October 14, 2013

Israeli Foods Play Role in Dramatic Growth of Kosher

Back in the 1980’s, most kosher consumers were exposed to only a small number of kosher brands that came from Israel. They included Elite, Carmel, Osem, and Tea Wissotsky. The dollar amount of the Israeli exports to the US was perhaps 10% of what it is today with its robust $250 million in sales. Most of the shoppers were Israelis who lived in the US. Although some American Jews bought Israeli products to show solidarity with the embattled Jewish state, truth be told that the quality was anything but stellar, which made its appeal to a larger audience doubtful? Nor was the packaging anything to write home about as most were in cellophane wrappers and a far cry from Israel’s cutting-edge packaging nowadays. When Kosherfest first started in 1989, you could count the number of Israeli wines on one hand. But if Israel made the dessert bloom, it certainly included its food and wine industry as Israeli wines today take a formidable place in the global wine market. Back then the Israeli chain Supersol ran an American Food Week in a cooperative effort with Waldbaum’s. The highly successful event was managed by the late legendary American senior Supersol executive Moti Kreiner. The hope that the gesture would be reciprocal and that chains all over the US would host an Israeli Food Week never really materialized, especially as Israeli products became integrated with kosher foods in general.

Slowly more and more Israeli products were being imported. American importers were beginning to find “new and different items” to expand their kosher inventories and soon almost every major American kosher company became an importer of Israeli foods. The two Intifadas dealt a damaging blow to Israel’s food industry as did the war against Hezbollah in Lebanon but exports to the US did not suffer any major lapses. The Israel Export Institute, a quasi governmental agency to promote Israeli exports, began showcasing its products at food shows worldwide, but then almost two decades ago made a strategic decision to support Kosherfest and has never looked back. Israeli foods played a major part in the surge of kosher foods, so much so that it became an integral part of the kosher food set in supermarkets everywhere. Osem spun off into the highly successful Osem USA. In later years, such companies as Tnuva and Strauss followed suit. Initially, some of the American kosher companies were slow to embrace the influx of Israeli products and some even yelled foul and charged the Israelis with unfair competition since some of the Israeli foods were less expensive than their American competitors. But eventually, the Israeli products melded into the kosher set with companies like Kedem, Paskesz, and Streit’s becoming major importers of Israeli products. The Israelis are very much an integral part of the 25th anniversary celebration.

New Study on American Jews Makes “Jewish Food” Important Barometer of Jewish Identity
New York…The Jewish world was abuzz in recent days with the results of a new survey of Jewish America by the Pew Research Center. The study indicated that 6.7 million Americans identified themselves as Jewish, significantly more than the 5.2 million in the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey by the United Jewish Communities. The survey counted anyone as Jewish so long as they identified themselves as Jewish. While the numbers may be higher, the PEW study points to a soaring rate of intermarriage. 71% of non-Orthodox Jews who married chose to wed non-Jews. The study once again confirmed the importance of Passover to Jews of all stripes as 91% of Jews married to a Jew participated in a Passover Seder as well as 54% of intermarried Jews. In what was perhaps an odd question of the survey was whether eating “Jewish food” was an essential part of Jewish identity. Only 14% responded yes. The term Jewish food has long since been replaced by “kosher food.” One Orthodox rabbi quipped: “Jews are no longer measured by the gefilte fish or chopped liver they eat; not with 200,000 kosher certified items.” Some communities have experienced a drop in kosher consumption during Passover in recent years, largely as a result of demographics. Disenfranchised younger Jews were less likely to buy kosher food for Passover although the study shows that Passover remains the most widely observed holiday on the Jewish calendar. This may explain why 40% of kosher food is sold around Passover time. Much of the growth of kosher has come from stronger Jewish communities with a heavy concentration of Orthodox Jews. In 2012, estimates put that growth at 12%.