What’s an Orthodox rabbi doing in the sushi business?

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Spend any time at all with Rabbi Alex Shandrovsky, and you’re likely to hear him say more than once, “I’m passionate about education.” Spend even more time with him and you’ll also learn that he’s quite passionate about his family, Israel, Jewish outreach and sushi.

Yes, sushi. When pressed, the 26-year-old Orthodox rabbi will tell you that since he grew up less connected to Judaism than he is now, he ate in some of San Francisco’s best sushi restaurants. So when it comes to fish, he knows what he’s talking about.

He stops short of trying to make sushi himself, though, which is why he’s partnered with sushi chef Alex Kim, of Barracuda Sushi on Castro Street. Kim is working with him part time in Shandrovsky’s new venture, L’Chaim Sushi. It’s probably the first time Kim has been called a mensch by his boss.

A bit about Shandrovsky: He immigrated to San Francisco from Russia with his family at age 9. A graduate of the Hebrew Academy in San Francisco, Shandrovsky was offered a scholarship to Williams College, but instead decided to go to Israel. He ended up at a yeshiva and stayed six years, becoming observant and a rabbi along the way. He also married and had two children.

Rabbi Alex Shandrovsky and chef Alex Kim work in a kosher sushi venture.

If you’re thinking, “What’s an Orthodox rabbi doing in the sushi business?” it’s a fair question. While the venture is only a few months old, the rabbi, who is director of special projects for the Palo Alto-based Jewish Study Network, hopes to use sushi as a vehicle to educate people about the laws of kashrut and other Jewish topics. He and Kim did just that recently at the Russian Jewish Moishe House in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood.

L’Chaim Sushi operates out of the kosher kitchen at Congregation Adath Israel, and is a program of the San Francisco Modern Orthodox synagogue. So far, L’Chaim Sushi has been catering to a few downtown businesses with kosher employees, and also sells pre-made kosher sushi at the JCC of San Francisco’s Community Table Café on Tuedays and Thursdays. And Shandrovsky said he is in talks with Google about supplying sushi for its kosher employees. Meanwhile, individual orders — including for Shabbat platters — can be placed in advance via L’Chaim Sushi’s website.

Doing workshops in people’s homes or places like Moishe House is the next step in the operation’s planned expansion (those who attended the Moishe House workshop were young professionals — who might just tell their employers about L’Chaim Sushi).

Sushi is perfect for workshops, not only because it’s one of the rabbi’s favorite foods, but because he can take it into a nonkosher kitchen and not worry about kosher restrictions. (The kitchen at the S.F. Moishe House, for example, is not kosher, but since no heat is used to make this style of sushi and there’s no cooking involved except for the rice, which is prepared in L’Chaim Sushi’s own rice cooker, there’s nothing unkosher about it.)

Kim is one of several sushi chefs working with Shandrovsky in this venture, which is being advised by Casson Trenor, co-founder and co-owner of San Francisco’s Tataki restaurants (the first sustainable sushi bar in North America). Shandrovsky admits that when a customer first asked where his fish came from, he had no idea; he is learning about sustainability as he goes along. The fact that he’s met with Trenor and has him listed as an adviser shows he’s a fast learner.

He is also putting forward a new business model, sending 10 percent of his profits to charities — half to S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services, and half to Leket, Israel’s national food bank.

Participants at a Moishe House workshop learn to roll seaweed.

As part of his expansion, Shandrovsky is providing sushi at midnight to attendees of JFCS’ Émigré Gala on Feb. 1 at the Westin St. Francis in San Francisco. He’ll be doing his Jewish outreach education bit as well, he notes.

At the Moishe House workshop, participants watched as Kim demonstrated how to make sushi rolls. (Though Kim said he uses real crab at his own restaurant, for L’Chaim Sushi he uses seasoned pollock since it’s kosher.)

Then it was the participants’ turn. While the fish, cucumber, carrot strips and other fillings were pre-cut, the rolling of the seaweed proved much harder than it appeared.

Shandrovsky added some commentary about kosher laws, and gave a short talk at the end of the workshop about L’Chaim Sushi’s mission.

“I think it’s the most effective way to have this conversation, to educate the public. Sushi is the ‘meat’ to convey a story,” he said, and bringing a spiritual component to how we eat is part of that. For example, he talked about what makes fish kosher (it must have fins and scales).

Shandrovsky does not want people to think L’Chaim Sushi is inferior because it’s kosher. “I’m not going to sacrifice quality,” he said.

He ended the workshop with a less traditional and unexpected message, not related to sushi at all.

Given that the rabbi is Russian-born and 20-something, just like his audience that evening, he said, “I would love to be a resource to you on your Jewish journey. I do weddings.”


Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."