After Ira Cohen graduated from the University of Maryland in 1971, he hitchhiked around the world with two friends. In Romania, they visited a community’s kosher restaurant. It was small, with four tables, and was jammed.
And when Cohen and his friends arrived, everyone got up and shook their hands, introduced themselves and hugged them. The warmth and intimacy made Cohen feel a “real sense of community.”
Back home in Washington, he decided that he wanted to replicate that community atmosphere. There were no kosher restaurants in the area at the time. He wanted to found his kosher restaurant on the model of the kibbutz, “where everyone would be equal.”
That was the start of the Kosher Kitchen Collective.
Operating for four years in the 1970s, the Kosher Kitchen Collective reflected its creators’ dreams of a communal life that was lived self-consciously Jewish. Today it exists in the memories of the idealistic veterans who worked there.
At the reunion a year ago, the members who are still in touch decided to make a film to document their unique experience. They are searching for photographs, film or video footage, and stories that people have of the Kosher Kitchen.
Cohen, now known as Ira Kerem, is a social worker in Israel. Back in 1973, he returned to the Washington area and worked at a synagogue while dreaming of starting his restaurant. Rachel Abramson, who had been in charge of the kitchen at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, liked the idea. Together, with another colleague who dropped out after a month, they decided to start the Kosher Kitchen.
Washington Jewish Week gave Kerem a free advertisement to help the project along and they raised $4,000 to start the restaurant. Kerem and Abramson rented a coffee shop that had gone out of business in the basement of the Eldorado Towers, in the White Oak section of Silver Spring. They kashered it and opened on Jan. 6, 1975. The newspaper noted that it was the first time in eight years that the community had a kosher restaurant. The Kosher Kitchen obtained the backing of the Conservative movement and its kashrut was supervised by the Orthodox Union.
The collective members were a group of progressive Jews in their 20s. At the beginning, a few University of Maryland students and Israelis made up the membership. But soon college graduates from across the country came to join, among them David Shneyer.
Now a rabbi, Shneyer was a friend of Kerem’s and a Hillel director in Iowa who moved to Washington in the summer of 1970 to join the collective.
“I loved the idea of an urban kibbutz with other young idealistic Jews,” he says.
Most of the time there were about 10 people working at the collective. Through the four years of its existence about 35 people cycled through; the collective asked for a commitment of a year, most people weren’t there for more than two.
Best job ever
They were, in their own words at the time, “a self-managed, anti-profit, community kosher restaurant that serves, and hopefully has some impact on, the Jewish communities of Greater Washington.”
“It was something like socialism,” Kerem says now.
There was no owner or manager. Everyone made decisions together, received the same salary and rotated jobs. They also lived together in one of the few Jewish communes in the country. Many members still describe the collective as the best working environment they were ever in.
They tried to make meals as cheaply as they could. Seconds were on the house.
We were trying to “find a way to both survive financially and live according to our values,” Kerem says.
The members felt that Coke symbolized capitalism and they didn’t like selling it. But they also needed to cover their expenses and couldn’t afford to stop selling it.
So they raised the price from 25 cents to 35 cents and lowered the price of apple juice from 35 cents to 25 cents in a move to encourage people to order juice from local producers rather than Coke. The collective also allied itself with the grape boycott, the Food Federation of Greater Washington and other social justice initiatives.
“We wanted to confront modern-day pharaohs,” says Shneyer.
Fostering a better world
Beyond the restaurant, the collective was an institution dedicated to serving the Jewish community. The collective ran a meals-on-wheels program funded by the Jewish Social Service Agency and every Saturday night the collective offered free entertainment by local artists. The collective hosted religious services on holidays, taught classes on Jewish philosophy, had speakers on controversial issues and offered Israeli dancing every Thursday night.
“We were fostering a vision of a better world,” says Shneyer.
The waiter at the Kosher Kitchen would often sit down at the table and speak with clients. There was also a community table, where everyone had to be willing to talk to each other. People of various backgrounds — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, secular, non-Jews — sat together and talked. People who sat at the table met their best friends and spouses there, Kerem says.
The collective liked doing things differently. Members dressed as if they were in Eastern Europe. The men wore workers hats and the women wore long skirts.
At first the collective served lunch and dinner, but by the second year only dinner. And those dinners were hearty, with appetizers, salads, soup, a vegetarian main course and side dishes.
The Kosher Kitchen closed in 1979 because collective members were ready to move on with their lives.
Nearly 40 years later, many of the collective members remain in touch and they have a reunion every few years, most recently a year ago. Today they are social workers, rabbis, labor organizers, lawyers, educators and people who work in — and started nonprofits.
“Every one of us is still engaged in working for a more human, just and peaceful world,” says Shneyer.
Adds Kerem, “At the time we were different from almost everyone,” but today “we are still living out those ideals. It was a revolutionary time and we wanted to be a part of that.”
To participate in the Kosher Kitchen Collective documentary project with memories or memorabilia, contact Debbie Amster at [email protected]