Balkan Kosher provides 75% of all Kosher Certifications in Greece benefitting local enterprises and rebuilding the infrastructure of Jewish life in Salonika and the region through non-profit organization Balkan Jewish Communities
Balkan Jewish Communities, based in Salonika, Greece, is leading the revival of Sephardic-Ladino heritage and rebuilding Balkan Jewish community life by expanding the availability of Kashrut for the Greek hospitality industry, tourism and providing kosher certification for regional food manufacturing.
July 9, 2019 - SALONIKA, Greece – Balkan Kosher is one of Europe’s leading Kosher food certification agencies with offices in Greece, Israel and the United States. Balkan Kosher has garnered 75% of ALL Kosher certifications in Greece representing a 30% growth year-over-year for the past 2 years. Many original Greek-based clients have benefited from Balkan Kosher’s international marketing expertise including expansion into key markets - USA, the EU, Australia, Russia and Israel.
Before Chabad of Salonika opened its doors in 2008, visitors to Salonika had great difficulty finding kosher food, Shabbos accommodations, and accessibility to Jewish historical sites. Today, visitors are able to make the pilgrimage to "La Madre de Israel" (the mother of Israel) with comfort, ease, and fully kosher accommodations. Balkan Kosher, the largest kosher certification agency in the Balkans, has helped Balkan Jewish Communities in achieving its mission of growing Jewish tourism and in connecting Ladino-Sephardic Jews with their glorious heritage.
Balkan Jewish Communities
Balkan Jewish Communities was founded in 2008 by Rabbi Yoel and Ruth Kaplan, the Chabad emissaries to the region, with the backing of the Rohr Foundation, Merkos Chabad and several Sephardic, Israeli and local-based Rabbis. Its mission is serving local Jews as well as Ladino Sephardic descendants and survivors worldwide who were scattered following the Inquisition, the Holocaust, and other tragedies in our history.
Salonika (Thessaloniki) has a long and rich Jewish tradition, dating back to the 1st century. Following the expulsion from Spain in the 15th century, Sephardic Jews escaped to Salonika by invitation from the Ottoman Sultan. Over the next four centuries, the Jewish population of Salonika grew to be the largest in Europe, giving rise to the nickname “La Madre de Israel” (the mother of Israel). For centuries, the Salonika International Port was closed on Shabbat to accommodate the Jews, who were the majority of salonika’s population.
During its prime, Salonika was an international center of Jewish culture, rabbinic studies and of Kabbalah. It was home to renowned Rabbis including Joseph Caro , author of the Shuchan Aruch and the monumental Bet Yosef; Shlomo Alkabetz, composer of Lekhah Dodi which is sung every Shabbat the world over; Yisrael Najara, composer of many traditional Jewish Piyutim and Shabbat songs; the renowned Benveniste family who were one of the leading families in Spain and continue to be so into the 20th century today and the Alkalay family, whose influence spread to positions of Chief Sephardic Rabbi in the USA and in Israel.
As the emissary of Balkan Jewish Communities, Rabbi Kaplan regularly traveled throughout the region with a Klezmer band, to attract and connect with the many isolated Jews who were concerned about their heritage and hungry for knowledge. In response to their requests, every year he organized Pesach Sederim, holiday celebrations and study groups in various cities.
One year at a Chanukah menorah lighting in Kosovo, a man approached him with a photo of his Orthodox grandparents who resembled Rabbi Kaplan in appearance. He told Rabbi Kaplan that he himself had a Bar Mitzvah, and he wanted his son, who was turning thirteen, to also have a Bar Mitzvah. Rabbi Kaplan got to work obtaining tefillin and lessons for the boy, and a few months later the first Bar Mitzvah in more than forty years was celebrated in Kosovo.
In 2011, while distributing matzah to isolated Jews in Balkan countries, Rabbi Kaplan was approached by the owner of a food company who inquired about his factory becoming kosher certified. After a few more companies had asked about Kosher certification, Balkan Kosher was established in 2012. Balkan Kosher filled the void of kosher food certification for many local businesses and food manufacturers as well as for Chabad outreach activities and tourism. Greek food companies were eager to use the Kosher certifications to expand sales into the international kosher marketplace.
