The way Chaim Silberberg sees it, barbecuing is an ancient Jewish practice, dating back to the holy Temple in Jerusalem where Jews brought animals to sacrifice and ate a portion of the remains.
“When the Temple comes back, I’m going to be the guy outside the walls cooking all the cows,” he joked.
Silberberg, who is from Pikesville, Md., and is filming a documentary about kosher barbecue, was in his element schmoozing with chefs and sampling smoked and grilled meat dishes at “Bubby’s Cook-Off: Philly’s Premier BBQ & Bourbon Event,” the annual fund-raiser of Lubavitch of Bucks County. The event was held June 13 at the Glazier Jewish Center in Newtown, Pa.
“We decided philanthropy should be fun, and we made it fun,” said Rabbi Yehuda Shemtov of the fifth annual event. Lubavitch of Bucks County has five rabbis who service four towns in Bucks County — Newtown, Yardley, Doylestown, and Southampton.
Shemtov, senior rabbi and executive director for 25 years of Lubavitch of Bucks County, said he was looking for a way to break the mold of “black tie, speeches, and chicken” for his yearly gala, a path that would also align with his organization’s tagline, “Jewish. Done joyfully.”
Alex Ufberg of Richboro was one of 172 attendees who found the joy. “I’m here for the good food and good alcohol and to socialize and meet good people,” said Ufberg, whose two sons celebrated their bar mitzvahs at Lubavitch of Bucks County.
The $200 per person event — the cost also covered beer, wine, bourbons, and whiskeys — pitted four chefs in a cook-off, judged by four culinary professionals. Two out of the four contestants — Izzy Eidelman, owner of Izzy’s Brooklyn Smokehouse, who was awarded NYC Brisket King of 2017 by Food Karma Projects, and Yos Schwartz, chef of Hassid+Hipster, a culinary innovation organization — are kosher chefs, but all adhered to the rules of kashrut for the gala.
The other two competitors were Chad Rosenthal of Ambler, Pa., who appeared in seasons nine and 10 of the TV program, “Food Network Star,” and Matt Martin, owner of More than Q Barbecue Co. restaurants in Lambertville; Easton, Pa.; and a future food joint at the Montgomery Promenade near Princeton.
The attendees, preferring to wear suits and dresses over more casual grill-wear of shorts and T-shirts, were clearly the beneficiaries of the competition, and they began by sampling an assortment of appetizers, ranging from pulled beef sliders to pulled lamb tacos, and house-cured and smoked pastrami croissant sandwiches. Entrees served during the sit-down portion of the gala included brisket, smoked lamb ribs and fats, and salads.
In addition, three items with names one would not expect to see at a kosher event appeared on the menu: a smoked “bacon”-wrapped sausage skewer (the bacon was made of beef fry), spicy “crab” salad, and for dessert, a maple bacon cream pie.
“That’s what the chefs decided to make,” said Shemtov. “People see that kosher doesn’t have to be something that is old fashioned or stale; it keeps up with the times and keeps up with our tradition, as well.”
Ina Katz of Yardley, Pa., who has celebrated holidays with Chabad, taken classes offered by the organization, and traveled to Israel on a Chabad-run trip, said she came to “support Chabad, and for the food.”
Judge Marc Vetri, chef and co-owner of Vetri Cucina in Philadelphia, told NJJN he learned to appreciate good food through the talents of his father’s Sicilian family. His mother, from Lodz, Poland, was not a good cook, he said, so he “learned how to cook for survival.”
The other three judges were Hope Cohen, a chef and restaurant consultant; Emmy Award-winning producer of BBQ Pitmasters John Markus; and Tuffy Stone, a five-time World BBQ Champion and 2018 inductee into the BBQ Hall of Fame.
All had high praise for the four competitors. Markus called the food “exceptional,” and Stone said some of the flavors were “luscious and just danced in our mouths.”
Eidelman was selected as the People’s Award winner by the attendees, and Rosenthal received the Judges’ Award for best chef. “This is actually a work of love,” he said upon accepting the award.
While Shemtov’s “Bubby’s Cook-Off” successfully avoids the staid dinner format, they still honored several individuals at the gala. Pennsylvania attorney general Joshua Shapiro received a leadership award that represented, Shemtov said, “how Lubavitch can inspire us to make changes in the world we’re living in.”
Said Shapiro, who attends services at Chabad of Bucks County and whose daughter celebrated her bat mitzvah there, “This shul has made this community strong. I see people discover their Judaism or find one thing to help them lead a better life for themselves or for others.”
Hedy and Neil Hoffman were honored as couple of the year, having committed $360,000 toward the building of a mikvah to be named after Hedy’s mother, Adele Mermelstein, a Holocaust survivor.
“It’s important to me that we keep Judaism going,” said Hedy in a video about the couple. “The Holocaust interrupted, and it’s important to us to make sure the [Chabad] center stays and thrives.”
The future leader award went to Haylie Laff. Haylie is a recent graduate of Central Bucks High School East and will be a student at Duquesne University’s School of Nursing in the fall. For the past six years she has worked with special needs children through Chabad’s Friendship Circle. The Friendship Circle, Laff said during her video segment, was “one of the most uplifting, happy experiences I’ve ever engaged in — just seeing a smile on one kid’s face is worth it.”
This gala, designed to maximize enjoyment, jibes with Shemtov’s characterization of the Chabad movement:
“We try to project a more joyful, positive, upbeat experience to Judaism —that’s our niche,” he said. “Judaism was meant to be a very meaningful, spiritual, upbeat experience. If a Jew isn’t happy with their Judaism, it is an indication that it hasn’t touched their soul.”