New England Passover shopping struggles amid strike

Jews in Boston, New Haven, Rhode Island, debate crossing picket line at hundreds of Stop & Shop stores.

Stop & Shop Grocery Store Chain (photo credit: MIKE MOZART)
Stop & Shop Grocery Store Chain
(photo credit: MIKE MOZART)
Shopping for Passover is hard enough. Now, thousands of Jews in the US’s New England region are faced with a quandary: cross the picket line at a popular supermarket chain or be forced to go elsewhere for kosher-for-Passover groceries.
Last week, tens of thousands of workers at hundreds of Stop & Shop stores in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island went on strike to protest rising health insurance costs for employees.
And with Passover quickly approaching – and Stop & Shop in many areas offering the best selection of kosher-for-Passover products – many Jews are conflicted.
Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen, spiritual leader of the Conservative Congregation Beth-El Keser Israel in New Haven, Connecticut, told the New Haven Register that “any food purchased by crossing a picket line or from scab workers is not kosher for Passover.”
In an email to congregants, he urged them to shop elsewhere.
“The strike could not be at a worse time for my household,” Tilsen wrote. “Although I don’t need any of the specialty Passover products [having acquired them already], I will have to replace my home delivery of produce with one or two trips to other stores, which will add three hours of effort just when I don’t need it.” Nevertheless, he said, “The image of ‘everyone’ in the New Haven community respecting the picket line, except for those visibly recognizable as Jews, would be quite disturbing.”
Sue Fendrick of Massachusetts wrote on Facebook that she wouldn’t dream of shopping at Stop & Shop during the strike.
“I usually spend about $250 or $300 before Passover at Stop & Shop but certainly will not be shopping there until a fair settlement is made with workers,” she wrote. “How could I cross a picket line to shop for a holiday the themes of which are freedom and the treatment of other human beings with respect?”
Jeffrey Goldwasser, a rabbi in Rhode Island, wrote on Facebook that he hopes “everyone sees the problem of celebrating our Feast of Freedom by crossing a picket line of workers fighting for their right to work with dignity and fair wages!”
Howard Blas, a disabilities inclusion expert and director of the National Ramah Tikvah network, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that he was concerned about the effect of the strike on disabled and elderly  members of the Jewish community. Stop & Shop, he said, has long been a destination for Passover shopping, “since it is so easily accessible by public transportation... I worry that there is really nothing [else] nearby.” He noted that some people in vulnerable populations may be uncomfortable or unhappy switching their routines. 
Far from New England, rabbinic arguments over the status of food purchased from stores participating in the strike raged online.
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, a Conservative rabbi and author based in Chicago, shared a wide range of Judaic sources on Twitter in support of declaring products purchased by crossing a picket line not kosher. That included citing Orthodox Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who, in the 1970s and 1980s, said that produce that was the product of “exploitative conditions” should be deemed nonkosher.
But Orthodox Rabbi Josh Yuter, now based in Jerusalem, hit back at such a classification – and at Tilsen’s ruling.
“Crossing a picket line does not make food unkosher, and while opinions vary on Jewish labor laws, it certainly is by no means ‘well-established Jewish law,’” Yuter tweeted. “If we start applying Jewish law consistently to labor laws, we’re going to wind up with conclusions people aren’t going to like.”