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You are what you eat

Modern Orthodox rabbi in Caldwell starts — and cooks for — vegan shul

Rabbi Donn Gross
Rabbi Donn Gross

You will not find gefilte fish or cholent at the kiddush after Shabbat morning services at Congregation Bet Dovid in Caldwell. There’s no chopped egg on crackers. No herring in cream.

Here, every dish derives from plants, not animals. The menu varies, but some choices might include chickpea cauliflower burgers, quinoa salad, hummus, cold cucumber soup, green salad with vinegar-herb dressing, and multigrain bread. The desserts might be carrot cake with cashew “cream” icing and “pink cake” — a raw chocolate-raspberry confection.

All this, and more, is prepared by the synagogue’s rabbi, Donn Gross, in his apartment — which doubles as the shul.

In addition to leading a vegan congregation, Rabbi Gross is the kashrut supervisor for several vegan restaurants and is the proprietor of a vegan catering service, Meals to Heal.

Rabbi Gross, 60, founded the five-year-old modern Orthodox synagogue at the unexpected convergence of his paths to a plant-based diet and to the rabbinate. He embarked on both paths relatively late in life.

He explained that when he married a vegetarian in 1990, he went along for the meat-free ride while keeping dairy, eggs, and fish in his diet. In 2001, the couple moved to Caldwell to be near her parents.

But in 2008, his life started unraveling.

“My business crashed, my marriage crashed, and I lost my brother David to cancer,” Rabbi Gross said. “But that is when my study of the impact of food on health began. When the seed totally dissolved in the ground, that is when I started to flower.”

This Israeli couscous plate with veggies is by by Meals to Heal Gourmet Vegan Catering.

Donn Gross grew up on Staten Island and was educated in Jewish schools. He spent four years in intensive yeshiva studies in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, and finished college at Yeshiva University.

He worked in computers and as a cantor, Torah reader, and Hebrew school teacher in various communities. Because Caldwell didn’t have an Orthodox synagogue, he walked to the Chabad of West Orange every Shabbat for more than a decade and read the Torah for the congregation.

“Seven years ago, I started studying to be a rabbi,” he said. “I never saw myself as being a rabbi, but people always thought that I was, or that I should be. Heaven has methods of contacting you. If you keep hearing the same message from people you don’t expect it from, you should listen.”

It took him two years to complete ordination through a yeshiva in Lakewood. But the “ultra” bent of some of the educational institutions he attended did not define him, and finding a pulpit that fit was challenging.

“I was a little too liberal for Orthodox shuls and a little too frum for Conservative shuls that I tried out for, so I made my own shul, to build a modern Orthodox enclave in Caldwell,” Rabbi Gross said.

The advantage of creating your own shul is that you get to cook it up according to your own recipe. Rabbi Gross concocted a stew combining his love of Chabad-style davening and outreach with his belief that the realities of factory farming violate Jewish laws and values.

Congregation Bet Dovid is, therefore, “a spiritual playground where we believe a healthy spiritual life needs to be integrated with a healthy physical life. Having this perfect integration of spiritual and physical health is what we promote.”

These are falafel balls with salad, also by Meals to Heal Gourmet Vegan Catering.

On a spiritual level, this means providing what he calls “hooks and handles” to give worshipers a better grasp on the traditional liturgy.

“Most of our congregants don’t have a strong Jewish background,” he said. “I teach them to focus on how to articulate the Hebrew properly. We choose a word to meditate on, even shout out a particular word; something that gives people an ‘in’ to penetrate the text.” Instead of a long sermon, he punctuates the Torah reading with short insights.

Over the last five years, Rabbi Gross feels he and his flock “have created such a beautiful and dynamic environment. Unfortunately, corona has put us on hold. But until then, we had Shabbat services once or twice a month followed by a kiddush, in addition to learning sessions and Friday night dinners.”

Those dinners led to a suggestion to begin a catering business. Meals to Heal Gourmet Vegan Catering opened about a year ago. (To find the site, google “gourmet vegan catering” “meals to heal” “donn gross.”)

“I thought I would do weddings and bar mitzvahs, but then a friend asked, ‘Hey, could you deliver meals on a daily basis?’” Rabbi Gross said. “So we offer a daily meal plan — lunch and dinner Monday through Thursday — for only $99. I’ve tried to make it affordable.”

