By the cash registers, an inflatable bear greets shoppers, his head nearly touching the ceiling, his arms cradling a blue dreidel. Kids stare wide-eyed at shelves full of sparkly Hanukkah toys and décor, while women wearing long skirts and men in yarmulkes fill their carts with the necessities of the holiday.
For them, Pikesville’s Seven Mile Market, one of the nation’s largest kosher grocery stores, is more than a place to shop. Instead, says customer Rabbi Ariel Sadwin, “It’s a blessing.”
The Baltimore metro area is home to one of the largest Orthodox Jewish communities in the nation — and it is growing, says Yehuda Neuberger of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. His group led a study last year that shows Orthodox Jews make up more than 20% of the local Jewish population, or well over 20,000 people.
Most live in Pikesville and its environs, walking distance to local synagogues and Seven Mile Market. Its roots go back decades in Baltimore, says vice president Moshe Boehm. After so much time, “We do not necessarily view it as a supermarket as much as we view it as an institution.”
In 1958, Boehm’s grandparents, Holocaust survivors named Jack and Rose, opened Jack’s Grocery in Lower Park Heights. In 1988, their son opened the first Seven Mile Market on Seven Mile Lane in Pikesville. In 2010, the store moved to a former Safeway on Reisterstown Road.
Here, modern gadgets assist in the observance of rules that are several thousand years old. A light box for sale in the produce aisle can help home cooks inspect their lettuce for bugs. (The Torah forbids eating insects.) Students from nearby yeshivas can pick up ready-made foods like cholent, a thick meat-and-potato stew synonymous with lunch during the Sabbath, or Shabbos in Yiddish. During that time, observers must abstain from preparing food — home cooks often set the stew in a crockpot on Friday afternoons to dish out the following day.
“The world of kosher is complicated,” says Sadwin, an advocate for the Orthodox community. “It’s very much simplified when you have a store like Seven Mile Market.”
While most of the market’s customers are Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox, Boehm is quick to say that Seven Mile caters to Jews across the spectrum. In the lead-up to Passover and Rosh Hashana, customers can come from as far as Virginia, filling multiple carts with kosher products.
“There was a girl who came every year with a U-Haul to shop for seven or eight families,” Boehm recalls.
Some customers come three times a week; others just a few times a year, during the High Holy Days or when families come to visit.
While Hanukkah, which begins Sunday night, isn’t considered a major holiday within Judaism, it is a big day for food. Observers eat potato latkes or doughnuts deep-fried in oil, which hark back to the miracle of oil that burned for eight days at the ancient temple.
During a recent visit to Seven Mile Market, Kenyatta Macon-Moon of Reservoir Hill was walking past the meat department with a kosher turkey in her cart. Macon-Moon, who is not Jewish, was preparing to host her Muslim brother and sister-in-law, who had requested a kosher turkey out of respect to their faith. (Some observant Muslims eat kosher meats when halal alternatives aren’t available.) “We are a diverse group,” she said. “We all try to support one another.”
But the store isn’t for everyone.
“I’m not a fan,” says Jeremy Diamond, author of “Tastemakers: The Legacy of Jewish Entrepreneurs in the Mid-Atlantic Grocery Industry.” Diamond says he’s put off by the store’s outdated furnishings — its walls still bear the “S” insignia of the Safeway that was there before it. “I try very hard not to go in there.”
Responding to that criticism, Boehm said his business is focused on giving back to the surrounding Jewish community — donating to schools and organizations — rather than keeping up appearances.
Diamond describes himself as a modern Orthodox Jew; he keeps kosher and observes the Sabbath, but wears present-day clothing. For him, nearby kosher supermarket Market Maven provides a better shopping experience. With its bright lights, loud music and newer design, the store calls to mind a contemporary Israeli supermarket, compact and well-stocked. “You feel good shopping there.”
At the same time, Diamond sees a benefit in the very fact that the Pikesville area can support two full-size kosher supermarkets.
“In the 1960s and ‘70s, I think one kosher supermarket probably wouldn’t last,” he said. “Not every city has that. I think they’re both assets to the community.”’
The competition between stores, Diamond says, also helps drive down prices. Kosher products tend to be more expensive — sometimes much pricier — than non-kosher counterparts.
The area’s kosher landscape has changed drastically since the Boehms first arrived in Baltimore. Observant Jews can now order acai bowls at Playa Bowls in Quarry Lake, or snag kosher doughnuts at the nearby Dunkin.’
At Seven Mile, shoppers can buy everything from traditional gefilte fish to sushi — an increasingly popular choice in kosher communities, says Rabbi Sholom Tendler, who oversees the kosher certification at Seven Mile Market and other businesses.
“The Jewish culinary world has gotten more sophisticated over time,” Tendler says. He works for a Baltimore-based company called Star-K, which has grown into a global operation since its foundation in the 1970s.
Worldwide, the kosher food industry has grown into a billion-dollar market, with sales expected to reach $25.6 billion by 2026, according to a report from Allied Market Research.
Some non-Jewish consumers gravitate toward kosher products, which they see as having had an additional layer of oversight. “People look at it as a symbol of integrity,” Tendler said. Many mistakenly think of kosher products as being healthier. That’s not always the case, he says, pointing to the large number of kosher-certified candies and potato chips.
Despite the growth in kosher offerings in Baltimore and beyond, many shoppers, particularly the ultra-Orthodox, still prefer to go to Seven Mile Market, where they can trust that everything they’re buying is really kosher. They also go to support a member of their own religious community, and to run into friends and relatives.
Customer Lea Feldman said she has been coming to Seven Mile Market ever since moving to Baltimore from Jerusalem with her husband, the prominent religious scholar Rabbi Aharon Feldman. She praised the store’s wide variety of kosher products and the “wonderful people” who run it.
During the pre-Sabbath rush of Thursday evening, Rabbi Ariel Sadwin can always count on running into friends and relatives at Seven Mile Market. “My wife doesn’t send me to Seven Mile Market because I’ll be there for an hour,” he said.
Like other businesses in Pikesville’s Orthodox community, Seven Mile Market closes Friday afternoons as its owners and shoppers alike prepare for the pause of life that comes with the Sabbath.
During that time, everything from lighting a fire to driving a car to handling money is off-limits for those who observe.
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“At the foundation of our family lives is having that time off,” Tendler says, “where you’re totally disconnected from the outside world.”