Jeff Klein approached his brisket like a cleaver-wielding surgeon, slicing away at the meat until he revealed the pink that remained at its center some 12 hours after it hit the grill.
"This is it," Klein, owner of Jake's Kosher Smoked Meat in Overbrook Park, said as he surveyed his work from beneath billowing clouds that rose from dozens of grills and smokers. "This is delicious, it's juicy — this is it right here."
The brisket was promptly whisked to the judges' table, joining entries from 19 other teams who came together over the weekend for Hava NaGrilla, Philadelphia's first-ever kosher barbecue festival. Organized by the Men's Club of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El and held on the synagogue's grounds in Wynnewood, the event last Sunday drew an estimated 4,500 attendees who lined up for smoked meats, whiskey tasting, a beer garden, mechanical bull rides, and a pickle-eating contest. The event raised an estimated $20,000 to $30,000 for the Mitzvah Food Project of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, organizers said.
The turnout said as much about the growing interest in kosher barbecue as it did about the synagogue's strong community ties, according to vendors and organizers, who hope to make it an annual event. As barbecue has exploded in popularity in recent years, some kosher chefs have seized the opportunity to capitalize on the trendiness of smoked meats. This summer alone, there were 12 kosher barbecue festivals held across the country, from Las Vegas to Memphis.
"Years ago, you would never have found so much kosher barbecue," said Robert Zeitz, of R&Z Kosher Smoked Meats in Brooklyn, which competed in Hava NaGrilla under the name "Smokin' on the Highway." "It's really become very mainstream now. As the interest in smoked meats has skyrocketed in general, there's been a tremendous demand for kosher versions."
For a first-year festival, Hava NaGrilla's credentials were impressive: It was sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society, the official governing body of competitive grilling, which has developed standards and guidelines specific to kosher barbecue. Stu Gordon, an orthopedic surgeon from Haverford who moonlights as a judge for the society, started planning for the Wynnewood event about two years ago.
"I wanted to find a way to bring our group together in the community to eat delicious food and drink bourbon," he said. "We are all more alike than we are different. I love barbecue, and I know many of my friends and neighbors do as well."
The event was dedicated to the memory of Walter Hofman, a forensic pathologist who served as Montgomery County's coroner. Hofman, a barbecue enthusiast who died last year, had wanted to see his community gather to celebrate food and friends.
Putting on a kosher barbecue meant the meats, ingredients, knives, even the brand-new grills had to be supplied by the event organizers, who spent months lining up sponsors, volunteers, and equipment. All spices and seasonings — like maple syrup, garlic powder, and ancho chili pepper — had to be kosher-certified by a mashgiatch, a representative tasked with supervising the kosher status of the food preparation. Barbecue competitions typically include pork; at Hava NaGrilla, teams slow-cooked chicken, brisket, beef short ribs, and whole turkeys.
The teams started butchering the meat on Thursday, stopping Friday evening for Shabbat. The charcoal grills were lit Saturday evening, leading to a long night for most team members.
"I wasn't looking forward to staying up all night, but it's been a lot of fun," said Len Lodish of Wynnewood, who spent the day with his wife, son, and grandson. "I'm going on about two hours' sleep."
The Lodish family entered the competition as amateurs. Lodish, a past president of the temple, entered to represent the synagogue in the contest. Son Chaim, 43, brought wood from near his home in Burlington, Vt., to use in the smoker.
The festival included local vendors, breweries, and a pop-up stall from the Wandering Que, one of the largest kosher food vendors in the country, where the line stayed long all day. Judges in the competition included Steve Cook of the Michael Solomonov restaurant empire CookNSolo, and Yehuda Sichel, head chef at Abe Fisher.
Klein, a pharmacist who opened Jake's Kosher Smoked Meat on Haverford Avenue this year, entered the championship as a first-time competitor. Though he paid painstaking attention to every aspect of his entries, he said he was more motivated by the mood of the day than by dreams of winning.
"I think everyone in the world does things they love, and I love to smoke meat," he said. "When people say the meat is good, they're giving me that love back."