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COVID-19 crashes the party for kosher caterers

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Community

The sudden closure of Gary Friedman Caterers, one of Johannesburg’s largest and much-loved kosher caterers, has left the community in shock and shone a spotlight on a troubled industry dramatically affected by the pandemic.

During the best of times, kosher catering is tough, the overheads and costs are high, the margins are small, and the community is dwindling, say insiders. During bad times, it’s seemingly impossible, and many are hanging by a thread.

According to many insiders who wish to remain anonymous, the world of kosher is fraught with a toxic blend of favouritism, nepotism, and fierce competitiveness which has led to market cannibalism and an unsustainable future for many.

Kosher industry players are doing what they can to stay afloat. Innovative ideas by one caterer advertised on Facebook are sometimes copied the next day by another, sometimes for less. Several establishments are selling the same products or dishes, often at lower prices than their neighbouring kosher competitors. The exorbitant and rising cost of meat and chicken continues to rear its head and plague consumers.

Even before COVID-19, but certainly during the pandemic, there has been a proliferation of home industries that profess to be kosher but aren’t certified by the Beth Din. These are run by people who are also trying to make an honest living. However, they are having a negative impact on the bigger players who have Beth Din kosher licencing fees, mashgichim fees, high rentals, large staff complements, and other business overheads to account for.

Kosher caterers and restaurateurs have been hit doubly hard by the see-saw, stop-start nature of business during wave after wave of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. An industry heavily reliant on simchas, celebrations, and festive good times, it has taken an irreparable knock. In spite of impressive pivoting, unprecedented resilience, grit, and hard work, many say it has become too difficult.

“It’s a very difficult time,” said Leonard Meyerowitz of Kosher Pie Works and Jozi Coffee Pizza Pasta. COVID-19 restrictions with no seating at eateries or very limited numbers at functions; the drastic drop to zero simchas from shul brochas, brit milah, weddings, Barmitzvahs and Batmitzvahs have taken a toll.

“Add to this the number of days we are closed because of Shabbos, fast days, and Jewish holidays, rising emigration, not to forget Eskom power cuts, it’s really hard on all of us,” he said.

South Africa has enjoyed being a flagship of kosher food around the world, but it’s slowly losing its big anchor establishments, said one concerned supplier.

Just after noon on Tuesday, 6 July, Gary and his wife, Tamara, dropped the bombshell in a letter to all their clients and suppliers explaining that their company was no longer able to weather the storm of COVID-19.

It brought to an end an era of simcha and revelry at the HOD, where he largely operated from. Friedman declined to comment further.

Several caterers and kosher suppliers this week expressed genuine sadness, perhaps seeing themselves reflected in the mirror of his company’s demise. “I was devastated when I heard the news,” said trained chef and caterer Hayley Hack. “Gary is such a good, kind man.”

Hack and her former partner, Sharon Sheer, parted ways amicably when COVID-19 decimated their once thriving, small catering and function co-ordinating business.

“It simply wasn’t financially viable to work as a team anymore, especially with 90% of our functions being cancelled. We walked away with a heavy heart, but at least we didn’t incur debt. It’s very sad because we were established in the industry,” she said.

In the beginning, they tried to make money by selling delicious salad dressings and delivering meals, but found that it wasn’t viable, so parted ways to work on their own after terminating their contract with function venue The Middleton in Morningside. Hack continues to cater on a small scale and Sheer remains hopeful that functions will resume and things will get better once lockdown is lifted.

Long-time caterer Estelle Sacharowitz of Love is in the Kitchen said she was “heartbroken” when she heard about Friedman. “He has an incredible legacy. This is a sad loss for the industry,” she said.

Ian Isenberg, of Spice Premium Biltong & Butchery said, “Gary is the ultimate mensch in the industry. He gave me a chance as a newcomer, and even when the chips were down for him, he still helped to cater a wedding [last month] for a couple who couldn’t afford it. He did a lot for the community and his staff. This is a huge loss.”

Some caterers who wish to remain anonymous for fear of repercussion say the Gary Friedman closure goes far beyond caterers.

In spite of a humbled Beth Din following the Stan & Pete treif chicken scandal and the continuing saga of the high cost of kosher food, the organisation is seemingly unsympathetic at this time, they say.

