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New kosher “pizza parlor” employs people with special needs

Practice makes perfect! Preparing for the opening of “A Taste of Life” are (l to r) Chef Ian Barstow; Ezriel Routburg, and Dafna Cramer and Yosi Awad of Yosi Kitchen.

By Cindy Mindell ~

WEST HARTFORD – There’s a new pizza oven in town and it’s not only baking up kosher pies; it’s providing meaningful job experience for people with special needs.
Conceived by West Hartford residents Elisheva and Michael Routburg, the idea for Taste of Life was inspired by regular visits to Lambs Farm when the couple lived in Chicago. A campus north of the city where adults with developmental disabilities live, work, and serve the community, Lambs Farm began in the ‘50s as an innovative Chicago pet store employing people with special needs. Now, it has grown into a regional tourist destination with a range of entrepreneurial and recreational facilities.
The Routburgs’ 18-year-old son, Ezriel, has autism and ADHD. Over the last several years, he became friends with Yoni Awad, a student at the Bess and Paul Sigel Hebrew Academy in Bloomfield. The two would meet weekly to socialize after school, and their families got to know each other as well.
Yoni Awad’s father, Yosi, is owner of Yosi Kitchen, a kosher catering business based in Windsor.
“I felt so good seeing the boys together,” says Yosi, who invited Ezriel to work with him in his professional kitchen.
Ezriel has been employed by Yosi for almost a year. When the Rouburgs and Yosi saw how Ezriel was thriving, they started brainstorming. “I see that there are more people  with special needs in the community looking for work and for something meaingful to do,” Yosi says. Everyone agreed that pizza would be a good place to start.
Yosi put his name and funding behind the project. The Routburgs asked Rabbi Yitzchok Adler and the board of Congregation Beth David in West Hartford if they could launch the project at the synagogue.
Yosi came up with the name, Taste of Life, to signify both the literal and figurative meanings of the term. “It’s the first time in my life doing something like this, and the first time in the employees’ lives that they’re tasting what it means to work and make money,” he says. “It’s the pizza, creating something for others to taste, that’s giving them this opportunity.”
In gearing up for Taste of Life, Yosi Kitchen is training three more young adults with special needs. “These employees are very eager to work and are excited to have the opportunity to do things they haven’t in the past,” says executive chef Ian Barstow. “It takes a lot of patience to instruct, follow up, and supervise, but they’re all very enthusiastic about the work.”
Adler and his board were only too happy to help, and not only because the endeavor would bring kosher pizza to the Greater Hartford Jewish community.
“For reasons yet to be fully understood or sociologically explored, Jews enjoy pizza, and having it baked fresh locally is a bonus asset to the quotient of quality of Jewish life here,” Adler says. “Beth David and the Hartford Kashrut Commission are committed to revitalizing the image of West Hartford as a ‘destination’ Jewish community. That image is enhanced and advanced as the quality and quantity of choices, in all aspects of Jewish life, grow.”
A pizza oven was installed and kashered in the Beth David kitchen last month. Taste of Life will make its public debut on Sunday, Mar. 11 at the synagogue, with pizzas available for eat-in and take-out on Sundays and Thursdays.
Michael Routburg will supervise the pizza-making operation as volunteer mashgiach.
“I want Taste of Life to be accepted by the entire Jewish community,” he says. “For people who keep kosher, and for people who want to support special needs, this is an opportunity to do both.”
The Routburgs and Yosi hope that the not-for-profit initiative will eventually find a permanent home, where it can expand its menu and become a thriving workplace for people with disabilities to learn a trade.
“Ezriel cannot survive without support and the way that support is given will determine how well he will flourish,” says Michael. “Lambs Farm is a wonderful place; you go there and you see a person with a little bucket of food with another person holding his hand, helping him feed the animals in the pet store. That person with special needs has a job. People are able to thrive in a sheltered environment and those are the kinds of things we’d like to see here – and Taste of Life is a start.”

Taste of Life pizza: Thursdays, 4-10 p.m. and Sundays, 12 noon-9 p.m., Congregation Beth David, 20 Dover Road, West Hartford | Phone orders: (860) 501-9674
Taste of Life is seeking employees and volunteers. For more information, contact Elisheva Routburg: (860) 502-9901 / tortoise1@cleaninter.net

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