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All In The Kosher Family

By: Jewish Week Staff
for The Jewish Week

At a Bergen County glatt supermarket, students from a nearby school for the developmentally disabled gain vocational and life skills.

Grand and Essex Glatt Kosher Supermarket in Bergenfield, N.J., has all the luxuries of a modern gourmet market: beautifully prepared foods, fresh fish and meats, a bakery, sushi and a plentiful health and beauty section. But what customers comment on is the “Old World” feeling of the store — a place where the owners and employees go that extra mile to show their customers that they care. When it’s time for festive Jewish holidays like Chanukah and Purim, the owners of Grand and Essex turn the whole store into a place for celebration — last Purim featured clowns, music and treats for the little ones. Many customers remember that during Hurricane Sandy, Grand and Essex owners were providing meals for those without electricity, with no questions asked.

Among the store’s employees are people who have developmental disabilities — they are part of the store family. Giving people with disabilities the opportunity to work in the store is not part of a formal program or initiative — it’s simply part of the culture the owners have created, grounded in the Jewish value of menshlekeit, human decency.

In the store’s neighborhood is a group home for adults with disabilities and a number of these adults work in the store several hours each day, helping with all kinds of tasks. And Grand and Essex is also helping young people, who are in high school at one of the SINAI Schools, prepare for their transition to adulthood by getting work experience at the store.
The SINAI Schools organization is widely regarded as one of the country’s leading Jewish educational systems for children with learning or developmental disabilities whose needs cannot be met in a regular education setting. The specialized schools, which are housed within Jewish elementary and high schools, serve children with a wide range of disabilities, providing individualized programming, highly specialized services, in-house therapies and a 1:2 teacher-to-student ratio. 

The focus of the high school program is on functional academics — providing students with the skills they need to succeed as they move into adulthood, with an emphasis on vocational preparedness and life skills. Vocational training in real work environments like Grand and Essex help these students gain experience, build confidence and get the opportunity to try out different tasks.

“What makes this partnership unique is that Grand and Essex sought us out. Since its inception, Grand and Essex intuitively understood the mutual benefit of employing individuals with disabilities, so much so, that they reached out to us at SINAI in the hopes of being able to employ our students,” explains Esther Klavan, director of SINAI Shalem High School at Torah Academy of Bergen County. “What makes a job site most successful is a genuine interest on the part of the employer to recognize the abilities of our students, actual tasks that our students can complete in order to contribute to the success of the work place, and an overall feeling of being a valued member of a team. Grand & Essex hits all three of these points spot-on. In doing so, our students have learned the importance of time management, interpersonal skills, and problem solving on the job.

“These are life skills that they will carry with them for many years to come,” Klavan continues. “It is apparent that the way that our students are valued at Grand and Essex comes from the top down, so much so, that several employees came to one of our student’s graduation ceremony, mid-day, to support their co-worker not just in words, but in action. It continues to be a privilege to partner with Grand and Essex, as well as to shop there. Not just because of their amazing popcorn, but because they truly understand that every individual has abilities, and is most productive when utilizing those abilities to their fullest.”

Grand and Essex customers notice and appreciate the warm, inclusive environment that the owners and managers have created. One customer recently wrote, “I’ve seen the managers engrossed in conversations with those with disabilities and those without, with no difference in between the two, in terms of attentiveness and caring. The employers of this store are sincere, kind, and genuine and I can think of no business more deserving for the Ruderman Best in Business award…”.