“The Beth Din has improved its accessibility and receptivity, but it’s still not customer-centric and now more than ever, it needs to be,” said one kosher caterer who wished to remain anonymous.

“Where is the Beth Din now when we need all the support we can get?” asked another.

“Kosher food and catering is prohibitive. The Beth Din has to do something about the exorbitant cost of kosher meat and chicken, end of story,” said another commentator, who also wished to remain anonymous. “Kosher chicken breasts cost between R244 and R268 per kilogram. Something isn’t right. It has become utterly unaffordable, and it’s affecting caterers and restaurants.

“Young couples are battling to keep kosher. Many are deciding it’s easier not to. My biggest concern is that kashrut is going to be diluted as more and more people resort to ‘kosher style’ food which is not under the Beth Din, like you see happening more and more in places like Australia.”

Rabbi Dovi Goldstein, the managing director of kashrut at the Beth Din, said the closure of Gary Friedman Caterers had come as a “huge blow to all of us”.

“We are in discussion with Gary as to various possibilities of how to assist him,” he said.

Kosher SA remained dedicated to ensuring the highest kosher standard, Goldstein said. “At the same time, we will continue to look at ways to assist all our establishments. We have, to date, provided payment holidays across the board during hard lockdowns, and extended help on a case-by-case basis.

“We are deeply concerned about the difficulties that all our certified food services are going through.”

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Community

Communal organisations help make Rosh Hashanah special

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With Rosh Hashanah upon us, communal organisations are hard-pressed to make sure that every community member is looked after, but the number of people needing help has spiked since the onset of the pandemic.

The Chevrah Kadisha – which looks after the lion’s share of those in need – has recorded a 35% increase in the amount of financial assistance that it gives families towards living costs. In the Western Cape, Jewish Community Services Cape Town (JCS) recipients have increased more than 100%.

The Jewish Women’s Benevolent Society (JWBS) has also noticed an increase in the number of people in need over the past few years. “With COVID-19, it’s especially hard,” said Maureen Disler, the co-chairperson of the organisation which has survived for more than 127 years. “People have lost their jobs, and some people ask for food vouchers. They haven’t got enough to feed their children.”

The Chevrah Kadisha gives special yom tov meals to the 850 elderly and physically or mentally challenged people living in its residential facilities. However, its wider reach extends to nearly 11 000 people, helping them with living costs, food, healthcare, education, accommodation, and social services throughout the year.

“The Chev is unique in the sheer volume of people it helps, the duration of time that it helps them for, and the diverse range of its activities from cradle to grave,” said Saul Tomson, the chief executive of the largest Jewish welfare organisation on the African continent.

The organisation distributes R5 million every month to families in the community, totalling R60 million for the year. This is a significant increase from pre-COVID-19 times. It’s also involved in education, with nearly R1 million a month going towards 279 children in Jewish schools and remedial schools, as well as 130 university students who are being educated through the Chev’s interest-free student-loan programme.

“Particularly now leading up to Rosh Hashanah, a lot of assistance is being distributed through our COVID-19 emergency release fund,” Tomson said.

Smaller organisations like Yad Aharon & Michael have also been inundated with new requests over the past two years.

“Whereas the number of families who receive weekly food parcels from us stands at about 700, families who aren’t in a position to provide festive meals for Rosh Hashanah through to Sukkot apply for food parcels, which we gladly provide, thereby increasing the number of parcels packed by anything between 20 to 30 plentiful yom tov hampers,” said Alice Friedman, the chief executive of the organisation founded more than 23 years ago.

Ingrid Koor, the chairperson of the Union of Jewish Women (UJW), which assists just more than 100 people over Rosh Hashanah, said, “There are many more people in need as many families have emigrated, leaving elderly people. The economic downturn and COVID-19 have made things more difficult. With, unfortunately, many more elderly passing, our numbers have remained the same for a few years.”

The UJW’s flagship project, Kosher Mobile Meals (KMM), will supply festive cooked kosher Rosh Hashanah meals, plus honey for a hopefully sweeter year. “We will also distribute yom tom joy parcels supplied by the HOD [Hebrew Order of David] consisting of treats and non-perishable food to recipients,” said Koor. “KMM distributes kosher cooked meals to those Jewish elderly over 75 who are unable to cook for themselves.”

