Rabbis: Don't cross Stop & Shop picket lines for Passover kosher items
BOSTON — As thousands of Stop & Shop workers remain on strike across New England, some Jewish families are preparing for Passover without the region's largest supermarket chain, which has deep roots in the local Jewish community.
In the Berkshires, as well as across Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, rabbis have been advising their congregations not to cross picket lines to buy Jewish holiday essentials at the store that one analyst says has the highest sales of kosher products among New England grocery stores. Passover begins at sundown Friday.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat of Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams is confident that food purchased by crossing a picket line is not kosher under Jewish law. Passover celebrates the Jewish liberation from slavery, or from a "tight squeeze," she said.
"As we prepare to celebrate our liberation from this place of tightness, it would not be kosher, it would not be right or appropriate or fair to do so in a way that exploits others," she said. "It feels very timely to be thinking about labor rights and fair working practices as we prepare to celebrate our freedom."
More than 30,000 Stop & Shop workers walked off the job April 11 over what they say is an unfair contract offer, a claim that the company disputes. There are three local Stop & Shop locations; two in Pittsfield and one in North Adams.
Rabbi David Weiner of Congregation Knesset Israel said that he, too, has been approached by people concerned about whether to cross the picket lines.
"It just seems wrong for a holiday about liberation, slavery to freedom, and all that," Weiner said. "People have spoken with me and asked what to do. They don't want to cross a picket line for Passover food, and I think that's a good instinct."
This decision doesn't come without a cost, he said.
During Passover, there is extra care put in to assure not only that foods are kosher, but that they never come in contact with leavened products, he said. Stop & Shop, particularly the one on Dan Fox Drive in Pittsfield, generally has a significant kosher selection, including dairy products like cottage cheese and yogurt, he said.
This year, some Berkshire Jewish families will be going without some of these products because selections at other markets "are not nearly broad enough" for those who are observant for Passover, he said.
"I am not shopping at Stop & Shop until the demands of the workers are resolved appropriately," he said, adding that he already has made trips to Albany, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn.
Barenblat said that she has heard that Market 32 in Pittsfield has a good selection of kosher food, as does Wild Oats Market in Williamstown.
Farther east, Rabbi Barbara Penzner of Temple Hillel B'nai Torah in Boston also feels that it's "not kosher" to purchase "products of oppressed labor" as Jews mark their ancestors' escape from slavery in Egypt.
"The food that you're buying is the product of oppressed labor, and that's not kosher," Penzner said. "Especially during Passover, when we're celebrating freedom from slavery, that's particularly egregious."
Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen of Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel, a conservative synagogue in New Haven, Conn., cited ancient Jewish law prohibiting artisans from taking the livelihood of fellow artisans.
Tilsen said that ban is akin to the use of replacement workers by companies during labor strikes, which Stop & Shop has employed.
"I am not making any judgment about the current strike," he stressed. "I am stating that we, local Jews, must respect the workers' action."
But at Temple Shalom, a reform synagogue in the Boston suburb of Newton, Rabbis Allison Berry and Laura Abrasley said it's ultimately a personal decision, though one that they suggest should be framed within the American Jewish community's long history of supporting organized labor.
"Jewish law is interpreted in different ways," they said via email. "We encourage our members to celebrate the upcoming holiday in a manner that honors both the Jewish value of freedom and workers' dignity."
Penzner and other rabbis acknowledge that their call to avoid the ubiquitous grocer can be challenging for some, especially in more remote communities where Stop & Shop is the most affordable — and sometime the only — kosher food supplier for miles.
New Haven resident Rachel Bashevkin said she stocked up on Passover essentials before the strike. And for anything else, she won't be turning to Stop & Shop, which she said stocks harder-to-find items that make the Passover Seder extra special, like specialty baked goods, desserts, sweets and teas.
"The message of Passover is, to me, totally [that] you don't celebrate your holiday at the expense of other people," she told the New Haven Register this week.
The dilemma isn't unique to Jews, either.
The Rev. Laura Goodwin of Holy Spirit Episcopal Church in Sutton said she had ordered the church's Easter flower arrangements from the nearby Stop & Shop weeks ago. But when it became clear that the strike wasn't going to end before the holiday, she scrambled to purchase enough tulips, hyacinths and daffodils from other stores.
"I just personally wasn't comfortable crossing the picket line," Goodwin said. "Flowers are nice, but they're not as important as people's livelihood."
The religious protests could have significant consequences for the bottom line of the Quincy-based chain, said Burt Flickinger, a grocery industry analyst for the Strategic Research Group, a New York-based retail consulting firm.
Stop & Shop, which operates about 400 stores in New England, New York and New Jersey, is owned by the Dutch supermarket operator Ahold Delhaize but was founded in the 1900s by a Boston Jewish family whose descendants remain major philanthropists and civic leaders in New England.
Flickinger estimates that the company has been losing about $2 million a day since the strike started, a financial hit that will only magnify in the coming days. Passover and the Christian holiday of Easter typically represent about 3% of the company's annual sales.
"They'll see big inventory loses, especially on profitable products like produce, flowers, meat and seafood that will go unsold," he said, projecting that the losses for the company could be as much as $20 million for the time period.
Flickinger said competitors already are reaping the windfall, as can be seen in packed parking lots and long lines at many of Stop & Shop's rivals, including Big Y and Price Chopper in the Berkshires. He estimates that competitors could see as much as a 20% bump in sales during the holiday season with the market leader largely sidelined.
Stop & Shop declined to comment on Flickinger's projections but apologized to customers for the inconvenience. The company has kept open most of its 240 stores in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, but bakery, deli and seafood counters have been shuttered. The company's New York and New Jersey locations aren't affected by the strikes.
"We are grateful for members of the Jewish community who rely on our stores for kosher and Passover products," the company said in an emailed statement. "We're doing everything we can to minimize disruptions ahead of the holiday."
Eagle staff writer Haven Orecchio-Egresitz and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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