Saskatoon Jewish community scrambles for Passover supplies

·5 min read
Food is an integral component of Passover celebrations. A traditional seder plate contains symbolic items like bitter herbs, charoset, parsley, an egg, a lamb shank and matzo. (Edsel Little/flickr cc - image credit)
Food is an integral component of Passover celebrations. A traditional seder plate contains symbolic items like bitter herbs, charoset, parsley, an egg, a lamb shank and matzo. (Edsel Little/flickr cc - image credit)

Passover, one of the most important holidays in the Jewish calendar, begins this Saturday at sundown. But this year, Jewish families in Saskatoon have not been able to find their holiday food at the grocery store.

Malvina Rapko has lived in Saskatoon nearly all her life and like she does every year, she was waiting for the email from Save-on-Foods to tell her that the matzo, gefilte fish and other Passover staples had arrived. But on Tuesday, she was told nothing would be coming this year.

"I was really sad and infuriated, because this is extremely important to Jewish people," she said. "Passover is a very, very important holiday and it requires us to eat very specific food."

Rabbi Raphael Kats stands outside his home in Saskatoon  with a box of matzah, which is unleavened bread traditionally had during Passover in April 2020.
Rabbi Raphael Kats stands outside his home in Saskatoon with a box of matzah, which is unleavened bread traditionally had during Passover in April 2020. (Julia Peterson/for CBC News)

Saskatoon Chabad Rabbi Raphael Kats said for months he's been in conversation with Save-on-Foods.

"We've been working with Save-on-Foods for the last two and a half months to make sure that we had Passover supplies, Passover food, matzo, matzo meal, all the ethnic foods that are so required by the Jewish community for the holiday of Passover," he said.

Kats said an order was placed by the manager. Then, he discovered that someone at the head office had cancelled the order.

"So we placed another order," he said. "And finally, this past Tuesday, they let me know that in fact it was not going to be here."

Matzo, an unleavened bread traditionally eaten at Passover, was not available in Saskatoon grocery stores this year.
Matzo, an unleavened bread traditionally eaten at Passover, was not available in Saskatoon grocery stores this year.(Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

A representative from Save-on-Foods was not immediately available for comment. Rapko says this is the first time anyone she knows can remember not being able to buy food for Passover in Saskatoon.

"My mom was just saying, in 40 years, this has never happened," she said. "And I've had a chance to talk to some people who've been here even longer. I've spoken to some people who are in their eighties and nineties and they were so devastated."

National effort to deliver Passover food 'just snowballed'

With days left before Passover, local Jewish community leaders sprung into action.

"I called in the troops," said Kats. "I called my friends in Calgary, who put me in touch with a manager at Sobeys who was willing to ship us 150 pounds of matzo. I sent them shipping labels and it was here on Thursday."

Rapko is a local supervisor for BBYO, a Jewish teen movement. She mentioned the situation at a cross-Canada chapter meeting on Wednesday "and from there, it just snowballed."

"By that evening, Toronto teenagers had gone shopping and sent three big boxes full of food, which arrived Thursday morning," she said. "And it has been this domino effect."

Malvina Rapko sits with some of the Passover products she has received from Jewish youth groups in Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver in the last week.
Malvina Rapko sits with some of the Passover products she has received from Jewish youth groups in Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver in the last week.(Submitted by Malvina Rapko)

"As soon as they finished, they sent an updated list and then Winnipeg took over and the Winnipeg teens went out and just shopped like crazy, and they sent a huge package that's supposed to arrive today. And then they were done and, boom, Vancouver went for it and they did the same thing."

Since the first packages arrived, Rapko has been distributing the matzo, chicken stock, citrus jellies, potato starch and other holiday items to her Jewish neighbours from a table on her front porch or taking them to anyone who can't come to her.

Kats says people have been ringing his doorbell non-stop ever since they found out he had matzo, as well.

"People have been coming here literally from all over the Jewish community in Saskatoon — people that I didn't even know — who were relying on the kosher section at Save-on-Foods," he said.

Traditional food for Passover was sent to Saksatoon from across Canada. Here a Seder dinner is shown from 2018.
Traditional food for Passover was sent to Saksatoon from across Canada. Here a Seder dinner is shown from 2018. ()

For Lauren Kronick, who is celebrating their second Passover in Saskatoon, this intense cooperative effort to support the city's Jewish community has been a meaningful way to ring in the holiday.

"It's so nice to see people in the community, people I haven't even met yet, just be like 'Oh, you need something? Here's what I've got,'" they said. "It's just really sweet [and] I feel very cared for."

'Just because we're a small community, that doesn't mean we should be ignored'

After scrambling to make sure Jewish families in Saskatoon would have the food they need to celebrate the holiday, Kats hopes the major grocery store chains that serve the city can make things a little easier next year.

"We feel really forgotten about," he said. "There are many ethnic communities, many religious communities in Saskatoon and somehow or another, everybody is taken care of. And when it comes to their holidays, their food is available in the supermarket."

Rapko wants her local stores to understand that there is a need for these products and they will not go to waste.

"We are willing to purchase these items and we are also willing to help them know what items to bring that will sell," she said. "We are so grateful and supportive of the grocery stores that can do this for us that we will even purchase extra items just to say thank you."

"I just want the grocery stores to understand that just because we're a small community, that doesn't mean we should be ignored."