For Rosh Hashanah, Yad Aharon & Michael is handing out double portions of seasonal fruit, apples and vegetables, supplemented by meat, chicken, fish, eggs, and dairy products. Its dry goods hampers include honey, grape juice, challahs, and honey cakes in addition to all the basic requirements needed to prepare yom tov meals and usher in a happy and sweet new year.

“I’m confident our families won’t need to shop for extra food for two days of yom tov,” said Friedman. “Our aim is to enable them to enjoy plentiful meals free from worry and anxiety. This is made possible by the community’s renowned generosity.”

JWBS is giving money to its recipients to sweeten their Rosh Hashanah. It also recently gave out activity packs. “People are lonely and isolated, so we’ve given them each an activity pack. They really look forward to it,” said Disler.

This Rosh Hashanah, the JCS’s hampers include round challot, ready-made vegetable soup, roast chicken, pumpkin pie, vegetables, salads, and strawberries.

“Of course, we add in the apples, honey, grape juice, and candles,” said Lauren Cohn, the chairperson of the JCS Tikvah Foodbank Committee. “In addition, we include a Tupperware container filled with teiglach, meringues, dried fruit, and Sparkles. Every food hamper has a special Rosh Hashanah card handmade by children in our local Jewish schools. These food hampers are well thought out, meticulously planned, and beautifully presented with the love, dignity, and respect that we all deserve.”

The JCS is raising funds through the Rosh Hashanah Appeal, which entails sending out e-cards on behalf of the Tikvah Foodbank’s donors. The organisation also relies on volunteers.

“Our Rosh Hashanah and Pesach [fundraising] campaigns are the biggest,” said Friedman. “We have a Rosh Hashanah campaign running at the moment. It’s widely posted on social media, advertised on street poles in suburbs known to be frequented by the Jewish community, and in the SA Jewish Report. We’re also selling beautiful yom tov gifts at various points in Joburg, which is a successful initiative.”

The JWBS phones people to ask for donations as COVID-19 restrictions prevent it from running traditional functions such as theatre shows and golf tournaments.

Since many of the UJW’s recipients don’t have family nearby or the funds to pay for their meals, KMM is run mostly on donations. “We launched a fundraising campaign on social media and via our databases to raise money,” said Koor. “We also phoned people to ask for donations.”

Although the UJW’s principal need is donations, it also needs volunteers to chat to its isolated elderly when it’s safer to do so. “KMM recipients are more isolated since COVID-19,” said Koor. “We used to host elderly people to a Wednesday lunch at our UJW house. These people are sorely missing the social interaction.”

Asked what advice she has for those wanting to help others on Rosh Hashanah, Friedman said, “Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah are the three elements which Hashem takes into account when finalising our verdict for the coming year. I’m fully cognisant that everybody is financially stretched, but helping those in our midst who cannot celebrate Rosh Hashanah and the chaggim without our assistance is a communal responsibility. Treating the needy with sensitivity, kindness, and empathy underpins Yad Aharon’s brand of chesed, and addressing the harsh reality of hunger and destitution in our midst forms an integral part of our mission.”

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Hudaco-ORT helps disabled entrepreneurs

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ORT South Africa hosted a ceremony on 12 August for 10 entrepreneurs who it assisted to obtained SETA qualifications to help them start their own businesses.

The potential and existing entrepreneurs were assisted by Hudaco-ORT to obtain National Qualifications Framework (NQF) level 2 new venture creation qualifications, assisting them to start and grow their business ventures.

Hudaco-ORT helps people with disabilities by facilitating their completion of the NQF level 2 qualifications, which equips them to capitalise on opportunities. The beneficiaries received their Sector Education Training Authority (SETA) certificates at the ceremony.

“We often unintentionally consume ourselves with what’s considered the norm rather than focusing on our own uniqueness,” Hudaco-ORT said. “People with disabilities are the epitome of uniqueness, forming a vital part of society and reminding us to value our own strengths and weaknesses.”

Said, beneficiary Mncedisi Bengu, “It was a surprise. I was fairly happy and shocked at the same time. I didn’t think I would be successful. My teacher, Sarah Malape, gave me an experience that I had never had in my life. She taught me to respect myself and other people, and to be myself.”

