“Miracles do happen," says Rabbi Levi Rivkin, joyously leading the way down aisle six at the Winn-Dixie in Hyde Park, pointing out dozens of bright blue circles indicating kosher cereals, crackers, soups and such.
An abundance of kosher inventory makes preparing celebration meals for the upcoming Jewish High Holy Days remarkably easier for the bay area's kosher-observant families.
Rosh Hashana, which begins at sundown Wednesday, marks the start of a new year on the Jewish calendar, and it's traditionally accompanied by dinner of brisket; a hot, sweet carrot dish called tzimmes; potato or noodle kugel; and challah. And always, apples dipped in honey, and a honey cake to ensure a sweet year.
Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and introspection that begins the evening of Sept. 29, usually ends with a breakfast buffet of egg casseroles and quiche, lox and bagels, salads, couscous with dried fruit and a tray of sweets.
Rivkin, 36, continues on to freezers full of blintzes, knishes and kibbeh, to refrigerator cases loaded with kosher steaks, chicken and fish. Challah, bagels and babka line bakery shelves; rows of kosher wines come from Italy, Spain, Israel and the United States.
The vast variety thrills Rivkin, a man on a mission when it came to persuading this store at 2100 W Swann Ave. to stock the largest kosher selection of any local Winn-Dixie, following a major remodeling in spring 2016.
Every Winn-Dixie carries at least 1,000 kosher products under its own labels — SE Grocers, Southern Home and Winn-Dixie. District manager Keith Newberry says Rivkin lobbied to multiply that number.
The resulting amount of products is notable in the bay area. Publix and Trader Joe's carry a steady supply of kosher items. Jo-El's Kosher Deli & Marketplace in St. Petersburg has sold fresh-cut kosher meat and poultry and classic Jewish side dishes for 35 years. Breakfast and lunch are served six days a week, making it the only completely kosher restaurant in the Tampa Bay area.
To help persuade store manager Sal Cahill, Rivkin brought his own weekly shopping receipts, "about $1,000 a month," to the Hyde Park Winn-Dixie. The father of five children under age 10 runs the Chabad outreach program at the University of Tampa. His father, Rabbi Lazer Rivkin, leads the orthodox synagogue Bais (Temple) David Chabad in Hyde Park and directs Chabad of Central Florida.
The family and many of their friends previously traveled to Maitland near Orlando to buy kosher groceries, at a Winn-Dixie by the Orlando Jewish Day School, which Rivkin's children attend.
"It happened to have a very nice kosher selection," says Rivkin, who shopped as part of the daily commute taking his kids to school.
He shared with Cahill a survey, which showed that half of Tampa's Jewish population lives in southern Hillsborough County. He noted that five synagogues are situated within 3 miles of Hyde Park, plus the new Bryan Glazer Family Jewish Community Center.
Cahill followed up with his own research on the kosher food industry, estimated at more than $10 billion annually. Health- and safety-conscious shoppers feed the demand for more than 195,000 certified packaged foods and beverages sold in the United States. Even Jewish cooks who don't keep a kosher kitchen appreciate being able to readily find the makings of favorite meals.
It takes far more than a rabbi's blessing for food to be certified kosher, the Hebrew word translated variously as "pure," "fit" or "suitable." Strict dietary laws specify how animals are to be fed, killed, prepared, processed, served and eaten. Production is complicated and costly, making the traditional foods expensive and challenging to find.
And the products are popular beyond the small portion of Jewish people that keeps kosher. Vegans, vegetarians and the lactose-intolerant can check symbols indicating if milk or meat has been used in the production of kosher foods; Muslims, Hindus and Seventh-day Adventists seek kosher items that fit their own dietary restrictions.
Cahill says he hears from potential customers often.
"People call every day from Dunedin, Lakeland, Wesley Chapel," he says. "Is the milk in yet?, they want to know. They have big families and it goes fast. They know we get deliveries on Tuesdays."
As if on cue, Sarasota residents Orit Cohen and Shosh Nadel, both Israel natives, arrive to shop for the High Holy Day meals.
"We used to drive to Miami for these things," says Cohen, filling her cart with kosher meat. "I wish we had this in Sarasota."
Hyde Park resident Sam Dobkin has another reason for selecting Israeli-manufactured foods.
"I can directly impact Israel's economy," he says.
Several times a week, the Rivkins bring Jewish acquaintances to the store cafe for lunch. They make their own sandwiches from a package of sliced pastrami and a bag of pita bread.
"The smoothie machine is kosher, the mini doughnuts are kosher, there's free Wi-Fi," Rivkin says. "We are very thankful."
Contact Amy Scherzer at [email protected]