A former intern’s crusade to bring kosher food back to the Senate bore fruit Monday with the beginning of a trial run at the Dirksen Senate Office Building’s cafeteria.
Prepackaged sandwiches and salads “Made with Love” from Kosher caterer Bubbie’s Gourmet were stacked alongside standard fare. Options included a “Tuscan salad” of chickpeas, bow tie pasta and green beans, along with a balsamic chicken sandwich on flatbread.
If all goes well, selections from Bubbie’s Gourmet could become fixtures of dining services offered all across the Senate side of the Capitol.
David Poltorak, an Orthodox Jew and recent Georgetown law school graduate who was then interning for freshman Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), began his quest for kosher last autumn.
On his first day, he recalled going downstairs to one of the several cafeterias and carry-outs scattered throughout Senate office buildings.
“Where’s the kosher food?” he asked.
The answer: There was none. Nowhere on the Capitol campus could observant Jews find a premade meal.
Poltorak was told by Restaurant Associates, the private company that runs the Senate food services, that there was no kosher food because there was no demand.
“I couldn’t believe there was no demand,” Poltorak said. “My first day here, I had, like, 10 kosher friends here working in Congress as staffers, and they said they wanted kosher food but had just never bothered to ask … they brought food from home or subsided on potato chips or peanuts.”
Poltorak got by on peanuts, Diet Cokes and Mike and Ike candy during the course of his internship. “It’s not my style,” he said, to bring his lunch from home to avoid a kosher junk food diet.
Sean Burstyn, a George Washington University international affairs student who also maintains a kosher diet, shared Poltorak’s experience.
Bouncing around the Capitol during his interning track, lending his services to Sen. Joe Lieberman (I- Conn.) and Reps. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Burstyn has learned the hard way that keeping kosher while working in Congress “tends to be an every-man-for-himself matter.”
When he forgets to bring food from home, the day’s diet becomes relegated to fresh fruit plucked from the cafeteria produce bins or emergency sustenance fished from scattered vending machines.
So Poltorak went to work lobbying the powers that be to provide kosher meals — and found allies on Lee’s staff.
“The Senator is a Mormon, and I think most of the staff is Mormon as well. That actually proved to be … a great thing because there was a lot of understanding about religious things, especially dietary restrictions,” Poltorak said. Observant Mormons generally avoid caffeine, among other vices (such as tobacco) not readily available in Senate dining areas.
Senior staff members helped move Poltorak’s cause up the administrative pipeline, where kosher food had to get a green light from the Senate Rules and Administration Committee before Restaurant Associates could pursue a contract with a caterer.
Along the way, Poltorak learned that kosher food had, at one time, been served in Capitol Hill cafeterias. But the meals came frozen, an inconvenience for the many Hill staffers on the move. Poltorak also heard the meals left something to be desired in terms of taste. They were ultimately taken out of rotation and never replaced.
Poltorak knew from experience that there was better food out there, fresh food prepared daily by local kosher caterers that could be shipped to any location in the Washington, D.C., area. He was particularly enthusiastic about Silver Spring, Md.-based Wrap2Go, run by a friend, which provides the kosher sandwiches, salads and desserts Poltorak enjoyed while he was a student at Georgetown.
Restaurant Associates ultimately chose Bubbie’s Gourmet to stock the Dirksen cafeteria’s shelves. Restaurant Associates Regional Director Mary Bowman said the contract is day-to-day and that she will be tracking sales weekly to determine the next course of action.
“As with anything, we’ll see how this goes,” she said.
Poltorak’s internship officially ended late last year, and it’s not yet certain if and how he will continue working for Lee remotely — he is getting married in Israel next week and might move there with his bride-to-be.
But Burstyn should be around to enjoy the fruits of Poltorak’s labor: “Having a kosher meal option would be tremendously convenient and popular. It would save me a great deal of time and [let me] be able to focus on my work.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.