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A Kosher Revival in Columbus

After kosher food options in Ohio’s capital took a hit last year, community groups came together to create new places to eat and shop

Max Littman
April 10, 2023
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

The newly opened East Market was bustling on a rainy, recent Friday afternoon. The market, inside a beautifully restored old trolley barn in the historic Franklin Park neighborhood right behind a large conservatory and botanical garden, hosts a variety of food vendors, merchants, and a sprawling bar, from a boutique plant shop to a Nigerian quick-service food stand. It also holds the future for the kosher-keeping community of Columbus, Ohio.

A new vendor, Saba Columbus, is opening there this spring; it will be the city’s first kosher meat restaurant in over a decade. Boasting a simple Mediterranean menu with shawarma, falafel, sandwiches, and burgers, it’s not anything that someone in New York would write home about. For Columbus though, it symbolizes a yearlong, communitywide effort to bring back kosher options—and not only in Jewish communal spaces.

Rabbi Alex Braver, president of the Columbus Board of Rabbis, sees this opening as especially poignant. “Locating kosher food at the East Market is a sign that the Jewish community is part of the cutting edge, embracing new developments and up-and-coming projects,” he said. “Kosher food doesn’t have to be insular, it can be delicious and it can be for everyone.”

With last year’s closure of the kosher meat counter, and a severe reduction in kosher offerings, at a Columbus-area Kroger supermarket, the community has banded together and—through numerous meetings, listening sessions, and dialogue—has completely reversed the downward trend of kosher food in the area.

Not only will Saba be opening soon, but Matt’s Bakery, the kosher bakery formerly operated in the Kroger supermarket, recently opened a stand-alone kosher grocery store with big expansion plans. Matt’s is nestled between two mattress stores and behind a Catholic church in Whitehall, about 15 minutes from the large Jewish community of Bexley, and just steps from the runway of the John Glenn Columbus International Airport—decidedly not in a Jewish area.

Matt Cooper, the owner of Matt’s Bakery, shared that the transition has been difficult but that the community has risen to the occasion. “It has been a challenge,” he said. “We’ve been trying since we moved out to keep the bakery going without having our own place. We’ve been able to open the grocery part of our store, but we’ve still been working on construction for everything else.”

“Everything else” is their bakery; a kosher-dairy café serving pasta, pizza, and sandwiches; and a kosher meat counter, which will once again be the only kosher meat counter in the city. They plan on opening these sometime over the next year, after plans were delayed due to construction and supply issues.

Kosher-keeping residents have more on their wish lists, from more grocery offerings, the possibility of converting more restaurants to kashrut, and especially more Passover offerings in the area. That would transform Columbus from a city that often relies on kosher caravans or four-hour trips to Cleveland into a city that can provide for its own Jewish and kosher-keeping community.

JewishColumbus—a partnership between the Jewish Federation of Columbus and Jewish Foundation of Columbus, and the largest funder of Jewish programming in the city—is considering a grant program to help further move these along, along with the (somewhat ironic) catalyst behind all of this: Kroger.

Kroger’s Zero Hunger Zero Waste Foundation recently donated $50,000 to the Columbus JCC, along with $15,000 in kitchen equipment to expand the JCC’s kosher take-out offerings. The JCC recently converted its gift shop to a small kosher grab-and-go store, and provides takeout lunch and dinner options with weekly specials.

Cooper is hopeful for the greater community, and the addition of other restaurants on top of his: “I think it’s great to have more options, certainly something we haven’t had much of.”

The transformation of kosher offerings in Columbus from almost nothing after the January 2022 closure of Kroger’s meat counter to multiple kosher restaurants, a stand-alone kosher grocer, and a kosher meat counter is a testament to the strength of the Columbus Jewish community.

For a small community to pull this off, a significant amount of time and leadership had to be invested, which can also serve as a blueprint for other Jewish communities undergoing the same struggles.

For locals, this serves as another reminder of what local leaders call the “Columbus Way.” To elevate the city, broad partnerships are formed with stakeholders, business leaders, and philanthropists to push for new initiatives and projects.

This is exactly what happened with kosher food: A steering committee was established and worked diligently on different options, and ultimately solutions. The committee, led by local businessman Adam Eisenberg and consisting of Jewish communal and business leaders, was formed immediately after Kroger’s announcement and met over the past year. This sort of effort is replicable by other cities struggling with the loss of kosher food or Jewish services, partnerships that put the community first and focus on what’s at stake.

Joel Marcovitch, CEO of JewishColumbus, shared some of the formula behind Columbus’ success and how it’s replicable: “I think if you bring a lot of people together around their shared interests, the community needs to prioritize it, not just the agencies but the individuals, and people need to step up and combine time, talent, and resources. That’s how it happens.”

Despite the size of the community, estimated at around 25,000 in the last survey in 2013 in a metro area of just over 2 million, the Jewish community shows up, including JewishColumbus, Jewish Family Services, and other Jewish organizations.

While dealing with the loss of their main kosher food provider, the community also was reeling from a series of antisemitic incidents targeting shuls and day schools. A National Guard member, who was a contracted security guard at various local Jewish establishments, was charged and later pleaded guilty to making threats against the community he was tasked with protecting, among other things.

Marcovitch, and other local leaders think the lessons they’ve learned over the past year can help other communities struggling with the same challenges. “We really are leading the way nationally, the way we’re meeting our needs and seeing what the power of our connected community can do,” he said. “We can do anything we can put our minds to.”

For his part, Marcovitch says he’ll be there when Saba Columbus opens. “I plan on being there the first day and second day and the third day depending on how much shawarma I can consume,” he said.

Braver thinks this kind of development is exactly what he wants to see in his community, and for his congregation. “Even people who don’t keep strict kosher see this as a sign of the vibrancy of the community,” he said. “People who don’t keep kosher want to support this in the community.”

Max Littman is a writer and graduate student at Johns Hopkins University currently living in Baltimore.