There are 50 black-coated, black-hatted, gray-and-black bearded, plastic-bibbed Satmar chasidim on a fishing boat.
There are also about 40 fishermen, dressed in boots and coats, on the boat as well.
The fishermen catch cod, take them to the boat’s stern, and cut them open, and the chasidim, using jeweler’s loupes, study their insides.
This goes on for six hours.
What’s going on? The specifics — cod generally are considered kosher, but they “are prone to small parasites,” Jeffrey Ingber, the owner and guiding force behind Kosher Catch, said. “They’re not dangerous when they’re cooked,” he added immediately. But the fact that they often are present means that for some religious decisors, the fish in which they have taken up occupancy is not kosher.
How did all those men get together on that boat, which sailed from near Providence, Rhode Island? We’ll get to that — just as Mr. Ingber did.
Jeff Ingber is 48, and “for the better part of 40 years, I have been a recreational fisherman,” he said. “I fish on boats in the ocean for fun.”
He grew up in Sheepshead Bay, in Brooklyn. “I’ve never really lived off the east coast more than 45 minutes away from the ocean,” he said (except for his time in Israel). “One of the great things about that is that you can wake up in the morning, presuming you have no other responsibilities, and just grab a fishing rod and go try to catch your dinner.”
When he was 13, he and his family moved to New City, where he went to Clarkstown North High School. “There you’re closer to the Hudson, but still only 45 minutes from the ocean by any number of access points,” he said. “You can probably get from New City to Sheepshead Bay in under an hour — at 5 in the morning.” He kept fishing.
When he was a high school student, Mr. Ingber worked at an ice cream store, and the lessons he learned there stuck with him. “I learned about total customer satisfaction — how important that is,” he said. “I also learned that in food and beverage, you either have the hospitality and customer service gene or you don’t.
“I’m sure that in your own experience, you know who has it — and who should get out of the business because they don’t,” he added.
Mr. Ingber started his college career at the State University of New York at Oswego, and then he spent a year in Israel. “I wasn’t in any official learning program,” he said. “I was in a program in Sfat called Livnot U’Lehibanot. It was in the old city there, and basically, in a nutshell, it was designed back then for 20- to 30-year-olds with minimal to no Jewish background.”
He did have a Jewish background — he was active in the Conservative movement’s USY — but still “I did that program for three months, lived in the West Bank, three kilometers from Nablus, with some very right-wing religious Zionists, working on their organic tomato yeshuv, and then I went back to Sfat, worked for a guy from Long Island who owned a dairy café — he was one of the first to figure out how to make New York-style bagels in Israel — and then I came home.”
To some extent, he came home changed, on a path toward greater religious observance. He also came home with some of his basic interests, in working with food and hospitality — in other words, in feeding people — unchanged, even amplified.
Next, Mr. Ingber transferred to Johnson & Wales University in Providence.
Two things happened to him there. He met a woman at Hillel who later became his wife– that’s Marcie, who is now the office manager and bookkeeper for a synagogue in Massachusetts, not far over the state line.
Second, he found the first part of his calling. The school is famous for the education it offers in food and hospitality. Mr. Ingber majored in food and beverage. He’s also always been entrepreneurial; his education at Johnson & Wales showed him how to harness that spirit. So, he and two friends opened a catering company in Providence. It was on the campus of Brown University. “We handled the kosher food service at Hillel at Brown,” he said. “Brown has been around for a couple of hundred years, but in 1994 they actually offered a kosher meal plan. And as soon as the opportunity arose, I took it.”
Soon after the business opened, Jeff and Marcie got married. “We were living in a small Jewish community,” he said. “We are plugging away and doing Brown’s meal plan and spreading the word, and it is very nice — except for the fact that within a limited community, there is only so much work to be done.
“It is a pretty polarized community. The more right-wing folks do not eat anybody’s food, and the more left-wing folks do not need kosher food.” There was a small center, the people to whom he was catering, but he was feeling constrained. He wanted to grow.
All this time, of course, he was fishing.
“So after our daughter, Chana, was born, we sold the business and moved to Flemington,” he said. They lived there for four years; he was a training manager at Chili’s, the restaurant chain. “I went fishing out of Atlantic Highlands,” he said.
“Then it was time to figure out where my daughter would attend school,” he continued. “There aren’t day schools in Hunterdon County, and shleping her somewhere was not an option. We were working, so we couldn’t. We were priced out of Bergen County and Middlesex County, and also from Highland Park and Edison. My in-laws are in Flemington and my sister is in Teaneck — we moved to New Jersey to be close to family — but if we couldn’t live near them, we figured that we would move back to Providence, where we knew lots and lots of people.”
And he kept fishing.
Soon, Marcie and Jeff Ingber had another baby, their son, Yonah.
When the family moved back to New England, Mr. Ingber kept his job for a while, and then, in 2011, he moved over to work for Hebrew Senior Life, “which owns and operates seven eldercare facilities around Boston,” he said. “I went to work at NewBridge on the Charles. That location was brand new, and in order to live in the senior living community, you had to be worth three million bucks. It was pretty fancy. I spent 5 ½ years working with 300 sets of Jewish grandparents.
