I’ve got some trips coming up down to the lower 48 and while I’ve written before about the logistics of backcountry camping kosher, I thought it might be good to write about traveling while observant, for those who might be new to it.
Kosher travel really begins when we begin planning our trip, specifically the times and dates of flights or travel times for a roadtrip. Shabbos and holidays always need to be planned around and it’s important to make sure there is some padding of time just to be sure. I’ve read so many “horror” stories of Orthodox Jews needing to spend the Sabbath in airports or getting stuck in one way or another. Be sure to check with your own friendly Orthodox Rabbi, but for most, this means making sure that you will not need to be traveling at all near candle lighting time and that any flight after the Sabbath departs well after the end of the Sabbath, havdalah. Whenever possible, I like to arrive a day or two before Shabbos so I have time to settle in, get my bearings, and find kosher food. It’s often good to take into account potential flight delays or, if it’s a roadtrip, any driving delays due to traffic, weather, or car issues.
Which brings us to the other two big challenges, kosher food and lodging within walking distance of an Orthodox Synagogue.
There seems to be a great fear among some Jews born Orthodox that there is nothing to eat in a city if that city has no kosher pizza place. I’m happy to say that most major cities have a lot to offer. Doing a quick search on Chabad.org’s website for local Chabad organizations can often get you in touch with what is kosher locally. They will sometimes have a separate webpage on the local Chabad house’s website with local kosher resources or sometimes you can email or call them. In smaller cities, they may also be the only Orthodox Synagogue for Shabbos as well and often can help you find accommodations nearby. In larger cities, you can often search for a local Va’ad or Beit Din (Rabbinical Court) and they may have links to kosher websites and some large cities even have their own kosher certification programs. In addition, doing a web search for “Orthodox Jewish Synagogues in (city name)” can often help you find their Synagogue’s website, which will often have visitor information.
It’s important to reach out to whatever community that you will be visiting for Shabbos early. They may be able to recommend hotels in or near the eruv or Synagogue and sometimes they can set up hosting for you for either meals or a place to stay as well. Be prepared to give them some kind of references, usually your local Orthodox Rabbi. After all, you’d want to check up on a complete stranger before inviting them into your home, wouldn’t you? Also, keep in mind that Orthodox Jews are a tight-knit community. Be on your best behavior as a guest and if you are not yet halakhically Jewish, be careful not to do anything that you wouldn’t be allowed to do in your home Synagogue, like accepting an aliyah. If you are set up with hosts for meals or a place to stay, be sure to bring a hostess gift and thank you card so that you’ll be welcomed back!
If you’re on your own for accommodations, don’t fret. Recently, our family has had really good luck finding airbnb’s in areas where there are no hotels in or near an eruv. This can be a particularly good option for families. Just last year we ended up staying in a very charming Airbnb in Seattle’s Seward Park neighborhood. The couple that hosted us were non-observant Jews who already knew all the ins and outs of Sabbath observance and were familiar with many of the people who hosted us for meals. They were SO nice and we felt at home and were just a short walk from the Synagogue. This winter, we’re renting a whole house near a Synagogue we’re visiting. Of course, you generally cannot expect a kosher kitchen in these, so plan accordingly.
Which brings us to kosher food!
Some larger cities have kosher restaurants and you can often find what their kosher certifications are online as well as if they are cholov yisroel, if that’s a concern for you. Local Synagogue and Beit Din websites may also list the best grocery stores to go to locally for kosher food or if there are completely kosher grocery stores. In a pinch, whole foods market, costco, and trader joe’s are generally great for finding a lot of kosher items and even in the smallest supermarkets, you can generally find snacks that are OU certified, although meat and cheese may be a challenge. I’ve found having a sense of adventure and some flexibility often helps.
If you’re traveling with a family or are completely on your own for Shabbos meals, it can be really helpful to pack some of your own food and utensils. My mother in law always travels with a hot plate that she can use to cook with, a small frying pan, a small pot, and a few utensils, including a paring knife in her checked luggage. I know other people who like to travel with an instant pot, which allows them to saute, steam, slow cook, or pressure cook foods. Bringing your own kosher appliance with you means not having to rely on as much kosher food being available because you can easily cook fresh vegetables. It’s always a good idea to have a box of matzah or bring your own challah if you don’t have anyone to host you for meals.
Besides just planning travel and seeing if hosting is available, the Sabbath also has other specific special concerns for travelers. It’s good to bring tea lights for candle lighting and to find kosher grape juice or wine for kiddush and havdalah. In addition, it’s important to know if there is an eruv (if you hold by them) and if it is up before carrying as well as to know if your hotel has electronic locks you’ll need to work around. Some people tape the locks so that they don’t engage and just trust that their belongings will be safe while others work it out with the hotel staff to let them in their room so that they don’t need to use the keycard. Be sure to check for local candle lighting times, which may be very different from your own. Hebcal and Chabad are good resources as is the local Orthodox Synagogue.
If you’re new to traveling Orthodox, this might all sound a bit overwhelming, but I’ve found that traveling this way is often a lot more of a “real” experience of a place than when I traveled before. Sabbath observance and keeping kosher often nudge me to interact more with the local community than I might otherwise. Sharing the Sabbath with local families helps me really get more of a feel for a place than I would if I just stuck with the tourist sights. Over time, I begin to feel more like I’m part of the bigger Jewish family and sometimes, I even have names I can now bring up in “Jewish geography” conversations. I’ve met some of the most wonderful people and I’ve been grateful for what I’ve learned from them and from their communities.
It’s more than worth a few extra logistics.
Now, traveling to the North Slope for work? That’s turning out to be a whole other adventure, but I plan on posting about that separately since most people don’t need to stress about candle lighting times when the sun never comes up!