Kosher Oasis customers enjoying their meal al fresco at the Oshman Family JCC. (Photo/Courtesy Rabbi Joey Felsen)
Kosher Oasis customers enjoying their meal al fresco at the Oshman Family JCC. (Photo/Courtesy Rabbi Joey Felsen)

Kosher community loses ‘oasis’ of falafel, sushi and Yemenite specialties at Palo Alto JCC

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Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

For over two years now, Doreet Jehassi has been frying, to order, the Yemenite Jewish savory pastries malawach and jachnun for customers at the Kosher Oasis food stations inside Palo Alto’s Oshman Family JCC.

That is soon coming to an end. The JCC recently informed all three vendors who share the space and kosher kitchen that they will have to vacate when their lease is up at the end of July. A new food vendor will soon be announced who is promised to serve a broader segment of the community and offer extended hours and “a variety of price points,” according to a JCC statement. While there will be kosher options, they will be prepackaged.

The news came as a blow to Jehassi and her fellow vendors, Dr. Falafel and Holy Sushi.

Doreet Jehassi (Photo/Alix Wall)
Doreet Jehassi (Photo/Alix Wall)

“I had a hunch, but didn’t know it would happen so quickly,” Jehassi told J. “I’m scared that I’ll have to start all over again.”

The news was equally upsetting for Rabbi Joey Felsen, founder of the Jewish Study Network, who in spring 2021 spearheaded the effort to provide fresh kosher options at the JCC. He pitched the idea for the food consortium during the pandemic and found the vendors.

Sharing the kitchen and rent helped offset the high cost of doing business and leasing separate spaces.

Things haven’t always been easy. One caterer had to pull out of the project; a planned cafe opened but didn’t last. Felsen acknowledged he heard complaints from the start. (Felsen recently joined J.’s board.)

“Not every vendor was open every day,” he said. “Because of the different vendors, everyone had their own point-of-sale systems, and it was confusing to navigate. And people wanted grab- and-go options. There was always a lot of back and forth, that we’d like to see this or that.”

Rabbi Joey Felsen
Rabbi Joey Felsen

Yet at the same time, Felsen said, the JCC became a kosher food destination. Izzy’s Brooklyn Bagels in Palo Alto does an excellent job, he said, but there should be more than one kosher option in the area.

“I believe there is a demand for kosher food here,” Felsen said. “We had all of this great food. We started getting visitors from all over the world who come to Silicon Valley for business, and we became a robust hub of kosher food in the Bay Area.”

J. contacted numerous stakeholders involved for this story, but all declined to speak on the record.

JCC chief marketing officer Nathaniel Bergson-Michelson provided J. with a statement from CEO Zack Bodner; it was sent to community leaders who keep kosher before it was announced to the community at large.

“The end of the lease was not a financial decision, and it was not a decision made easily,” the statement said. “The challenges of operating a café space at the JCC are many: in addition to providing kosher food items, the community’s needs also include extended regular hours, a variety of healthy food options, a wide range of price points, the capacity to fulfill walk-up orders speedily at peak times, and the ability to serve our preschool and camp communities.”

The statement added that while the new food venture will not be kosher, the JCC remains committed to providing kosher options. “We feel strongly about ensuring that kosher food items are available so every member of the Jewish community can eat at our facility.”

But Felsen said he and others in the kosher community know that means no fresh kosher food, since the unsupervised kitchen will no longer be kosher.

“Maybe we can get packaged kosher stuff, but there’s no one who will drive to a Palo Alto JCC to take something out of a refrigerator,” Felsen said. “It’s great if you’re stuck at the airport, but no one’s going to go out of their way to come here.”

While he is hopeful he can move the whole operation elsewhere, rent prices in the area are a real obstacle.

“We finally had something good,” Felsen said. “Usually kosher restaurants close because they can’t make it, and here it was making it, and people were happy.”

Meanwhile, Jehassi says she made real progress at the JCC and is open to whatever possibilities are ahead for her business. Before the Kosher Oasis, she was selling and delivering out of her home.

“I respect the JCC’s decision, but it’s unfortunate,” she said. “I just wish there were more kosher options in the area. I wish there would be a way to make a center of sorts where people could come and congregate, people who observe or don’t, where there’s something for everyone.”

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."