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Amid Strike, Stop & Shop Foods Not Kosher For Passover, Says New Haven Rabbi

Courtesy of Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel
Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen of Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel says food isn't kosher if you have to cross a picket line to get it.

Jews preparing their Passover meals this weekend may face an ethical dilemma if they plan on getting their food from Stop & Shop. Employees at the grocery store chain are on strike. One Connecticut rabbi says food isn’t kosher if you have to cross a picket line to buy it.

Jon-Jay Tilsen, the rabbi at Westville’s Conservative Jewish congregation Beth El-Keser Israel, told his congregants they shouldn’t use food for their Passover seder if they bought it by crossing a picket line. He says it goes against the historical spirit of the holiday – celebrating the Israelites’ escape from Egypt.

“Passover is a celebration of our liberation from slavery,” he said. “And so at the theme of it is the value and dignity of human labor. That’s so much of what the laws that were developed and implemented after the Exodus are about, about how you treat workers.”

Tilsen says Jewish law covers issues like a worker’s right to fair wages – one of the issues at the center of the strike. He says the food on the table is holy, and there are high standards for how to ethically obtain it.

“Doing so using stolen or improperly acquired goods makes the fulfillment of the mitzvah defective or doesn’t allow one to properly do the act,” he said.

Israel-based rabbi Josh Yuter disagreed with Tilsen’s argument in a series of tweets earlier this week. He said it’s tricky to define kosher food by any criteria other than the methods used to prepare it, and it’s not a good idea to apply Jewish law to labor laws.

Jill Jacobs, a Conservative rabbi and the director of T’ruah, a Jewish human rights organization, said she’s not surprised there’s disagreement.

“It’s absolutely true that there’s a lot of argument in Jewish law,” she says.

She says there’s a strong tradition of support for workers’ rights. And she says that suggests it’s unethical to cross a picket line. But she stops short of saying it affects the kosher status of food.

“Unfortunately, given the impossibility of knowing the whole supply chain, it’s quite likely that some of the food we eat every day, including at seder, comes from sources where workers are being underpaid or potentially are even in slavery,” she said.

Hannah Schwartz, a former member of Rabbi Tilsen’s Westville congregation, moved to nearby West Haven a few years ago. Her old neighborhood had lots of good kosher options. But she says Stop & Shop is the only decent one around her now. She doesn’t drive, so she’s had to take the bus to find other options.

“It’s been absolute insanity,” she said. “I’ve gotta go on the outskirts to ShopRite, whatever, and they don’t carry as much. And they were unprepared, too. And they have even less items than they usually have.”

Schwartz says it’s a tough decision. She remembers her father, a postal worker, going on strike several times. So she wants to support strikers.

“But since I don’t drive, if it goes on for a month or two, I may end up crossing the picket line,” she said. “Because it is very arduous dragging out from different supermarkets all over the place on buses.”

Schwartz says she hopes the strike ends long before she has to make that decision.

One suggestion from Rabbi Jill Jacobs of T’ruah: turn to the Jewish community and carpool to buy groceries at a kosher-friendly store that may be a bit farther away.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.