Exit Interview: Keystone-K’s Rabbi Naftoli Eisemann Retires, Plans Israel Move

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Rabbi Naftoli Eisemann
Rabbi Naftoli Eisemann (Courtesy of Rabbi Naftoli Eisemann)

It was 15 years ago that Rabbi Naftoli Eisemann of Wynnefield and his wife decided to work toward making aliyah.

Now, after all their kids have finished school and settled, the time has come to make that dream a reality. In May, Eisemann, 66, will move to Israel and settle in northern Jerusalem.

For the past six years, he’s been the first full-time kashrus administrator for Community Kashrus of Greater Philadelphia (Keystone-K), which has about 50 eateries under its certification. He’ll be succeeded by Rabbi Yonah Gross, who will continue to serve Congregation Beth Hamedrosh in Wynnewood as well.

Eisemann is originally from Connecticut and was ordained at Beth Medrash Govoha in New Jersey. He’s lived in Greater Philadelphia since 1985, spending three decades at Morris and Rose Caskey Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia and Kosloff Torah Academy Girls High School as a teacher, administrator and rabbi. Eisemann has also worked as the mikvah administrator at Lower Merion Community Mikvah.

Eisemann discussed his upcoming retirement and the state of kosher eateries in Philadelphia.

So, for those who don’t know, what exactly does a kashrus administrator do?

Initially, there were a number of rabbis who viewed it as part of their responsibilities to the community to advance kosher in the Philadelphia area. But as more and more places wanted to be supervised for kosher, they found that it was taking too much time from their other responsibilities. And there are many, many business requirements aside from the kosher laws in order to fulfill government requirements as far as taxes, insurances and other business practices.

It was taking too much time from their other responsibilities, so that’s why six years ago they hired me to take care of these responsibilities. I follow the guidelines of the rabbinical board, but I do the vast majority of the day-to-day work, both legal work and accounting and advising people in the community, advising businesses and overseeing the businesses.

What are some of the challenges to growing the list of kosher restaurants around Philadelphia?

The food industry tends to be a very fast-moving industry. There was an article in U.S. News & World Report quite a few years ago where it said that the average lifespan of a new restaurant is only one year. The kosher restaurants do tend to have an average lifespan a little bit more than that, but there’s a great deal of movement. Places open, places close, which keeps me very busy because I’m constantly trying to train new people in how to keep kosher properly.

There seems to be a lack of sit-down kosher restaurants downtown. Why is that?

Unfortunately, the Philadelphia downtown area is not well served when it comes to kosher restaurants. We’re more than ready and willing and able to help people who would like to open kosher restaurants downtown. We have urged people to do it. However, downtown, the rents are very high. And most of the people who are opening these restaurants are startups. And it’s a very, very major investment for these people. And they’re hesitant to take the risk to open downtown. We hope somebody will take that giant leap and open downtown. We do believe that the person will succeed. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet.

What are some common misconceptions that businesses have about kosher?

When businesses are not familiar at all with kosher, if they’re not Jewish and haven’t been exposed to what kosher is, they might be aware that Jewish people don’t eat pork, but it doesn’t go much further than that. They believe that what we’re doing is perhaps we’re making sure that their ingredients don’t contain pork. They might be aware that milk and meat can’t be in the same food. And some of them actually think that the rabbi blesses it or something of that sort, which, when we meet with them, we explain to them that that’s really only a little bit of what kosher is.

What was the reaction when you announced your retirement?

Before people knew that Rabbi Yonah Gross was going to be my replacement, many of the people that I have relationships with in the kosher field had concerns. They were nervous because I’m their friend and their ally. I help them. Very, very rarely do I have to put on my policing hat. That’s not my desire, and it’s not effective. People were concerned if my replacement (would) also have that philosophy of being a friend, being an assistant, being a resource. People know Rabbi Gross and felt very comfortable with the fact that Rabbi Gross is somebody that they know who also has the same approach of being an ally and a resource to help people keep kosher.

Will you continue to work in Israel?

I’ve been playing a large role in education. And I would like to continue to have a role in education. People who come from the United States and move to Israel, their children have to transition to the Israeli system, Israeli schools. My dream would be to help these students make that transition successfully to the Israeli system.

[email protected]; 215-832-0751

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