Hosting a group of young adults for Shabbat dinner, Rabbi Yisroel Bernath and his wife, Sara, noticed something odd: salads and kugels were disappearing quickly, but the chicken went largely untouched.
When a little post-dinner sleuthing revealed many of their guests were vegetarian, it was all the incentive the Chabad rabbi needed to take his storefront center vegan.
For the 28-year-old Chicago native, whose friends at yeshiva called him “alfalfa sprouts” and ribbed the health-conscious bocher for his blender-buzzed vitamin shakes, the idea of a vegan/organic Chabad house was hardly a stretch.
“The students think it’s really different,” says Bernath, who arrived in Montreal with his family two years ago, quickly establishing a Chabad presence at Concordia University’s west-end campus, and in the nearby neighborhood.
So with pasta replacing pastrami, kamut giving kishka the boot, and typical kiddush food of roast root vegetables and tofu schnitzel, this Chabad is the only one Bernath knows of that’s taken a vegan route.
Even cholent, that soporific hotpot of beans, meat and potatoes traditional for Shabbat lunch, gets a makeover at the Chabad house. The version served here swaps cubes of beef for chewy porcini and shitake mushrooms, with an (unsuspecting) assist from dried slices of mango and papaya.
Fruit in cholent? Well, there’s never been any food left over, says Gigi Cohen, who cooks and supplies all this delicious fare, including spelt challah, from her kosher vegetarian cafe located up a short flight of stairs from the Chabad center.
The vegan outreach is gaining traction: a (mock) sushi sukkah party packed in 300, and monthly Friday night “themed” dinners (the most recent a five-course Thai menu) are drawing a sizeable crowd of students and young neighborhood professionals to the small space.
Word too travels in the wide but close network of Chabad emissaries, at least one of whom (in California) recently sounded out Bernath on the vegan venture.
“A healthy body will lend itself to a healthy soul. We have a responsibility to take care of ourselves,” Bernath says. He squeezes in pre-dawn walks for exercise before morning prayers.
This unconventional campus rabbi (who as a student rabbi visited prisoners in Florida and once spent the first night of Rosh Hashana behind bars in a locked-down facility), he’s also the mashgiach for Ms. Cohen’s café.
And while he may kvell over the exotic beets, Music garlic and Purple Haze carrots supplied by local organic grower Howard Reitman, the rabbi has his work cut for him before any of it gets on a plate.
Hunched over a table as if studying a page of Jewish text, Bernath must check the organic produce for bugs and insects. To that end, a light box and magnifying glass have joined spirituality as tools of his trade.
Bernath readily admits the vegan move was “radical.” As for those who maintain one is obligated to eat meat on Shabbat, he looks at it this way: if consuming meat on Shabbat is not a source of pleasure, then meat doesn’t have to eaten. “For some people, that pleasure is Purple Haze carrots,” he says.
Well, at least one person who cleaned his plate at a Shabbat kiddush unsuspectingly felt that way, when he asked Bernath if there was any leftover cholent meat. Ah, the rabbi smiled, those porcini mushrooms.
Chabad of NDG and Loyola Campus: 5690 Monkland Ave. (corner Harvard); Harvard Café: 5688 Monkland Ave.