“My major responsibility was ensuring 100 percent customer satisfaction.” It was not an easy job, but he loved it. Among the challenges he faced, he said, was “that unlike in New York, where these kinds of places are owned and staffed predominantly by Jews, in New England they are staffed by people who know how to run them and might or might not be Jewish.
“I was the only Jewish person on the food and beverage staff.” It was another important step in his customer service education. “It was a great gig,” he said.
At just about the time he moved over to NewBridge, “I was fishing one morning, early in the spring,” he said. “It was early in the season, and we — my friends and I, you never go fishing alone — were doing some reconnaissance, to see if the fish were around yet. It was late May, early June, and we were out at Block Island, and we quickly caught six striped bass. The legal limit is two per person per day, so we put our fish in the cooler and came home, very excited. We got back to the dock, cleaned up the boat, and headed to the car, and my friend said that I had to take the fish.”
What to do with all that fish?
First, there was the logistical problem. “We twisted and bent the fish around, and somehow, finally, we made it fit into the cooler.
“And then I called my wife, and I said, ‘Post it on the local Jewish group online — it’s like Teaneck Shuls — and say that we have striped bass for sale, that we’ll sell it for $10 a pound. By the time I got to the house, she told me, ‘It’s all gone. Everybody wants it.’
“And then we came to realize that we have a community that will not buy fish in a fish store for religious reasons” — they don’t trust the kashrut — “and then there’s the progressive, healthy part of the community, who only shops at Whole Foods. When you combine the desire for freshness and the trust in kashrut — I thought maybe I could pay for my hobby. So, every time I went fishing that season, I posted everything I caught, and it all sold.
“I like eating fish, but the real truth is that I enjoy catching it more,” he added.
Why? Part of it is being out on the ocean. “The food and beverage business is very demanding,” he said — and that’s not even thinking about the 300 Jewish grandparents he had to please. He loves it, but he also loves a break from it. “One of the things about being on the ocean is that it has very calming and redeeming qualities about it,” he said. “Also, it doesn’t know your name. In the food and beverage business, and in the management business, everybody knows your name. And they all need you. All the time.
“So I just head for the ocean, where no one ever needs you.”
Mr. Ingber does not have his own boat. He sometimes catches fish for his business, all with rod and reel, but he buys much of the fish from a network of fishermen. He delivers the fish himself.
The business, like the fish, grew organically.
“We have been working hard building this business for the last six years,” Mr. Ingber said. “At first, we just sold the fish locally. Sometime during that first year, a Chabad rabbi moved onto my street — we had a few of them already — and he said that he gives a hechsher to a number of wholesale fish markets in the Boston area. ‘The captains come up every day with their fish,’ he said. ‘We could enter into a conversation with getting other types of fish from them, right off the boat, and put an official hechsher on the business, if you are interested in growing it.’”
Was he interested in growing it? “I do much better working for myself, but I was a little skeptical about taking on a new business when I had another source of income,” he said. “I hemmed and hawed, and then I decided that it couldn’t be a bad idea to have more offerings. It just can’t. So we made a business arrangement with him, and we expanded our offerings from just striped bass, fluke, black sea bass, and cod to include flounder, halibut, and tuna.
“They all swim in 18 to 180 feet of water, and you don’t have to go very far to be in water that deep,” he said.
He was happy. “I had then — and I still have — a recreational rod and reel license,” he said. “Not a commercial license. I can’t sell to a wholesaler. And there are guys who catch fish for a living. I catch and sell fish for a living.”
Soon, “we decided to expand our offerings outside Rhode Island to include Sharon, Mass.,” he said. “We called the business Kosher Catch.” It hadn’t had a name before then; it just was known vaguely as Jeff Ingber selling fish. When it got its name, “we got phone calls from people who wanted to know if it was a dating service,” he said.
“We were selling 50 pounds every two weeks, and it basically was paying for gas and for bait. It meant that I had a free hobby. It wasn’t any type of revenue stream.”
That changed when his mashgiach’s wife, “who happens to be a moderator at askchabad.org, got a question from someone in Morristown asking if anyone knew where she could get wild-caught fish. And she responded, ‘Yes, it just so happens that my husband is a mashgiach for a company that sells it.’”
The request, it turned out, was for salmon. Mr. Ingber quickly called fishermen in Alaska, learned that he could get absolutely fresh, just-out-of-the-water fish, and he made arrangements with them. Next, he told the woman in Morristown that he would have to be able to sell 50 pounds of fish in two stops — 100 pounds in all — to make the trip worth his while. “Chabad is very swift,” he said. “She called some friends in Crown Heights, and between Crown Heights and Morristown we delivered 105 pounds that first day. “It was salmon, flounder, striped bass, and cod, as far as I remember,” he said. After that he made deliveries every month. How could that work? “The food and beverage business is very flexible,” he said. “You work very hard, and you accrue a lot of days off. I would leave Rhode Island at 5 in the morning, make the deliveries in Crown Heights and Morristown, and then turn around and come home.”
