Philadelphia is home to one of the nation's oldest Jewish communities, but for at least one transplanted Brooklynite, the city felt like a kosher wasteland.
Yael Tkachuk, 28, had lived in an Orthodox neighborhood in the New York borough, nestled among endless blocks of Jewish butchers, bakeries, and restaurants.
But after moving to Philadelphia, Tkachuk and her family, who follow Jewish dietary laws, had the choice of food-shopping in the kosher specialty sections of mainstream supermarkets or driving 100 miles back home.
In April, though, the opening of an independent supermarket changed that. House of Kosher, on Bustleton Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia, is believed to be the first major all-kosher supermarket in the region, including the city, the four Pennsylvania suburban counties and most of South Jersey.
Having such an expansive store — 13,000 square feet and about to grow — "is a big thing," said Tkachuk, showing off the fish head she purchased for a ceremonial dinner plate to be displayed during the High Holidays. They begin at sundown Sunday with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and end Sept. 19 on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Israeli music plays over the sound system. The shelves are laden with meats, pizza, sushi, breads, candy, and kugel. Sabbath candles are displayed only aisles away from laundry detergent and paper towels — part of the strategy of owners Rabbi Shloime Isaacson, of Somerton's Congregation Beth Solomon, and his wife, Rivky, to make their market a one-stop shop.
But for Rabbi Joshua Runyan, the supermarket is about more than convenience. It is a sign of bustling Jewish life and an embrace of tradition among the region's 215,000 Jews.
"It's a symbol of vibrancy," said Runyan, editor of the Jewish Exponent newspaper and website. Healthy Jewish institutions — schools, synagogues, mikvaot (ritual baths) — are attracting families that may be priced out of areas like New York, he said, and a kosher supermarket can be a powerful inducement.
About 22 percent of the 5.3 million people who identify as religious, secular, or cultural Jews keep kosher at home, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center study.
"What you eat matters," said Rabbi Linda Holtzman, an adjunct associate professor at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote. "It can make your life more sacred or less sacred, ethical or less ethnical."
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The complex set of Jewish laws governing which foods can be consumed and how they must be prepared is called kashrut. Some animals, including pigs and shellfish, may not be eaten. Others that are permitted must be killed in accordance with Jewish law, and meat and poultry must be drained of all blood, said Rabbi Naftoli Eisemann, an administrator for the Community Kashrus of Greater Philadelphia, a kosher education nonprofit that also certifies more than 60 kosher establishments.
Food items directly handled or prepared in-house require kosher supervision, said Eisemann, who visits House of Kosher once a week.
Those sales have been fueled by the growth of the Orthodox Jewish community, improvements in the quality of kosher foods, the belief that they are healthier, and the increasing number of food manufacturers seeking kosher certification, said Menachem Lubinsky, Lubicom's president and CEO.
In the last decade, about 65 independent kosher supermarkets have opened across the country, in locations such as Baltimore, Cleveland, Brooklyn, and Passaic and Lakewood, N.J., Lubinsky said. They've supplanted the mom-and-pop groceries and independent butchers that were once staples of Jewish communities. In the Philadelphia area, R&R Produce & Fish in Overbrook Park is one of the few independent kosher food stores still in business.
Rivky Isaacson said she and her husband started House of Kosher out of frustration. Like Tkachuk, she moved to Philadelphia from Brooklyn. That was 23 years ago, and the mother of eight (ages 9 to 24) began the local Orthodox food-shopping ritual of driving to supermarkets with kosher food sections, then to a local kosher butcher, then sometimes to Lakewood, in Ocean County, which has a thriving Orthodox community and six kosher supermarkets.
On one of those 70-mile-long treks, she thought, "Why should I have to come here?"
She and her husband began planning. The family already operated Kosher Foods & More, a wholesale distribution business, and had industry connections. They settled on a former auto parts store in a strip mall, amid the Northeast's large Russian Jewish community. They worked for two years on design, invested over $1 million, and hired Joel Lowy, who operates a seasonal kosher supermarket in the Catskills, as manager.
The biggest challenge has been getting some vendors of kosher products to deliver to Philadelphia, a market they don't usually serve. "Sometimes we have to send our own trucks," Rivky Isaacson said.
Paula Shavell, a teacher from Richboro, made her first visit to the market last Thursday to buy for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. She keeps kosher only on holidays, when shopping in the limited kosher section of a regular supermarket can be "very crazy," she said. "I'm looking for a pleasant experience."
Business has been "getting busier," Rivky Isaacson said, and the couple is planning to expand to space next door for offices and a Passover store.
Rabbi Joshua Waxman, president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia, said that the measure of success for House of Kosher is not only in the bottom line.