Kosher BBQ in Rancho Mirage: A Torah Oasis

by Rivka Chaya Berman - RANCHO MIRAGE, CA

March 22, 2006

If you’re in California’s desert off Highway 10 on a Tuesday, and find yourself getting hungry for some kosher food– you’re in luck. Chabad of Rancho Mirage, 25 minutes out of the resort city of Palm Springs, hosts a weekly community barbecue that is redefining gastronomic Judaism.

One-inch thick steaks sizzle on the grill. Patties are being flipped into single and double burgers resting on cushion-soft buns. The crowd’s senior, junior, more than 50 strong, easy going and dressed in short sleeves; it’s day two of spring and it’s 87 degrees at sunset. Jewish diners order up California style veggies burgers and veggie soup served alongside Chabad of Rancho Mirage representative Chaya Posner’s famous salads. Since moving down to Rancho five years ago, Joan Kramer has tucked into her share of barbecue fare. “It is wonderful. The camaraderie is the very best. Everybody mingles with everybody,” she says. “I’d recommend it for every community.”

Building bonds between Jews in the area is as part of the barbecue as hotdogs and mustard. At least one couple met at barbecue and married. Still more have dated, discussed prospective pairings, and done business along the eight-foot tables and under the twinkling lights. Kids down their burgers and whiz around the concrete plaza on scooters and bikes. Not on the agenda, however, is a formal Torah program. “When Abraham welcomed people into his tent, he fed them, he didn’t lecture them,” said Chabad of Rancho’s Rabbi Shimon Posner. “In the Torah, people met and gathered at the well. Out here, the barbecue is a Torah oasis.”

Rabbi Shimon Posner and Rabbi Benny Lew circulate among the diners, doing a maitre d’ routine they’ve perfected over the eight years of barbecue nights. Grill season opens when the booths are built on Sukkot and ends just in time to serve cheesecake on Shavuot. In summer, 120-degree heat kills appetites and “makes it impossible to grill outdoors,” says Chaya Posner.

Along with questions about relish and seconds on the salads, the Posners and Lews field questions of the heart and soul. Relationship advice, kind words, and big questions about G-d’s existence end of life issues have all been asked during dinner. Attending the barbecue, noshing with other Jews of all ages and backgrounds – including the Posners and their seven children, clears “a greater comfort zone,” says Rabbi Posner, for greater involvement at other Chabad events.

Word of Chabad’s weekly meet and eat has spread worldwide. At a London wedding, Chaya Posner’s mother chatted with a wedding guest whose upcoming trip to California would detour to Rancho for a night at the barbecue. A Yiddish-speaking former WWII partisan stopped to chat with Rabbi Posner in a supermarket parking lot and identified the affable rabbi with “so you’re the one with a barbecue.” Diners from Down Under, snowbirds from Chicago, and the ubiquitous backpacking Israelis have dined under the stars at Chabad.

There’s room for everyone at the spacious spread, but having enough meat on hand in Rancho, where the nearest kosher butcher is hours away in Los Angeles, requires advance planning. Chabad trucks in protein by the pallet from Postville, Iowa’s Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant. Bulk orders have enabled more local Jews to consider keeping kosher. One woman recently switched over her kitchen to kosher after finding out about the Posners’ monthly meat orders. Their website offers online ordering, by the case at fair prices. “There’s definitely renewed interest in kosher,” said Chaya Posner. “We take care of the food, G-d takes care of the agenda.”

Never did the Posners imagine the words “medium rare” would play such a central role in their lives as Chabad community leaders. Some community members thought the barbecue be popular as a place to gather for reciting Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, said among a quorum of ten Jewish men. Kaddish does happen, but more often, Mirage residents arrive to show off their kosher-observant children and grandchildren. Pride in kosher lifestyles, grandchildren who reawaken the Jewish spirit behind their grandparents’ affinity for bagel and lox, is a phenomenon “no one predicted - aside from the Lubavitcher Rebbe,” says Rabbi Posner.

Still more surprising, even more than the consensus that Chabad’s barbecue offers the “the best steak bargain in town,” according to Kramer, there’s no one at the till ringing up the bill. Set prices are printed on paper menus, but payment is on the honor system. After eight years of Chabad’s community barbecues, Rabbi Shimon Posner has found people are honest, even generous with settling up the bill. All proceeds fund Chabad, and Rabbi Posner casts an eye out to the brush surrounding the plaza where diners gathers. One day the five-acre expanse will become a Chabad center. No telling how many burgers it will take.

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