Kosher community loses food oasis in Palo Alto JCC

For more than two years, Doreet Jehassi has been frying, to order, Yemeni Jewish savory pastries malawach and jachnun for customers at Kosher Oasis food stations within the Palo Altos Oshman Family JCC.

Which is about to end. The JCC recently notified all three sellers sharing the space and kosher kitchen that they will need to vacate when their lease expires at the end of July. A new food vendor is to be announced soon that has promised to serve a larger segment of the community and offer extended hours and a variety of price ranges, according to a JCC statement. While there will be kosher options, they will be prepackaged.

The news came as a major blow to Jehassi and his fellow vendors, Dr. Falafel and Holy Sushi.

Doreet Jehassi (Photo/Alix Wall)
Doreet Jehassi (Photo/Alix Wall)

I had a feeling, but I didn’t know it was going to happen so fast, Jehassi told J. I’m afraid I’ll have to start all over again.

The news was equally shocking to Jewish Study Network founder Rabbi Joey Felsen, who in the spring of 2021 led the effort to provide new kosher options at the JCC. He pitched the idea for the food consortium during the pandemic and found the sellers.

Sharing the kitchen and the rent helped offset the high cost of doing business and renting separate spaces.

Things haven’t always been easy. One restaurateur had to withdraw from the project; a scheduled cafe opened but didn’t last. Felsen acknowledged hearing complaints early on. (Felsen recently joined the board of Js.)

Not all vendors were open every day, he said. Because of the different vendors, each had their own point of sale systems and it was difficult to navigate. And people wanted takeout options. There was always a lot of back and forth, that we would like to see this or that.

Rabbi Joey Felsen
Rabbi Joey Felsen

Yet at the same time, Felsen said, the JCC has become a kosher food destination. Izzy’s Brooklyn Bagels in Palo Alto does a great job, she said, but there should be more than one kosher option in the area.

I believe there is a demand for kosher food here, Felsen said. We all had this great food. We’ve started getting visitors from all over the world who come to Silicon Valley for business and have grown into a solid center of kosher food in the Bay Area.

J. has contacted numerous interested parties involved in this story, but all have refused to speak on the record.

JCC Chief Marketing Officer Nathaniel Bergson-Michelson provided J. with a statement from CEO Zack Bodner; he was sent to community leaders who keep kosher before it was announced to the wider community.

Ending the lease was not a financial decision and it was not one that was easily made, the statement said. The challenges of managing a cafeteria space at the JCC are many: In addition to providing kosher food products, the needs of the community also include extended regular hours, a variety of healthy food options, a wide range of price ranges, the capacity ability to fulfill orders quickly during peak hours; and the ability to serve our preschool and camp communities.

The statement added that while the new food business will not be kosher, the JCC remains committed to providing kosher options. We take great care to ensure that kosher foods are available so that every member of the Jewish community can eat at our facility.

But Felsen said he and others in the kosher community know that means no fresh kosher food, as unsupervised cooking will no longer be kosher.

Maybe we can get packaged kosher stuff, but there’s no one who’s going to go to a Palo Alto JCC to get something out of a cooler, Felsen said. It’s great if you’re stuck at the airport, but no one will go out of their way to come here.

While he’s confident he can move the entire operation elsewhere, rental prices in the area are a real drag.

We finally had something good, Felsen said. Kosher restaurants usually close because they can’t make it, and here they made it, and people were happy.

Meanwhile, Jehassi says she’s made real progress at JCC and is open to any possibilities that present themselves for her business. Before the Kosher Oasis, you sold and delivered away from home.

I respect the JCC’s decision, but it’s a shame, he said. I just wish there were more kosher options in the area. I wish there was a way to create some kind of hub where people can come and gather, people watching or not, where there is something for everyone.

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