Tiny shul faces eviction threat

“I call it a hub, like the airlines, Mikhael Maimon said. “When people want help, they come through our doors. And when people want to help others, they come here.” Maimon is director of Kollel Rashbi Ari shul in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. The shul got its start when the artist Chaim Mekel used the space as a studio, then slowly became a place of worship as Mekel studied kabbalah and Torah in his free time. Kollel Rashbi Ari thus began as a nondenominational center. As an interviewer speaks to Maimon, people wander in from the street, wanting a hot meal or needing to borrow Maimon’s cell phone. 

Nine months ago, Maimon became director of the 15-year-old shul. Located in a tiny space, just 700 square feet, it includes a mikveh for men, as well as a table for studying and a kitchen that produces food for the hungry any time of day. 

“We are for the people and about the people,” Maimon said. With its mission as a “center for spiritual and material sustenance,” Kollel Rashbi Ari holds a daily minyan and serves more than 200 people at a weekly Shabbat dinner. The food is donated by caterers, and the shul is run by donations and volunteers.

In addition to feeding the hungry, the center helps find housing for the homeless. However, despite their best efforts, financial problems persist. The building that houses the shul is leased from the MCM Property Management Co., and MCM has threatened eviction multiple times, because, Maimon admits, “We don’t pay the rent really ever on time, but we always pay.” Kollel Rashbi Ari pays $2,100 a month for the space, which includes utilities, but it often pays up to three weeks late. They were given a three-day eviction notice just before Rosh Hashanah last fall, and were served with a 30-day notice after that. 

Kollel Rashbi Ari reached an understanding with the management company, who, Maimon said, agreed that it wasn’t “a good idea to close down a shul,” and it has so far been allowed to remain open.

“So, we were going to have a fresh start and sign a new lease. See, it was a Rosh Hashanah miracle.” The rent has been paid through January, but not yet for February and March, but there have been no recent eviction notices posted on the door. The problem is, Maimon said, the writ of execution remains open with the sheriff’s department, which means the management company can “merely push the button, and the sheriff will show up and evict us.” MCM Property Management declined to comment for this article.

Maimon said that paying the rent on time isn’t always possible. “We don’t always have the money on time, and we have to take care of the people who walk in the door as well. But, hopefully there will be a large donation coming through that will take care of all of our financial troubles. We just need to be allowed to stay long enough for that to happen.”

Kosher Club closes its doors

The sudden closure on Dec. 9 of Kosher Club, a warehouse-style kosher market on Pico Boulevard near La Brea Avenue, saddened but didn’t really surprise industry experts or the kosher consumers who had been shopping at the store since it opened in 1987.

“What we are finding is that, as part of this recession, people are spending less than they used to on food, and that is hurting the markets,” said Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz, author of “Is it Kosher?” and rabbinic administrator of the Kosher Information Bureau.

Located slightly outside of the heavily Orthodox Pico-Robertson and Beverly-La Brea neighborhoods, Kosher Club couldn’t compete with larger markets in the centers of those neighborhoods, Eidlitz suggested.

Kosher Club owner Daryl Schwartz declined to comment or to reveal why the store closed with just a few days’ notice.

“Americans like one-stop shopping, so the larger stores are doing better,” Eidlitz said. “At one point, people appreciated the smaller markets, with personal service, but now people want a supermarket — the bigger, the better.”

Eidlitz said several mom-and-pop operations in the city and the San Fernando Valley have shut down in the last few years. While Kosher Club was a large market with many specialty items, it did not offer a full bakery or a lush produce section, and many customers reported that Kosher Club’s prices were high.

“It was worth the trip when you needed something special, but overall, it was not worth it because when you were buying basic things, it would just cost too much,” said Taffy Brodesser-Akner, a freelance writer who said she had cut her trips to Kosher Club from once a week to about once a month.

Cambridge Farms in Valley Village and Glatt Mart in Pico-Robertson, both owned by a group of five partners, also have seen receipts decline. Co-owner Meir Davidpour won’t say how much business has waned, but said they are feeling the crunch.

“People are buying their necessities, which are low-profit items like rice, oil, potatoes and basic meats — the cheaper stuff. They don’t reach for the much more expensive items, like the $35-a-pound cheese imported from France, which they used to buy,” Davidpour said.

More customers have asked for credit or for help, or have gone from two trips a week to one.

At 25,000 square feet, Cambridge Farms, opened in 2008, is the largest all-kosher super market in the West. Glatt Mart, opened in 2003, is less than half its size. Those markets have increased advertising, refocused on customer service and tried to offer low prices to ride out the recession, Davidpour said.

Davidpour said he has felt resentment from other stores, and said they even offered to include smaller stores in Glatt Mart’s purchasing power, so all the storeowners could benefit from Glatt Mart’s lower bulk prices.

Like Glatt Mart and Cambridge Farms, many of the kosher markets are now owned by Iranian-Jewish immigrants.

“When you immigrate to this country, there are certain steps you have to take, one by one. The people who were grocers 20 to 30 years ago are now doing something better; they’re at a higher step. We are still taking all those steps,” Davidpour said. “Grocery is very hard work. I work 75, 80 hours a week, and we’re five partners.”

Don Lubitz, who co-owns West Pico Foods, a wholesale distributor to kosher markets, said he, too, has seen that progression.

“When I came into this industry 30 years ago, there were a lot of stores owned by Holocaust survivors — Eastern Europeans and Russians. Slowly they sold to Persian owners, and Persians opened other stores,” said Lubitz, whose West Pico Foods co-owner, Elias Naghi, is an Iranian Jew.

Lubitz bought West Pico Foods in 1989 from Daryl Schwartz’s father, Mickey. The Schwartzes opened Kosher Club at the West Pico Foods warehouse in 1987.

Lubitz said immigrant populations — Iranian and Israeli — can account for much of the boom in Los Angeles’ kosher consumer base in the last few decades.

“These are very tough economic times — that is an understatement — but if you have the right customer service and the right items at the right price, you’ll exist,” Lubitz said.

Devotees swore by its superior wine collection, its personalized service, and a meat case renowned among kosher connoisseurs. Kosher Club had a large parking lot and the ease of just pulling into a spot, and its wide aisles and relatively thin crowds inside distinguished it from the more bazaar-like atmosphere of most other kosher markets.

Those benefits more than made up for the 10-minute drive from Pico-Robertson or La Brea, said Baruch Littman, a long time customer and friend of the owners who was at the store the day before it closed.

“This is home to me,” said Littman, who is vice president of development at the Jewish Community Foundation. “When I leave my house to go to a kosher market, I have never gone anywhere but here. Never. They have the best meat case in the entire city. Rosie is the best butcher in the entire city.”

Kosher club was also early to develop online shopping and home delivery.

Angel Soto, who has worked for the Schwartzes for 30 years, most recently driving the home-delivery truck, witnessed the volume of customers at other kosher markets and said he had been concerned about Kosher Club.

Soto, along with about a dozen other employees, were told of the closing just days before. Soto said customers already have offered him jobs, so he’s not worried about himself.