Sending a religious message through food, a Gainesville Rabbi uses sushi to draw a crowd.
Mounds of fresh cucumber, thick slices of salmon and piles of imitation-crab cover the counters around the sink.
Two boilers of rice simmer near the stove.
As four children watch a film about the Torah, three chefs wearing what look like lab coats and shower caps meticulously cut ingredients for the evening’s meal.
On most nights, this is a buzzing Jewish household. But tonight, this home will transform into a sushi bar.
Cream cheese and smoked salmon are no longer just bagel toppings for one Gainesville rabbi, who discovered these delicacies are even more enticing when wrapped in seaweed. Rabbi Berl Goldman, co-director of the Lubavitch Chabad Jewish Center at the University of Florida in Gainesville, has found that by serving sushi at his religious events, he is able to draw a larger crowd.
“Anything in this physical realm should be used to promote holiness, and why not sushi?” he says. “I believe sushi is a strong draw to my programs.”
Goldman says his goal is to help people connect to their roots as they discover the meaning of living as Jews; it helps them develop an appreciation for their heritage and proudly identify with Judaism. His mission is simply “to bring Jews closer to Judaism.”
Goldman’s programs even attract people who are not Jewish. UF alumnus Noah Hussin, 23, grew up Catholic and currently has no religious affiliation. He and his friends attended a lecture on Jews for Jesus at Goldman’s home.
“It was a lot of fun. We all learned something from it. We definitely would not have learned those things if we were not brought there by the sushi,” Hussin says. “We were calling it ‘Jew-shi,’” Hussin says.
What Goldman is most proud of, he says, is that the sushi he serves meets the highest standards of kashrut, or Jewish dietary laws, without sacrificing any of the taste. Many people who attend his events are unaware they are eating kosher food.
“They don’t even know it’s made from imitation crab,” Goldman says of the California rolls. Jewish dietary laws prohibit eating shellfish, so he uses imitation crab so his guests can enjoy the food without violating Jewish law.
Goldman supervises the preparation of the sushi in his kitchen. The symbols on the food’s packaging indicate that the food was supervised by a rabbi throughout its preparation and that no non-kosher ingredients touched it. Goldman orders everything but the meat, from the seaweed to the soy sauce to the pickled ginger, from a kosher distributor in New York. He buys fresh fish from Northwest Seafood Incorporated of Gainesville.
“We don’t cut corners,” he says. “Sushi is very much about presentation.”
Since Northwest Seafood also sells products that are not kosher, Goldman brings his own knives and cutting boards and has his filets cut from a whole fish. He watches Northwest employees as they clean and slice his fish, ensuring the kashrut of the product he brings home.
Goldman says the sushi events do not take funding away from other Lubavitch Chabad endeavors. The center’s operating budget, an estimated $230,000 per year, is based on donations and allots for what Goldman calls “showcase” programs. He says these programs influence strong Jewish education values and help to establish faith as a total experience that is “attractive physically and spiritually.”
As students line up eagerly before satin-draped tables, sushi chefs prepare colorful tuna-avocado rolls and place fat slices of salmon on mounds of rice. Chefs even take special orders for more exotic fare, such as salmon-wrapped spicy tuna rolls with scallions and cucumbers. They prepare all of these while guests watch.
“We believe that a program like this solidifies a past experience and cements future experience, and that’s why we do it,” Goldman says.
Though sushi has increased attendance, Goldman remains reluctant to serve it at the Shabbat dinners he hosts each Friday night. Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, brings hundreds of people to the Goldman home each week, with the promise of good food, singing, and socializing Goldman says that if he does serve the delicacy on a Friday night it will be a surprise, so that, “Shabbat isn’t turned into sushi.”
In Goldman’s opinion, the sushi events provide a delicious blend of the best of physical and spiritual delights.
“I’m eating delicious sushi and studying Torah at the same time,” Goldman says.
The Lubavitch Chabad Student Center is located at 2021 NW 5th Ave. in Gainesville, Florida.