On receiving his certificate, he said, “I’m excited. At my home, they gonna [sic] be happy for me, and say, ‘Wow you did it.’”

Said another beneficiary, Sthembile Gumede, “I’m so happy, and my grandmother is happy for me. I wish I learnt more because I like books.”

ORT SA wishes all the beneficiaries of the Hudaco-ORT Project well in their future endeavours, and is grateful to Hudaco for partnering with it to make a difference in people’s lives.

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Rabbi and craftsman perfect the art of charity

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Two people from two different backgrounds – Rabbi David Masinter and artist Leonard Nyathi – have come together with the goals of teaching, educating, uplifting, and spreading the message about the need for charity around the globe.

Masinter, the rabbi of Chabad House in Johannesburg and the founder of the fundraiser Miracle Drive, was looking for a good craftsman who could also teach in the most destitute areas.

He came across Nyathi, a master craftsman whose business struggled before Miracle Drive recognised his talents and commissioned custom artworks.

Masinter told Nyathi, “Let’s identify the artists, bring them together, train them, and I will buy in a whole bunch.”

Encouraged, Nyathi started working with Masinter. “We worked as a team, an unusual team,” says Masinter. “The only thing we have in common is that we both like to teach.”

They started hiring and training underprivileged people. “We normally hire street kids and people with disabilities,” says Nyathi. “We also give training to people that don’t have an education. The rabbi and I decided to employ people so that they could make a living.”

Masinter says they found underprivileged artists in the most remote areas, and improved their skills. “When you find a skill within a person, you improve not only that skill but every other aspect as well,” he says.

Nyathi and the other artists are turning Jewish objects into what Masinter calls “African art”. All the artworks are handcrafted and hand painted – from ceramic mezuzah cases and ceramic dreidels to ceramic arks and a set of three ceramic grating plates (meat, parev, and dairy). It can all be purchased on the online Gallery of Goodness and Kindness, set up due to COVID-19. According to Masinter, they also “have a whole bunch” of non-Jewish products.

“The gallery online is only the beginning,” says Masinter. “We are building a proper gallery like the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art – a proper beautiful online gallery to promote South African art, underprivileged and other artists, one that can bring a smile to people’s faces.”

Asked if they have a marketing and sales strategy, Masinter says, “A hundred percent. That’s why this thing is going global. We also doing displays in different shopping centres, and we are taking it overseas.”

Nyathi is thankful for Masinter’s help. Now, he and the other artists can afford to pay their rent and support their families. “If it wasn’t for Shabbat, we were going to close this business,” Nyathi says.

When people praise his artwork, Nyathi says he feels “over the moon” and “recognised” in his heart.

Asked where the funding comes from for the materials, Masinter says, “Where required, I will do the funding, but the idea is to make it self-sustainable. This thing is global. We have already got orders from overseas. We are changing our world for good. Everyone should be energised by this. We can do much more.”

Masinter believes every Jew is obligated to uplift the spiritual and material welfare not only of every Jew, but also non-Jews as well.

“Therefore, we cannot live as South Africans only focusing on Jewish things when we have a fortune of programmes, from kids programmes to teenage programmes, to senior-citizen feeding programmes. We have to worry about everybody. You can’t live in a country where millions of people are living in squalor and say, ‘It’s not our problem’. The way to [help] is through job creation, and this project is helping with that. We have 21 libraries in the city in underprivileged areas. We have the whole learning programme for primary school children. We have a job-creation programme, and now during COVID-19, we went into this programme, which is self-explanatory. A rabbi and an artist have come together to turn the world upside down for good, with one thing in common, a passion for art and education.”

Masinter’s charitable work is based on two philosophies, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime” and “You don’t have to stay down, you can uplift everybody.”

Asked how long he has been doing his charitable work, he says, “I’m a Chabad rabbi. Every Chabad rabbi does charitable work. We don’t talk about the past. It’s about what we could be doing. You must energise people to copy what we are doing. We can’t sit here with millions of people living in squalor. We should all be asking what are we doing to assist welfare in this country, Jewish and non-Jewish.”•            The Gallery of Goodness and Kindness can be found at: https://www.chabadsouthafrica.org/templates/articlecco

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