“They treated me like family,” said Harris Mulnick, his voice full of emotion. “They were so kind. They did such a good job for me.”
The Cherry Hill, N.J. resident was talking about Simon’s Kosher Meat, a Northeast Philadelphia institution on Bustleton Avenue that closed in November.
“I did business with them for almost 25 years,” said Mulnick, who has a nearby dental practice. “It was very convenient for me, and they were just the nicest people you could ever meet.”
Owned by Semion and Ella Rachstut, Simon’s was in business for almost 30 years until Semion Rachstut’s health deteriorated to the point where he had to stop working. The couple, originally from Russia, came through all kinds of changes to the Oxford Circle neighborhood and even bounced back after vandals spray-painted swastikas across their storefront and walls in 2014. They still had a devoted clientele.
But in September there were a series of health code violations, and then Semion Rachstut had open heart surgery that made working impossible.
“He is 77 years old. But thank you to all my customers, thanks to everybody,” Ella Rachstut said in heavily accented English. “We very appreciate it for so many years they support us.”
Today, the store’s interior looks as though the Rachstuts are going to walk in any moment and assume their positions behind the counters. The meat slicers, scales and glass cases are still in place. There is an open box of wax paper behind the counter. Colorful signs, stenciled with cuts of meat and their prices, adorn the walls, along with older black-and-white porcelain signs in English and Hebrew touting the offerings of Jack Ehrlich, the butcher who came before the Rachstuts.
Mulnick is heartbroken. He not only appreciated the quality of Simon’s merchandise, but he valued the personal relationship he had with the Rachstuts. In the summers, he’d bring them tomatoes or cucumbers from his garden. They’d make sure he was taken care of, even when things were at their busiest around the High Holidays. “They prepared it the way I wanted it, not like going to a grocery store. He made custom cuts for me.”
Simon’s closure leaves the city of Philadelphia, home to more than 200,000 Jews, with just one independent kosher butcher, also in the Northeast. The city once had 450 kosher butchers. The decline is not unique to Philadelphia, of course. Across the country, kosher butcher shops are in steep decline.
In 1920s New York, according to a 2015 report by Leah Koenig in Tablet, there were approximately 5,000 kosher butcher shops and thousands more across the U.S. Now there are major metropolitan cities with substantial Jewish populations that have just one or two such stores left — or none at all. Other mom-and-pop kosher businesses are dying out, too — and the reasons are complex.
For one thing, Americans are less religious than before. Membership in a faith community, once considered a vital and unambiguous part of American life, has waned. In the American Jewish community, synagogue affiliation has declined, as have religious practices such as lighting Shabbat candles.
In the 2013 Pew Research Center study on American Jewish life, only a majority of Orthodox Jews said that religion was very important to them. The lack of religiosity was especially notable in intermarried Jews.
As of 2013, less than a quarter of Jewish Americans kept kosher, according to Pew.
National trends are reflected in Philadelphia. Two separate studies commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia — one from 1996/1997 and one from 2009 — show that though the total number of Jewish people in the area increased between those years, the number of Jews who kept kosher decreased.
While things have likely shifted some since 2009, such as a reported increase rather than decrease of Orthodox Jews in the area, the number of establishments catering to religious Jews has dwindled, especially in neighborhoods once considered Jewish strongholds.
At the same time, meat producers and distributors have shifted their focus to supermarkets, as the larger orders have allowed them to streamline their businesses. Consumers whose parents and grandparents spent shopping days going from the bakery to the fishmonger to the butcher now avail themselves of one-stop shopping.
Supermarkets began stocking kosher meats and poultry in the late 1960s, growing the commitment to their Orthodox clientele with full-service kosher sections that included kosher bakeries, too. “Over the next couple of decades,” writes Tablet’s Koenig, “thousands of other supermarkets followed suit, luring away customers who once patronized local mom-and-pop stores.”
In 2012, the last independent kosher butcher shop on the Main Line, Main Line Kosher Meats, shut its doors after 15 years in business — a surprising development, it might seem, given the Main Line’s robust Orthodox population. At the time, the owner, Hanni Nitzan, who managed the store’s business, cited a declining customer base and competition from nearby supermarkets. She also told of the store’s battle to get supervision from Community Kashrus of Greater Philadelphia, which is the area’s gold standard for Orthodox Jews. When she was turned down by CK, and then had an interruption in her other supervision, it was too much.
Not having the “right” Orthodox hechsher dogs the owners of the last surviving kosher butcher shop, Glendale Kosher Meat Market, as well. “The Chasidim don’t come here,” said Alan Rosenblum, who owns the store, which is supervised by Ko Kosher, with his brother Raymond. “We’re not kosher enough. They want different rabbis.” Their clientele is mostly Conservative.
Supermarkets like Giant and Acme, on the other hand, have Community Kashrus supervision, which makes it the easiest, best choice for people like Yossi and Leah Itzinger, who moved to Philadelphia from Brooklyn about three years ago. The Orthodox couple lives in Overbrook Farms with their three children and finds that the supermarket kosher sections more than meet their needs.
“Most of the time they have the supervision I’m comfortable with,” Leah Itzinger said. “In Brooklyn, I liked to go to the kosher butchers. Things are fresher when you get them straight from your butcher. They know their meat better.”
She said if there was a local kosher butcher with her preferred supervision, she would be more inclined to go there rather than the supermarkets.
Her sister-in-law shopped at Simon’s. Now, Leah Itzinger said, her sister-in-law will have to go to Acme.
At Glendale — tucked into a strip mall on the 700 block of Red Lion Road in Bustleton, between Paragon Beauty Salon and Jincheng Relaxing Spa — the Rosenblum brothers sat behind their glass-windowed storefront, behind signs touting Empire kosher chickens. The unadorned shop, with empty glass cases and humming subzero freezers, had no customers at 3:15 p.m., as is often the case these days.
“It’s a struggle,” said Alan Rosenblum.
The Rosenblums have been in the business since they were kids, learning the trade at Abe Potok’s butcher shop on Castor Avenue. They started with their own shop on Castor from 1978 to 1986. Then they took over Glendale Kosher Meats in Scotchbrook, and were there until 2004.
“Then we moved here,” said Alan Rosenblum, “and this is the last one.”
The brothers think the appeal of the independent shop is the personal touch.
“Some people don’t want to go to the supermarkets because they’re afraid [about] the freshness,” Allen Rosenblum said. “They would rather come here and see someone cut the meat in front of them. We’re the old-fashioned butcher shop where we’re self-service but not custom cut. So they like that. But it was better years ago because the old bubbes used to come in day by day and buy.”
Now, said Alan Rosenblum, the old lady shoppers are mostly in the neighborhood cemeteries. As for their children, “they don’t hold kosher,” he said.
The brothers also are frustrated by the distributors.
“You can’t get the merchandise from the distributors because they want to supply to the supermarkets first. You order 30 or 40 briskets, they’ll give you seven,” Alan Rosenblum said.
He said distributors don’t feel it’s worth sending a big truck to Philadelphia, a situation made worse with Simon’s demise. “I was so glad when they were here,” he said. “Now it’s harder.”
Still, said Raymond Rosenblum, “we’re trying to see how long we can last.”
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