Faith inspires rabbi to create CSA-style meal program

Thursday, February 17, 2011 | by alexandra j. wall

When Rebecca Joseph moved to San Francisco, she did what most Bay Area foodies do: join a CSA (community-supported agriculture). Joseph bought a share in a local farm and, in return, started receiving regular boxes of fresh, local produce.

That’s when Joseph, a Conservative rabbi and the writer of a popular kosher baking blog, hit on her next great idea: community-supported “dinnerculture.”

Joseph is the founder of 12 Tribes, which provides freshly cooked kosher meals using seasonal ingredients. Members can buy a “dinner share” and receive a meal once a week.

Rabbi Rebecca Joseph prepares some sweets.  photo/courtesy of 12 tribes­
Rabbi Rebecca Joseph prepares some sweets. photo/courtesy of 12 tribes­
“I’ve gotten so much out of what I’ve done in my life, but I’ve never had so much fun,” said Joseph, also known as “the rabbi chef,” of her work with 12 Tribes. “I feel very fortunate because I have such a great group of people working together with me.”

Joseph was raised in a Conservative Jewish home in New Rochelle, N.Y. and always loved to cook as well as share meals. She considered going to culinary school after college but decided to get a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology instead. Her dissertation field research took her to the Indonesian province of Central Java, a devoutly Muslim area, where she spent three years.

From her career in anthropology, she decided to go to rabbinical school, and was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2005. While at JTS, she worked as a chaplain serving the families of 9/11 victims.

She chose not to take a pulpit, but rather worked at JTS after ordination. About five years ago, she became active in the new Jewish food movement and started a blog, TheParveBaker.com.

“Within a few months, there were people all over the world reading my blog,” she said. “At the time, I was one of a few rabbis who was blogging.”

With a daughter at Reed College in Oregon and a sister long-established in the Bay Area, Joseph decided to move to San Francisco, arriving in

the summer of 2008. She took a job at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and began catering small dinners and events on the side before developing the concept of 12 Tribes.

Joseph, who just turned 51, believes she is at the perfect age to start a new career. “I’ve always been entrepreneurial and would have loved to have started my own business earlier … With 12 Tribes, I’m fulfilling that dream while enriching others’ lives in ways that they find difficult on their own. We use kosher food to support mindful choices around eating in a pleasurable, sustainable way.”

Included in a 12 Tribes meal will be a soup, main course and two side dishes. Entrées can be meat, fish or vegetarian, and members can change that option on a weekly basis. Sample entrées include chicken pot pie, baked salmon, and tofu and vegetables in peanut sauce.

Subscribers also can add a “dessert share,” as well as a “Shabbat share,” which includes challah, Shabbat candles and a handout on the Torah portion of the week.

Joseph is taking subscribers for the service, which will begin March 1. She hopes to sell 100 shares for the spring season (April to June).

All of 12 Tribes’ packaging is recyclable or compostable, and most produce is organic and from within 300 miles.

Joseph now has a team of three other people helping her, and they will cook in the kosher kitchen at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco.

While Joseph is excited to launch the service, her greater hope is that her clients will do more cooking themselves. To that end, she and 12 Tribes’ master chef Valerie Philmus plan to offer cooking classes.

“People often come to us for meals, and then they come back and say ‘that was so good, how did you make that?’ ” Joseph said. “That’s a great compliment, of course, but I would also love to help them learn how to make these things, because ultimately, I would love people to find being in the kitchen pleasurable themselves.”


For more information about 12 Tribes, visit http://www.12tribesfood.com.