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Big-Box Orthodox: It's Kosher, but . . .

Yakov Yarmove, the Albertsons executive who is overseeing Jewel's kosher project, said it's all about creating a "point of differentiation to make sure we've got a competitive edge. So our stores aren't cookie-cutter."

"Years ago, where the Wal-Marts, Costcos, Targets and Kmarts of the world focused on general merchandise, they're now getting into the food business in a very strong way," Yarmove said. "We're not trying to hurt a local business or a local community, but at the same time we're listening to the local community and their needs."

Chayim Knobloch and his wife, Nurit, maneuver around Geulah Ravitch, 3, and her brother Betzalel, 6, in the candy aisle at Kol Tuv Kosher Foods. (Chris Walker -- Chicago Tribune Via AP)

Shortly after Jewel remodeled its store in September, an influential group of rabbis tried to shore up the kosher stores by mailing an appeal to thousands of Jews, urging them to stick together and shop at the smaller stores that have long served the community.

Titled "An Open Letter to the Community," the rabbis' missive said other cities had seen kosher stores forced out of business by supermarket chains. They objected to the big competitors' "aggressive manner" and said they "strongly encourage all Jews" to buy from all-kosher stores.

A 27-year-old kosher food distributor said he won't deal with Albertsons and he won't shop at Jewel, no matter how enticing its shelves and counters. He said big stores often have the buying power to go directly to the producer and cut out the middleman, hurting long-standing businesses even as they win customers with lower prices.

"It kills all my customers. The stores are being hurt," said the man named Joe, who gave only his first name for fear of a backlash against his employer. "We can hope for the best, but they move a lot of product. Money talks."

Devon Avenue, a babel of tongues and nationalities running west from Lake Michigan, has been shedding Jewish shops, bakeries and restaurants since long before Jewel opened its kosher emporium. Narrow storefronts that once housed kosher butchers are now as likely to be an Indian grocery, an Afghan restaurant or a Russian medical supply company.

The reasons for this are as varied as shifting demographics and changing consumer habits. The business reasons are as natural as the dynamics of an ancient bazaar.

"We live in a free-market society. People will go to whoever serves them best," said Don Nussbaum, who teaches at a nearby Orthodox boarding school and works part time at Rosenblum's World of Judaica on Devon. "If that takes away from local business, then maybe the local businesses aren't doing their best.

"True, Albertsons is the behemoth, goliath, leviathan that's coming into town," he continued. "Somebody's going to get pushed out, and that's sad."

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