Today, Balkan Kosher is one of Europe’s leading Kosher food certification agencies with offices in Greece, Israel, Albania, and the United States. “If you are eating a Kosher certified Kalamata olive, chances are it came from a Balkan Kosher company,” asserted Rabbi Yisroel Finman, Consultant. “If you are eating a General Mills product with chocolate as an ingredient in Europe, chances are it came from a Balkan Kosher certified company. In the US, Violife Vegan Cheese can be found in many large supermarket chains and pizza shops. Whole Foods carries Balkan Kosher certified 365 Brand (Whole Foods) Halva and Vegan Cheese. Trader Joe’s is carrying kosher snack items with Balkan’s Logo on the package.”
The fast growth of Balkan Kosher has presented opportunities for Greek businesses to thrive despite the recent financial challenges that the Greek government has faced. “Balkan Kosher client companies have found great financial opportunity and growth in collaborating with our experienced team,” notes Judith Kaplan, Executive Assistant. “Our international world view has opened doors for our clients. They also benefit greatly from our understanding of the technical aspects of industrial food processing resulting in the development of many new products. Our collaborations have created mutual win-win situations forged with trust, respect, and understanding between our cultures.
The steady growth and success of Balkan Kosher and its client companies are only a part of the big picture. The real measure of success has been the increased awareness and presence of Jewish life in the Balkan region, and progress in the mission of Balkan Jewish Communities. “By providing seed money and making kosher food available Balkan Kosher helps us to hold many gatherings, such as Shabbos services and meals where we host upwards of 200 tourists every week. Balkan Jewish Community’s Chabad House and synagogue are located at the Astoria Hotel in the Center of Salonika, where we maintain a kosher kitchen. We are always ready to arrange kosher meals and services as well as accommodations for travelers and locals,” states Rabbi Yosef Kaplan, Rabbinic Director of Balkan Kosher and Chabad Shliach to Salonika. “Many Jews who visit have questions about their history and about their Ladino-Sephardic heritage. We have been able to help families to recover properties confiscated by Nazi and Greeks during the war, to make weddings and Bar Mitzvah for people who had lost all contact with Judaism, to reunite families, and sadly to arrange Jewish funerals. Many Jewish youth who were raised as Christians have continued their studies in Israel and identify more strongly as Jews”
“One such incident involved a tough boxer who would make snide anti-Semitic remarks and publicly taunt me whenever he saw me on the street.” continues Rabbi Yoel Kaplan. “When he and a group of his friends threatened to harm me, I continued to respond calmly and even managed a smile. One time I even gave him my card and suggested that we meet sometime to 'have a beer’. The phone call came one Friday afternoon when I was busy helping my wife bake challot and cook for the many guests that would join us for the two-day holiday of Shavuous immediately following Shabbos. “Rabbi,” he began, “I am downstairs. I need to speak with you. Can I meet with you now?” Of course, I warmly suggested that we meet for a drink, and it didn't take long for him to tell me his deep, dark secret: his mother was Jewish. As a small child, the neighbors hid her from the Nazis, sparing her from the fate of her family and of 95% of the city's Jews. She eventually married a local Greek man and raised her children as non-Jews. First of all, I offered tefillin for him to put on. Next, we visited his mother, who was thrilled to affix a mezuzah on her door. This former bully now joins us frequently for Shabbos and has started a Jewish family. He's a professional boxer and a real tough guy – but he is a Jew and it's our privilege have had a part in bringing him close to Torah. This is one of our main reasons for being in Salonika and in the Balkans - to help lost Jews to reconnect to their glorious heritage.”
For more information about Balkan Jewish Communities, please visit our website at www.jewishthessaloniki.com | Facebook at www.facebook.com/chabadsalonika/ or email email@example.com.
For information about Balkan Kosher, please visit our website www.BalkanKosher.com/press, or contact Rabbi Yisroel Finman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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