WINNIPEG — The owner of Omnitsky Kosher Foods, Winnipeg’s last surviving kosher butcher shop, sold his business and closed his store at the end of April in a move that has left north Winnipeg Jews without easy access to kosher meat.
It may well be the final chapter in an ongoing saga that has angered
many area kosher consumers, who must now head to stores in south
Winnipeg to buy meat there.
Some, such as businessman Gerry Kaplan, blame the Vaad Ha’ir, the city’s kashrut certification agency, for the closure, citing Omnitsky’s clashes with the Vaad over the last few years as the Vaad sought to raise local kashrut standards.
“The Vaad has done a real disservice to our community,” he said. “Instead of being an advocate for Omnitsky, they made life miserable for Sasha [owner Sam Gekht].”
Others, such as Rose Margovski, who caters out of the Aleph-Bet Day Care in north Winnipeg, aren’t sure who to blame.
“Somebody has to be responsible,” she says. “Where are organizations such as Camp Massad and Margaret Park School [which houses a Hebrew bilingual program] going to get their kosher hot dogs and hamburger now.”
North Winnipeg senior Ruth Katz considers the closure “a travesty”
“Where are seniors in the north end expected to buy kosher meat now?” she asked. “There are many seniors in this area without cars. We can’t get to south Winnipeg to buy kosher meat.”
The Omnitsky story goes back to the summer of 2006. For many years, the Vaad had been concerned that its WK hechsher was not being accepted by many observant Jews, not only in Winnipeg but throughout North America.
The matter stems from a dispute in the mid-1980s between Orthodox teaching rabbis in the community and Orthodox congregational rabbis. It began as a disagreement over the creation of an eruv and led to the congregational rabbis declaring that the WK hechsher was no longer valid, after one of the teaching rabbis was invited to sit on the Vaad’s rabbinical board overseeing kashrut.
Vaad president Don Aronovitch said Winnipeg kashrut standards have become higher in recent years.
After becoming Vaad president in the early years of this decade, Aronovitch first tried to change the brand by introducing a new hechsher, MBK, in collaboration with Orthodox and Chabad rabbis in the city. That effort fell apart when the major licensees refused to go along with it.
Two years ago, in the summer of 2006, after several months of talks with Gekht aimed at persuading him to raise Omnitsky’s kashrut standards, the Vaad pulled the shop’s hechsher.
Gekht had bought the more-than-80-year-old business a couple of years earlier.
After accusations and counter-accusations, the two sides came to terms after a couple of months.
That fall, the Odwak family attempted to open a second kosher butcher shop – this one in south Winnipeg – in a corner of their longstanding non-kosher butcher shop. The experiment ended after a few months.
In the meantime, the temporary loss of its hechsher cost Omnitsky some important institutional business.
At the same time as the Vaad cancelled Omnitsky’s hechsher, it also decided to retire its own two shoichets, both elderly men, even though at least one of them is still hale and hearty. As a result, all kosher meat available in Winnipeg is now imported from Toronto.
Since Omnitsky regained its certification, Gekht has suffered some serious health problems: he has had both a heart attack and a stroke.
Several months ago, he put the shop up for sale, and he found a buyer last month. The new owner had actually wanted to buy Gekht’s house in south Winnipeg but, said the buyer – who wants to remain anonymous – Gekht insisted that he had to sell the butcher shop before he sold his house. Therefore, the buyer bought both. He said he has listed the shop with a realtor.
“Hopefully, somebody will want to buy it and continue to operate it as a kosher butcher shop,” he said.
Gekht has declined to comment on the situation.
Aronovitch said he’s not surprised by the sale. “It is unfortunate that it turned out this way,” he said. “It is a real inconvenience for people in the north end. I know that many people shopped there.”
In south Winnipeg, kosher meat is available at Desserts Plus, an independent Jewish-owned store, and at Sobeys, which is consolidating kosher meat sales in one expanded location after having had kosher departments in two stores.
Both Desserts Plus and Sobeys sell packaged frozen meat and chicken from Toronto. (Omnitsky also sold deli products.)