Next, “a woman in Monsey, who is a cancer survivor and a body builder, is very health conscious, and eats a paleo diet, saw something about him online. She said, ‘Hey, I heard about your business. What would it take for you to come to Monsey?’ I said 50 pounds. And she ordered 50 pounds.”
And then, his daughter went to Maayanot for three years; she boarded in Teaneck. Word of mouth got him business in Teaneck; he delivered in Maayanot’s parking lot, and “I got to have dinner with my daughter every month,” he said.
Now, he makes 15 delivery stops every week.
Last year, Mr. Ingber left NewBridge to make Kosher Catch his full-time business.
“I do the deliveries myself,” he said. “My belief is that I will always do it until I can’t do it. First, you have to be able to see, feel, and touch your customers. This is a small-scale, private business.
“I am an ex-New Yorker, and I know that the mindset for a lot of my customers is that when they’re on their morning run, they want to be able to tug on their friend’s shoulder and say, ‘I’ve got a guy.’ Some people wake up in the morning with the desire to share information.
“That’s part of why the business is successful. It’s the product, but also the attention we give people. We return email as quickly as we can, and we deliver.”
He takes the fish to central locations on Thursdays; he doesn’t always go to Morristown any more, but he has added Flatbush and Crown Heights to his route.
“We make a three-pronged offer to our customer base,” he said. “The fish is fresh, it’s wild, and it’s kosher. And I firmly believe that my customers take it in that order. First, it’s fresh. It’s in the ocean today and on your plate tomorrow.
“Second, it’s wild caught. We give lectures on that. We don’t have evidence today that farm-raised fish is not good for you. But I can tell you that if we keep going at the rate we’re going, serious industrialized fishing will deplete the ocean of every fish that swims in it. When the Chinese figure out that they like tuna, there won’t be any tuna left in the ocean.
“Ninety-nine percent of Americans shop by convenience and with their wallets. They don’t shop consciously. I don’t either. I look at the circulars, see what’s on sale, and buy it, produce-wise. So when you go to the grocery store and see the fish case, and see that you can buy farmed Atlantic salmon for $7.99, that’s all fine and dandy, but it’s not the most healthy thing for you.
“It probably has color added. And the fish on the top in the fish farm eat the food that is given to them, but what do you think the fish on the bottom eat?”
One of the things he most detests is tilapia. “People eat tilapia, but we believe that tilapia is not food,” he said. “Tilapia is a protein, surrounded by skin, that shouldn’t be eaten by anyone.
“The tilapia we eat is a family member of the original St. Nile fish or St. Peter’s fish. And here’s the deal. Ninety-five percent of the tilapia sold in America is raised in other countries, and 90 percent of that comes from China. Here’s the problem. In China, it is legal to sell 30 different species of fish as tilapia, and it is legal to feed it dog food.
“So we try to tell people, ‘Don’t eat fish from Asia! And don’t buy tilapia!’
“I get email from people constantly asking if I sell tilapia, but tilapia is 100 percent of why I am in business — so people can stop eating it.”
About those Satmar chasidim on his boat — a Satmar rabbi called him to “do a little kashrut research on whether they would allow cod to be sold in any place they give a hechsher to. They said they wanted to get up to 100 cod, fresh, to be able to check them.
“I said that it’s legal to keep 10 cod per person, if you can catch them. I have a friend who owns a fishing fleet, and we can charter a boat; of course, you will be responsible for the bill.
“So on a rainy Wednesday morning in Gloucester, a van full of 50 Satmar, including Rabbi Teitelbaum, and 40 of my fishing friends got on a boat, and that fishing vessel became a fishing vessel and a research vessel.”
The chasidim cut open the fish and looked for parasites. “It was serious rabbinic experts from New York and hard-core New England fishermen, and everybody learned something about someone else that day,” Mr. Ingber said. “And the fishermen got to take all the fish home.”
What about the decision? “It should come as no shock that their public statement was that it was inconclusive,” he said. “But it is almost impossible to see cod sold in a hechshered fish store.
“I am not a rabbi, and I am not a posek,” he added. “But if you read Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s stance of fish, he says that you treat it the same way that you treat lettuce. You do your best to find anything that’s there, and what you don’t see and can’t find doesn’t harm you. The mashgiach says, ‘I look at the filet, and if I see a worm I take it off.’”
Mr. Ingber knows that there are some people who don’t like fish. Some of them, of course, just plain don’t like it and never will, but others, he believes, have had the idea of eating fish spoiled for them. “Someone in our lives ruined it for us,” he said. “Someone made salmon croquettes from a can, it tasted like iron and mercury, and the house stank of it for days.”
He thinks he can change that. When fish is fresh, “it is an amazing product,” he said. “People open our containers and say, ‘Oh God! It smells like the ocean.’”
Mr. Ingber delivers fish to Bergen County every month. The next one is scheduled for May 18, a week and a half before Shavuot. To learn more, go to www.koshercatch.net.