by Jeff Fleischer(World Jewish Digest, April 2007)
Keeping kosher is an important part of many Jews’ lives and, increasingly, their homes are reflecting that. Especially in Orthodox communities, there’s a market for houses and condos specifically designed with a religious lifestyle in mind.
Americans in general have embraced home remodeling in the past few years, spending more than $200 billion in 2001 and topping that level consistently since. The trend has made more options available for those looking to custom-tailor their home, and kosher homes are no exception.
“As far as a trend, (the increase in kosher kitchens) is because kosher appliances have become more available,” says Lori Chazan of Lori Chazan Custom Designs in Skokie, Ill., who has designed kosher kitchens for more than 15 years and says they’ve become the majority of her workload in the past 10. “In terms of entertaining, what the rest of the world does for Thanksgiving, an Orthodox family will do twice a week. So people, over the years, have been gearing their homes more toward accommodating their needs.”
People interested in making their homes kosher-convenient have two main options. Whether building a new home or modifying an existing one, they can work with a custom designer to tailor the home to their needs. When possible, it’s best to use someone with previous experience working with kosher homes or familiar with Jewish law. And it’s a good idea to view samples of his or her previous work to make sure the aesthetics are the right fit.
A room with a view
The first place to start kashering a home is, of course, the kitchen. And buyers have a lot of options.
When it comes to refrigerators, some people opt for two entirely separate units, while others will divide the refrigerator internally between meat and milk products. Either way, they can take advantage of a unit with a Sabbath mode. A number of major appliance manufacturers—such as Sub- Zero and KitchenAid—offer a Sabbathmode feature on several units in their general product lines.
“The Shabbat refrigerators, when you open the door, the light doesn’t come on and the motor doesn’t come on,” explains George Saadin of Landmark West Enterprise, which has built four kosher condo projects in the Los Angeles area and is now working on another in Israel. “Usually, when you open the door of a refrigerator, as soon as it gets a little warm, the motor starts running. But in this case, the motor does not run, so that allows any Orthodox person to open a refrigerator without having any concern about activating any kind of light or motor.”
Sabbath mode—which doubles as an appropriate option for most Jewish holidays—is also available for ovens. Because Shabbat-keepers cannot turn their appliances on or off, these ovens allow customers to adjust their settings in advance.
“For the oven, it’s also a question of whether or not there’s an override,” says Chazan, who works with new construction as well as remodels and additions. “So if the oven’s left on, it doesn’t shut itself off after a certain amount of time. Because we will leave our ovens on for a 24- to 48-hour period for Shabbat. There’s also an override so that the temperature can be adjusted without changing the digital controls on some of the appliances.”
Chazan says clients will request anywhere from two to four ovens, with the latter option allowing one devoted to meat, one to dairy, one to neutral food (pareve)—and one kept separate for Passover to avoid the rituals involved in kashering appliances for the holiday.
“There are many people who have two separate kitchens, where the second is used for Passover and not used the rest of the year,” says Rabbi Sholem Fishbane, Kashrut administrator for the Chicago Rabbinical Council. “The rules for Passover can be so complex and so different than regular kosher that it’s sometimes easier just to keep a separate kitchen.”
Depending on customers’ needs, kosher kitchens can also include multiple microwaves or dishwashers. Another dishwasher option is choosing a unit with dual drawers, with the separate drawers assigned to either meat or diary (but with only one category of dishes washed at a time and at least 24 hours between cycles).
Likewise, kitchen sinks, countertops and cabinets can be multiplied to keep different kinds of food separate. Countertops and sinks made of stainless steel, granite or marble can be kashered for everyday use after 24 hours by cleansing them repeatedly with boiling water (though Rabbi Fishbane stresses items should not be kashered back and forth between meat and dairy, and Passover is another matter). Other materials, such as porcelain, can’t be easily kashered because they absorb the flavor of the food—making them far less ideal for a kosher kitchen.
Saadin says customers should understand that making a kitchen kosher will often increase the project’s cost by 8-10 percent because of the additional materials, the extra labor required to install them and the logistical requirements of multiple appliances.
“There’s a lot you have to do at the pre-planning stage,” Saadin says. “If you have two different dishwashers for kosher reasons, you also have to have different piping that goes to each one. That adds to the cost and makes it much more involved to build.”
Evidently, however, the effort is worth it. “The biggest advantage I’ve found is that now I can trust anyone in my kitchen without anything being mixed up,” says Kreindel Pinkus of Chicago, who remodeled her home of 21 years with a new kosher kitchen about four years ago. “We can work together easily, with several people working in the same kitchen simultaneously, each with their own assigned counter and sink.”
While kitchens are the most obvious rooms associated with kashering a home, there are other rooms that can also be modified to make religious practice easier. That’s particularly true when it comes to Sabbath observance.
Lights throughout a home can be set up with timers, allowing homeowners to avoid leaving the lights on throughout Shabbat. Such timers can automatically adjust for daylight savings time and can be programmed to light at different times throughout the weekend.
“In our condos we put timer lights in the living room, dining room, bathroom and common areas,” Saadin says. “Also, the electric combination locks at the entry to the units are on timers, where they can be set manually before sundown on Friday.”
Some kosher buildings even include a Shabbat elevator that stops at every floor, so residents can move between levels without climbing stairs or having to press a button. While expensive, a Shabbat elevator is also an alternative for custom-built homes.
“It can be challenging to choose between so many options,” says Chazan, who estimates she’s worked on more than 1,000 kosher homes from Wyoming to Toronto to Israel. “Not every set of people has the same requirements. Different people have different levels of observance, and the most important thing is matching the interior to the individual client’s needs. It’s a matter of understanding how they live and really making sure to work with it.”
No matter which features a homeowner wants, it’s important to determine which options best mesh with their own interpretation of kosher requirements and to consult their rabbi or local synagogue before proceeding.
In a few cities, customers can also choose to live in condos or planned homes developed with a kosher lifestyle in mind. These developments are a fairly new phenomenon, but locations do exist in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, South Florida and Arizona, all built near synagogues in existing Orthodox communities. Prices for such units can range from mid-six figures to a few million dollars, depending on the city.
“When we did our first project, as far as I know, it was the first time anyone here made an attempt to provide a kosher condo,” says Saadin of Los Angeles. “Now there’s more of a demand. And as we did these projects, we kept learning more and improving our ideas because of feedback from local shuls and people about what does and doesn’t work. And the market keeps growing as more people find out about their options.”