabad emissaries cover the country.
3. Or: Buy an extra freezer or club together with neighbours for communal sharing.
4. If desperate: Learn to make your own challah. It's fun and you might even sell your house.

"We used to have a huge car and we would go to London or Essex and fill it up with food for everybody in the community. But then you do worry about what state the meat will be in when you get home after a three-hour drive. We are really isolated, but when there's a will there's a way," said Mrs Bennett.

The difficulties are not only experienced at home. Some communities struggle when planning simchahs or communal meals.

Rabbi Anna Gerrard of Gloucestershire Liberal Jewish Community helped to organise a lunch for congregants earlier this year. The community decided that obtaining a kosher licence would be too difficult and costly and decided to have a vegetarian meal at Cheltenham Guildhall. Visitors from Leo Baeck College were asked to bring kosher items from London as a "top-up".

Rabbi Gerrard explained: "It's beneficial to us to be able to hold an event that way rather than go somewhere with a full kashrut licence. We couldn't do it and couldn't afford it."

She said non-Jewish staff at the local venue had been extremely co-operative, and for one meal had even learnt how to make matzah balls for the soup.

Rabbi Gerrard believes some benefits can be drawn from the community's experiences: "We had been bringing challot from London 10 at a time. At times we had to do without if we ran out. So one member of the community decided to start making challah for everyone every week. That's more special for us than bringing from out of town."

She said it was important for Jews in smaller communities to realise they could encourage stores to stock kosher ranges if they could prove people were prepared to buy regularly.

Victoria Green, a buyer for Waitrose, agreed: "The breadth of our kosher range depends on the size of the branch and customer demand. Our kosher products are stocked in around 38 branches nationwide and we aim to offer a broad selection, especially during Passover when we experience a surge in demand."

The Manchester deli and butcher Titanics provides next-day deliveries by courier to almost all of mainland Britain. Director Richard Hyman said: "We know there are people who are not able to get provisions when they want. Our customers are spread from the Hebrides all the way down to Plymouth.

"We lose money on the delivery side of it but we try to be cost-effective because there are people who would go without kosher items if we couldn't provide them."

Organisations such as Chabad also work to provide kosher food wherever needed. Many of its rabbis run kosher cafés in their local communities where no permanent kosher restaurant exists, as well as helping to cater small simchas, charity events, and even funerals.

There is, understandably, particular focus on Shabbat and festival meals. Ilford-based Rabbi Aryeh Sufrin organises a volunteer-run Pesach shop in Essex and delivers items to elderly and disabled Jews as far away as Cambridge, 50 miles north, and Southend, 30 miles east.

In Islington, north London, Chabad's Rabbi Mendy Korer has often been called on to help solve unique challenges. Last November an American student living in London requested his assistance to locate a kosher turkey for Thanksgiving. But not just any turkey – it had to be one small enough to fit in the oven at the student's halls of residence kitchen.

After placing a special order with a kosher butcher, Rabbi Korer was able to ensure the student could celebrate in traditional style.

Jewish families in Solihull and a string of towns and villages scattered across the Midlands including Stratford-upon-Avon, Coventry, Warwick and Telford are served by Chabad's Rabbi Yehuda Pink. He said: "We receive many requests from residents and tourists looking for help obtaining kosher food. Assisting a person who requires help in a material issue is also a mitzvah and we are always ready to help in any way we can."

Problems associated with keeping kosher are not restricted to regular day-to-day issues – difficulties catering simchahs are regularly raised nationwide.

Manchester's Council of Synagogues has repeatedly discussed what can be done to stem the trend of non-kosher barmitzvah celebrations in the city.

A number of rabbis last year wanted to encourage families to sign agreements committing to serve only supervised food at simchahs, prompting Manchester Beth Din's Dayan Yitzchok Berger to warn of the dangers of alienating young Jews and their families, burdened with the cost of an expensive kosher-licensed function.

Many families have instead chosen to celebrate at a non-religious venue, holding their simchah in a hotel ballroom or conference centre with either a non-meat or vegetarian meal provided by the venue or a non-kosher caterer.

Mark Clyne, director at Manchester's Celia Clyne Banqueting, said the decline of communities in Liverpool, Birmingham and elsewhere was having a "noticeable" effect on the number and size of simchahs.

He said: "With many once vibrant communities dying away, there is a problem when they want to hold a kosher simchah. In Leicester there's a small community but they rally around. If someone wants a kiddush for maybe 50 people, we can send the food and they then have a small army of people in the community to set everything up. For us it's not necessarily about making a profit; we'd rather people had kosher food available. We are trying to do our bit to help."

Last updated: 10:46am, June 7 2012