Rabbi Yisroel Labkowski at Bay Kosher, his packed little grocery store in Lafayette, Dec. 12, 2023. (Photo/Alix Wall)
Rabbi Yisroel Labkowski at Bay Kosher, his packed little grocery store in Lafayette, Dec. 12, 2023. (Photo/Alix Wall)

Chabad rabbi looks to expand his little kosher market in Lafayette

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

A year after opening Bay Kosher, a compact kosher market in Lafayette, Rabbi Yisroel Labkowski is planning its next phase: an adjacent commercial kosher kitchen so the market can sell prepared foods for Shabbat. He launched a fundraiser this month to help make it come to fruition.

The director of Chabad of Lamorinda hopes that by this time next year, the market will offer full Shabbat meals, from dips, salads and desserts to in-house challah, matzah ball soup and roasted chicken. He envisions freshly made sandwiches and shawarma for lunch, too.

Since opening last fall, Labkowski, whose role is normally more of an educator and spiritual leader, has embraced the attitude of an entrepreneur. If asked about a product he’s unfamiliar with, he will try to obtain it to ensure the market’s success. So far, the approach seems to be working.

“I grew up in an Ashkenazi house, and I’m not as familiar with some items needed for Persian or Moroccan food,” Labkowski said. “But people request certain things, and I’m willing to learn. If they send me the name of it, I’ll try to get it if I know people will buy it.”

The rabbi and his wife, Tzipora Labkowski, who runs the center’s Hebrew program, have eight children. They moved to the East Bay from Brooklyn in 2015 to open Chabad of Lamorinda, which encompasses Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda.

The 700-square-foot store is located in Lafayette’s downtown near the public library and is connected to the Chabad center. In fact, on the day I visited, unpacked boxes of Israeli snacks like Bamba and Bissli, as well as crackers and condiments, were stacked along one wall of the center’s main room that serves as the sanctuary, social hall and Judaica shop.

While Bay Kosher is believed to be the only kosher market attached to a Chabad center in the region, Labkowski said other Chabad communities, mostly abroad, do the same.

The store’s genesis came in 2020, when Labkowski started selling kosher meat. Soon he was coordinating 2,000-pound shipments of meat from New York. Buyers occasionally asked for other kosher items, but Labkowski didn’t have enough space to store them.

He stopped selling the meat during the Covid-19 pandemic. After the center moved into a larger building in 2021, Labkowski set to work on the market. He was able to raise more than $120,000 from community members to “give it our first boost,” Labkowski said.

Bringing Jews closer to Judaism is Chabad’s main mission, and keeping kosher is part of that, Labkowski said. But it’s challenging in the Bay Area to keep kosher because of the lack of local kosher markets and restaurants.

“We’re not trying to push people into doing things they don’t want to do, but we’re making it available,” he said. “You can’t encourage people if they can’t find it.”

He said he has seen families leveling up their observance by eating more kosher food, and adds that “if anyone wants their home kashered, any Chabad rabbi can do it. Once you have everything available, you might as well do it right.”

Bay Kosher in Lafayette on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023. (Photo/Alix Wall)
Bay Kosher in Lafayette on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023. (Photo/Alix Wall)

Michael Geller of Moraga is one of those people. He, his wife and two daughters attend both the Lamorinda and Walnut Creek Chabad centers.

While his home isn’t completely kosher, Geller said, he feels good about the fact that he now has more options for kosher products.

“We don’t have a vibrant kosher community here like a Pico-Robertson,” Geller said, referring to the Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles. “Having this store five minutes from me is so convenient. It’s a small store, but it has a lot of options and the prices are fair. I’ve increased my buying of kosher snacks and sweets and meat. Pretty much everything you need is in that store.”

While the majority of items come from vendors in New York, Labkowski brings in products from Israel, too, like the 3,000 sufganiyot he had shipped frozen for people to preorder and pick up for Hanukkah.

“We have students who studied there or did a Birthright trip and want to maintain their connection,” he said. “It means a lot for them to have a taste of Israel here.”

For the Israelis in the area, he brings in Krembo, a beloved Israeli sweet snack, and detergents and shampoos because the smells “give them the feeling of home.”

Labkowski said he tries to keep prices as low as possible, within reason.

“In some cases, we’re cheaper than L.A. or New York,” he said. “We’re sourcing directly and not doing a large markup.”

The frozen section offers Israeli bourekas and Moroccan “cigars,” while the refrigerator case offers several kinds of herring and other fish. In addition to the meat — with everything from chicken breasts, brisket and ground beef to tongue, lamb chops and steaks — there are deli items such as pastrami and pickles.

He said Jews come from throughout the Bay Area to shop, but he’s been surprised at the number of non-Jewish customers coming in too. Sometimes kids who go to neighboring schools drop in to buy snacks. One non-Jewish customer told Labkowski that the rib-eye he bought recently was the best he’s ever tasted.

But ultimately, the store’s mission is about helping Jews observe kashrut.

“We see this as a gateway to their Judaism,” Labkowski said. “They might not be religious in any way, but they remember the taste of pastrami or sour pickles or lox or herring, and they come in to get that, and then see that there’s an event at the synagogue, and it gives people that connection.”

Labkowski doesn’t run the store day to day. He has a store manager. But if the rabbi is there and someone wants to put on tefillin, he’s happy to oblige.

Bay Kosher, 3477 Golden Gate Way, Lafayette. 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Friday. (925) 440-1226

Small Bites

Larkspur and Santa Clara witnessed two noteworthy openings this month.

Loveski, the “Jew-ish” deli started by Michelin-starred chef Christopher Kostow in Napa, opened its second outpost in early December at Larkspur’s Marin Country Mart. The new location is twice the size of the Napa one and has some additional menu items, including brisket and chicken schnitzel, in addition to freshly baked bagels and breads. It’s located at 1813 Larkspur Landing Circle, Suite 15, and is open daily from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Berkeley-based Boichik Bagels is now in Santa Clara. Owner Emily Winston opened her fifth store in early December with her favorite trick of sabrage, or uncorking a bottle of champagne with a saber — in her case, a 2-foot one. Boichik Bagels is located at 2050 Wyatt Drive across from Intel’s headquarters. Boichik Santa Clara is open every day from 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

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."