The Kosher Trader Joe’s Facebook Group is much more than just a place to discover new products or ask questions, and it’s also far from new: the group has been active, and growing, for more than seven years. With almost 60,000 followers, it has solidified itself as the largest kosher Facebook food group and one that includes a broader segment of Jews than many other kosher food-focused Facebook groups, in part, because of that universal love of Trader Joe’s.
Shelley Serber, a creative director from West Hempstead, Long Island, created the group in 2015 after already having joined a number of other Jewish food-focused Facebook groups. Serber then added fellow Long Islander, mom, and part-time physician assistant Chanie Tilis and Sylvia Fallas, a private chef and cooking teacher from Brooklyn, to be group moderators.
As with all Facebook groups, there is the occasional drama in the comments section, but Kosher Trader Joes is unique in the online kosher community as it does not allow hechsher talk — arguments about the legitimacy of the different kosher certification on products. “When it comes to kosher products,” says Trader Joe’s public relations manager Nakia Rohde, “…we offer clear, easy to understand labeling, matching or exceeding those set by all pertinent regulatory agencies.” However, the Jewish practice of Kashrut can vary based on level of observance, creating the challenging task for kosher customers of deciphering different hechsher symbols.
Serber has always found no hechsher talk a necessary rule: “it’s not just a Glatt Kosher orthodox community group, we have people from all walks of life.” From what Fallas speculates, the majority of members hail from New York, with large communities in Southern California and Florida as well. And while the group tends to attract a more orthodox crowd, there is still denominational diversity.
Kosher Trader Joe’s has such a broad following, possibly because of just how popular the actual store is within Jewish communities. Not including beverages, aprons, or horticulture, the TJ’s website lists 140 current kosher food items, out of a total of 349. “I do think they go out of their way,” says Tilis, who specifically appreciates the holiday decorations her Westbury TJ’s puts out: displays with latkes, chocolate coins and applesauce for Hanukkah, or apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah.
Around 40 miles away from the Westbury store, the group has made yet another real life impact on its members. After joining Kosher Trader Joe’s through a friend in January, 2020, Liora Chaya, a 29-year-old teacher who lives in a more religiously observant town in New Jersey, was looking for part time work. “I was like, where would I actually enjoy spending my time?” says Chaya. “The two places that came to mind were Target and Trader Joes.” Since working there for almost a year, some of her customers have recognized her in the store from her Facebook posts. Occasionally, Chaya also attempts to answer private messages from group members with questions about shortages of specific kosher products.
On occasion the moderators will let slip a non-Trader-Joe’s related post in the name of community. In July of 2019, a woman posted a picture to check if her dress would be appropriate enough to wear to a Chabad house for Shabbat, explaining that this was the only place she felt she could turn to for questions on Jewish practice. The comments filled quickly with support and affirmations. “That’s one of the most memorable posts that has nothing to do with Trader Joe’s, but just the community,” says Serber. After her dinner, the woman posted an update thanking everyone and even mentioning that she met a possible date at the Chabad house, leading to a new outpour of comments. ”I think people were planning a wedding,” Serber recalls.
In Jewish communities around the country, TJ’s serves a practical, cost-effective, and inclusive purpose. “For a lot of people,” Serber says, “Trader Joe’s is their kosher supermarket because they don’t live in one of the major Jewish communities in the States.” Even within major Jewish communities, Chaya explains that she often sees more religiously observant Jewish shoppers shocked at the register by how cheap their total is in comparison with other supermarkets stocked with kosher products.
However, at the end of the day “it’s not about the rice cauliflower or the Everything but the Bagel Seasoning,” Serber says. She sees the group as emulating the welcoming and creative culture of TJ’s itself. Kosher Trader Joes creates an online community for those trying to maintain a kosher lifestyle around the country, in whatever way is meaningful to them.