Shabbat packages consist of a soup, main dish, salad, side dishes, and dessert.

Rabbi Gross’s menu, which includes gluten-free choices, offers options such as four-lentil soup, gazpacho, chickpea curry with vegetable pakora, chickpea “tuna,” mujaddara, lasagna, organic pasta and “meatballs,” vegetable rice, spiced cauliflower Buffalo wings, and mushroom pancakes.

Meals to Heal Gourmet Vegan Catering assembled this power bowl.

“There are always some favorite items which reappear, but I try to push my limits and feature a few new recipes to keep things interesting and use this as an opportunity for people to see and taste beautiful and delicious plant-based food,” he said.

“Baruch Hashem, in the years since my life crashed, I have gotten gifts from heaven that I never saw coming. One is the ability to cook food like this.”

He explained that the death of his brother David — after whom the synagogue is named — sent him in search of information about an anti-cancer diet. Evidence on the protective and healing effects of plants was then starting to surface on the internet, and what he found made a profound impact.

“I went through the process of learning more, and as the data started growing, I could not get enough of it,” he said. In 2012, he completed his transition from vegetarian to vegan.

Some Meals to Heal customers told him that after a few months of a plant-based diet, their diabetes disappeared or they were no longer considered pre-diabetic, or their cholesterol plunged to normal levels.

“These are wonderful benefits that people get,” Rabbi Gross said. “The bottom line is I’m here to help people. I’m not going to force anyone to like something they don’t care for, but there are very errant ideas out there about what leads to health. So many people in the Jewish community are obese or diabetic, and it doesn’t have to be this way. There is so much data and it’s as clear as day that what you eat affects every aspect of health.”

His investigations also led him to Rabbi Asa Keisar, an Israeli scholar who has devoted the past 10 years to educating religious Jews about the halachic violations in today’s slaughterhouses, chicken coops, and dairy farms. Based on biblical, talmudic, and contemporary

sources, Rabbi Keisar wrote a 60-page booklet on Judaism and veganism distributed for free in synagogues and yeshivas to make the case that veganism, or at least vegetarianism, should be the ideal diet for Torah-observant Jews.

Rabbi Donn Gross took this picture of his vegan kiddush spread before Shabbat last year, as Purim neared.

Rabbi Gross recently translated Rabbi Keisar’s book into English and created a few short YouTube videos explaining some of its content.

“If anyone knows the truth of the adage ‘you are what you eat,’ it’s Jews,” he said. “Kosher food is all about positive energy. A lion isn’t kosher because we don’t want to take on its aggressive nature.”

Animals designated as kosher in Jewish law, he continues, impart negative energy to our food when they are raised and slaughtered under the cruel conditions prevalent in large-scale factory farms today. “So much information is available today; the truth has been revealed about the production of animal-based foods,” he said. “If you are truly committed to kosher food, vegan is the only kosher food for you.”

Congregation Bet Dovid may be one of a kind for its full commitment to veganism.

Since 2017, the Shamayim: Jewish Animal Advocacy organization has run an annual Synagogue Vegan Challenge that provides training, education, and a $2,500 grant from VegFund for Jewish communities to incorporate monthly vegan programming for a year. The 2020-2021 cohort includes seven synagogues, up from five in previous years.

The Jewish Veg website provides a list of rabbis (www.jewishveg.org/veg-rabbis) in Israel and North America who identify as vegetarian or vegan, or advocate eating less meat. Many rabbis on that list are from northern New Jersey or Rockland County. They include Rabbi Paula Mack Drill of the Orangetown Jewish Center in Orangeburg, Rabbi Beth Kramer-Mazer of Temple Sinai in Tenafly, Rabbi Paul Kurland of the Nanuet Jewish Center in New City, Rabbi Joel Pitcowsky of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, Rabbi Barry Schwartz from Leonia’s Congregation Adas Emuno, Rabbi Deb Smith of Havurah Or Ha-Lev in Mount Arlington, and Eric Yoffie of Westfield, president emeritus of the Union of Reform Judaism.

For more information about Bet Dovid, email Rabbi Gross at rabbidonngross@gmail.com.

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