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New York synagogue schmeared for taking lox off the menu because of overfishing

·3 min read

The return of communal Saturday lunches at B’nai Jeshurun, an historic synagogue in New York City, was supposed to be a cheerful moment after years of the pandemic spent celebrating the weekly Shabbat holiday apart.

Rabbi Shuli Passow announced the return of Community Kiddush last week, along with a few changes to the event, like better seating for families and a less crowded buffet. Oh, and one slight change to that buffet: “Lox will be eliminated from the menu so we can do our part to reduce the environmental impact of pollution and overfishing.”

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Though Passow acknowledged some would find it an “heretical move,” she could not have been prepared for the kvetching that ensued. The lack of lox quickly made news in New York Jewish Week, the Forward, and the local West Side Rag, where one representative commenter called the decision “sanctimonious.” Many questioned the link between lox and overfishing.

In the process, an otherwise very-local story revealed a lot how people think through complicated moral choices about food today.

No food is more closely linked to the American Jewish experience than lox

The term “lox,” which has been around for eight millennia, is today used loosely to mean a variety of different cured salmons. Traditionally it was cured with salt, a process that has already gone out of style amid a broader decline in salty foods. Most Jews actually eat smoked salmon. In the 1950s, hundreds of “appetizing” shops cropped up in New York City selling lox and other cold accompaniments for bagels.

Eating fish is a more complex affair these days, owing to concerns over climate change and the sustainability of the world’s food supply. Many species of salmon are endangered due to overfishing, logging, and electrical dams. Environmentalists often argue against eating fish at all.

B’nai Jeshurun, the second synagogue built in New York City, was founded in 1825 by young German- and Polish-American Jews who preferred “less formal worship with time set aside for explanations and instruction, without a permanent leader, and with no distinctions made among the members.” The congregation has maintained that progressive tradition in its current home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, one of the most liberal neighborhoods of New York.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that B’nai Jeshurun would be among the first synagogues to question the sanctity of lox. “What we eat and how we eat it should intentionally express our values,” Passow wrote in her original missive about the new Saturday lunches, sounding as much like an ag-tech entrepreneur as a religious leader.

What makes fish farming ethical?

Expressing values is as strong a Jewish tradition as bagels and lox, and congregants made their feelings known, forcing the synagogue to issue a follow-up statement titled, “Statement on lox at community Kiddush.”

Screenshot of "Statement on lox at community Kiddush"
Screenshot of "Statement on lox at community Kiddush"

B’nai Jeshurun did not bring back the synagogue-provided lox, but clarified the rules and changed its reasoning, citing higher costs and a desire to provide more vegetarian options at communal meals. “We inaccurately stated that consuming lox contributes to the overfishing of salmon,” read the statement. “Most lox is, in fact, made from farmed Atlantic salmon.”

There was no citation for that claim, and the synagogue didn’t respond to an email seeking one. But the majority of all salmon worldwide is farmed, according to an industry group, so it stands to reason that most salmon turned into lox is farmed, too. You can hear a hundred rabbis asking in unison, what makes fish farming ethical? It still consumes resources and contributes to climate change. “Vegetarianism is my religion,” wrote the Polish-American writer Isaac Bashevis Singer, who wasn’t devout in most other respects.

Having clearly touched the third rail of Jewish food politics, the synagogue chose to back away from its salmon shonda slowly and Solomonically: “Some felt that we implied that eating lox is immoral or that [B’nai Jeshurun] is boycotting lox or lox providers,” the statement continued. “This could not be farther from the truth. Moreover, should anyone sponsoring Kiddush wish to include lox in the menu, they are welcome to do so.”