Community members eat in Deli King of Clark’s dining room in Clark, New Jersey.
For Alyssa Lavroff, the Hanukkah season evokes warm memories of food, family and community activism.
Serving others? It’s just how she was raised.
“I think my grandparents’ own activism in their community is a reflection of their Jewish values and I think that’s true to an extent for me as well,” Lavroff said. “I’m not a religious person per se, but I definitely value my upbringing in the Jewish community and could see my grandparents living that out and that is part of why this work feels important to me.”
For almost 40 years, her family has owned and operated Deli King of Clark in Clark, New Jersey.
“In a way, it’s kind of like a de facto Jewish community center,” said Lavroff, who works as a volunteer engagement coordinator at Nourishing Hope. “ It’s really special to go there and see how all the customers know my family.”
Lavroff grew up visiting and working at her grandfather’s deli during winter and summer breaks through college. Three generations of Lavroffs have worked tirelessly to transform a small kosher deli counter in a suburban strip mall into a bustling community hub for Jewish families.
From her family and their Jewish values, Lavroff forged her own identity and commitment to helping others.
As a volunteer engagement coordinator at Nourishing Hope’s The Hub, Lavroff plays an integral role in ensuring that food for neighbors in need is sorted, packed, and ready for distribution. Nourishing Hope’s Home Delivery North program is based at the Hub, which primarily serves older adults and people with disabilities. She recruits and schedules volunteers for food distribution shifts across Chicago.
In many ways, Lavroff carries on her family’s legacy of food and community in her own work.
Her grandparents, Richard and Lisa Lavroff, loved spending time together and serving the neighborhood as a family. When they weren’t feeding people, they were walking around the community and canvassing for elections. The Lavroffs were an active and altruistic duo.
“One thing I learned from my dad, which I didn’t know since my grandpa passed, was that his primary concern was just feeding and caring for the Jewish community. Around the holidays they would put together all these pastrami and corned beef sandwiches and drop them off both at synagogues and Jewish community centers but also in the secular community. This idea of trying to feed the community and cultivate a sense of that, is really important to me.”
In the early 2000s, Alyssa’s uncle, Kenny Lavroff, took over the throne at Deli King of Clark. Kenny has honored and built on his father’s legacy. He’s modernized the deli with an updated dining room in addition to the original deli counter and catering business. The average age of the deli’s customers is over 75.
“They’ll come in and ask for my uncle Kenny, but he’s hard of hearing so he yells everything and sometimes the clients can’t hear very well either so it’s a really loud environment,” Lavroff said, laughing. “We’re east coast Jews so there’s lots of yelling, but also a sense of warmth.”
One of the deli’s staples is a triple-decker sandwich with pastrami, corned beef, and turkey. Customers have the option to order the sandwich “sloppy” which includes coleslaw and Russian dressing. The deli is renowned for its bagels and lox, and for Alyssa’s favorite — the matzo ball soup.
“I’ve always loved matzo ball soup and the deli has the best matzo balls I’ve ever had,” she said.
The Hanukkah season, in particular, brings happy memories for Lavroff. She worked at the deli over winter breaks for Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s. All three holidays are busy ones for the deli, with customers ordering lox and pastrami sandwiches.
“Hanukkah is not an important Jewish holiday in the same way that Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur is, but it often gets compared to Christmas,” Lavroff said. “Growing up I appreciated that I had a different family background. For me, what’s special is the time spent with family at the annual Hanukkah party.”
As a family, the Lavroffs celebrate Hanukkah each year with a party. When Alyssa was growing up, her grandparents hosted the party with an abundance of food from the deli. They chowed down on delights such as pigs in a blanket, chicken fingers, a spread of rye bread, pastrami and corned beef, and, of course, latkes. Her aunt would make stuffed shells every year without fail.
The night would include Hanukkah prayers, the lighting of the menorah, and the occasional, mischievous prank among the cousins. Alongside these traditions, Lavroff’s grandfather introduced another — scratching off lottery tickets together.
“I think the most I ever won was forty dollars,” Lavroff said. “I was so excited.”
A certain generosity of spirit often expressed with food, has persisted through the generations of the Lavroff family. Lavroff’s mother coordinates a school community garden; her father is an attorney who also is involved in various community causes.
The tradition of bringing people together over a meal — and helping those less fortunate — began with her grandparents and one small, busy, kosher deli.
“My grandpa has since passed, but when he was alive I would go there and eat with my grandparents and they would walk around the dining room and greet everyone and check in on their families,” Lavroff said. “It’s a memory I really treasure.”