From toilet paper to dishwashers to cars, empty shelves and display cases across the country are emblematic of broken supply chains exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic. In the Jewish community, kosher markets and restaurants, Judaica shops and even some synagogues are feeling the effects.
“If you see empty shelves, it’s not because we are not ordering items,” says Tracy Yitzhaky, co-owner of Moti’s Market in Rockville. “The supply chain is definitely impacting us here.”
Yitzhaky says that prices are not just going up on food. “The price of packaging is also going up. We used to have a plastic container specially designed for us for one of our products. When the prices started going up we had to discontinue it.”
The shortages are due in part to an increase in demand for durable goods — items that can be kept and used for over a year, such as appliances and furniture and mezuzahs — and a decrease in the use of services, such as dining in restaurants and seeing movies in theaters.
According to Israeli-American Temple University economics Professor Joseph Friedman, “Because people are spending more on durable goods than on services, there is a very fast-increasing demand and expectation to produce.”
However, not only are manufacturers unable to keep up with the demand for goods, but distribution has slowed significantly, Friedman said.
Labor shortages are mainly to blame, with low-wage workers quitting over poor working conditions and pay. Friedman said there are 20,000-30,000 fewer heavy truck drivers on the road than before the pandemic.
Then there are the bottlenecks at ports. Dozens of freighters are anchored off the coast of Los Angeles, waiting to unload their cargo. Some of these freighters have to wait up to a month to be inspected to offload. While they are anchored, crews still have to be compensated.
At Ben Yehuda, a kosher pizzeria in Kemp Mill, general manager Yissachar Cohen sees these bottlenecks in the form of higher cost of goods and staffing problems with the companies that deliver supplies.
“Delivery drivers are showing up an hour after closing or not at all,” Cohen says. “These drivers are responsible for ensuring that everything from oil for the fryers to the sauce on the pizza makes it to the restaurant on time.”
Staffing issues with delivery companies are only making the supply chain issues worse. Because some of the companies are unable to hire enough drivers to meet demand, Cohen occasionally has to make supply runs himself, going out early in the morning to get basic ingredients like tomato sauce.
“Randomly, I will just be out of a topping because [my suppliers] never shipped it.”
Recently Cohen had been out of broccoli — one of the most popular toppings at the restaurant — for an entire week. Additionally, problems that were around before the supply chain issues are now magnified. On Oct. 21, the FDA announced that certain onions potentially had been contaminated with salmonella.
“I expect things to get worse,” Cohen says. “Once in a while there may be a recall, but never to an extent that it raises the prices. That is changing.”
“I look around. I make sure that I find [the ingredients and materials I need] no matter what,” says Ramesh Zadeh, owner of Siena’s Vegetarian Restaurant in Rockville. “I never say no to my customers.”
“The prices are much, much higher than before,” she says, adding that every week the restaurant’s carry-out containers are a different shape, as she looks for the most cost-effective way to package the food. Still, her costs are increasing.
“If the customer comes and asks for an extra container, I charge them a dollar,” she says. “This is just how it is right now. If I am dealing with it, they are dealing with it. We are all on the same planet.”
Zadeh’s restaurant shares a wall with Leslie Kanner, the owner of Israeli Accents Judaica store. Kanner says that most of her products are sourced from local artists and businesses, and most of the products she imports enter the United States via airplane rather than cargo ship.
She feels fortunate, but she quickly remembers that she is affected by supply chain woes.
“I am unable to buy Havdalah candles,” she says.
Synagogues have also begun to feel the pressure.
“For us, the most significant aspect of the supply chain issue is [audiovisual] technology,” says Debbie Ezrin, executive director of Temple Beth Ami in Rockville.
When services moved online during the pandemic, the synagogue found that their audiovisual set-up was insufficient.
So in the spring of 2021, Beth Ami reached out to hardware vendors with the hope to overhaul their audiovisual set-up by the high holidays. Normally it would not have been a problem to find vendors willing to bid on the project. Every vendor that synagogue representatives spoke with informed them that they would be unable to complete the project on time due to supply issues.
It was not until June of 2021 that Temple Beth Ami was able to find a bidder. And despite the bidder’s assurance that they could finish the job by August, supply chain issues held up its completion until after the High Holidays.
“We were asking our technology to do more than it had been designed to — more than we had ever asked it to do,” Ezrin says.
Before the pandemic, Beth Ami only had a single-angle, wide-shot camera set up in the sanctuary. And poor sound quality made it difficult for some congregants to understand what was going on during streamed services, she says.
Meanwhile, Chanukah is a month away. Market experts say this year you can’t do your holiday shopping too early.
Sasha Rogelberg, a staff writer for the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, contributed to this story.