How a Canadian rabbi’s shipment of lulavs for Sukkot got blocked at the border and caused a major freak-out for Jews

Call it the Great Lulav Scare of 2022.

For a week now, Montreal importer Rabbi David Cohen tried six times to drive a shipment of 200 lulavs across the U.S. border into Canada. Each time, the owner of Mercaz Stam, a Judaica store in the suburb of Snowdon, was turned back.

Canadian customs officials informed him that the boxes containing the fragile palm fronds, myrtle branches and etrogs, needed to perform a Sukkot ritual during the coming holiday in October, may have been violating new rules designed to protect the country’s agricultural system from the threat of pests and diseases.

“I had to turn around and bring it to a warehouse next to the border,” Rabbi Cohen told The CJN in an interview Tuesday, adding that he had to pay out of pocket for the unexpected storage.

David Cohen
Rabbi David Cohen, of Mercaz Stam Judaica store in Montreal (YouTube).

News of Rabbi Cohen’s lulav troubles spread rapidly through the Jewish community Tuesday and quickly caught the attention of rabbinical authorities, kashrut organizations, members of Parliament, and Jewish lobby groups such as B’nai Brith and CIJA, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

Was it antisemitism, some people wondered? Or was it simply a case of a border inspector enforcing laws that have been on the books for several years?

For nearly 18 hours, news of Rabbi Cohen’s dilemma spread through social media, and made other importers like Rabbi Leibele Rodal very nervous.

Rabbi Rodal, a Dollard-des-Ormeaux, Que., rabbi who imports lulav sets for his family’s store, left Montreal on Tuesday Sept. 20, and drove to New York City. He was scheduled to pick up his Sukkot order from the distributor: nearly 1,000 lulavs, plus his company’s brand name Esroginos, a citron fruit grown by his family in Italy. He was worried that he would be returning home without the lulavs.

“So I cannot describe to you how my phone has been burning the whole day. Everybody is, like, traumatized and everybody is stressed,” said Rabbi Rodal, whose family operates the well-known Judaica store of the same name. He was being asked “How am I going to have it? How am I going to have it?”

Leibele Rodal
Rabbi Leibele Rodal, of Montreal, speaking from his car Sept. 20, 2022 while en route to New York to pick up his Sukkot shipment of lulavs and “Etroginos”. (Ellin Bessner photo)

Under the regulations posted in October 2020 to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s website, people who want to import lulavs into Canada are only allowed to do so for personal use, not commercial use. The rules apply to imports from non-European sources, such as the Middle East and Asia, where most of the products are grown.

The new rules say Canada limits importation for personal use to a specific period of time: within three days before the start of the Sukkot holiday, and ending eight days after it is over. Inspectors still have to check for any bugs, loose earth, or even if there are buds on the branches, which renders the products ineligible to enter the country.

Rabbi Rodal said some customers told him they envisioned a scenario where thousands of Jews would have to do without, or, make a special trip on Sunday Oct. 9 across the border into New York State to buy their lulavs.

“Are we going to have to go to New York by the border and celebrate it at the border?” he was being asked.

For years now, the period before the Jewish New Year is crucial for importers and wholesalers alike. Synagogues and schools across the country, plus retailers, order these fragile Jewish plants known as the four species: a date palm frond, a branch each of myrtle and willow, plus the specially-grown etrog, or citron fruit.

Some suppliers buy the products from Israel, but others also source them from Egypt, Turkey and Morocco. Almost all of it comes in via New York, and is then trucked to Canada.

In Thornhill, Ont., store owner Jodi Segal was expecting a truck full of his Sukkot products to arrive from New York any day now. He has 500 sets on order. His staff at Israel’s, The Judaica Centre was planning to spend a frantic few days assembling the four species into kits. He had not heard about the Quebec border situation, until The CJN called.

“It would destroy our season,” Segal said, shaken. “A lot of them are going to congregations who rely on us across Canada.”

As the day stretched on, a flurry of emails and calls was taking place between Canada’s Jewish leaders, and the Montreal importers at the centre of the ordeal. Then, overtures were made not only to the Prime Minister’s Office, but also to the Minister of Health and to members of Parliament in ridings in Ontario and Quebec with large Jewish populations, including Rachel Bendayan and Anthony Housefather, Melissa Lantsman and Ya’ara Saks.

The Montreal Jewish Community Council and CIJA even took the unusual step of issuing mid-day communiques to tell people they were working on the problem

“We will advise once the issue is resolved,” the JCC statement said.

“CIJA is working with the relevant government agencies as well Ministerial officials to resolve the issue as quickly as possible. Similarly, the relevant MPs have been engaged in the issue. Our goal is to ensure that the administrative issues that seem to be at the source of the difficulty are quickly resolved.”

And in the meantime, CIJA urged people not to take any other action, and stay calm.

News release from Montreal’s Jewish Community Council on Tuesday afternoon Sept. 20, 2022. (Facebook).

By Tuesday evening, it appeared that the snafu was settled.

The owner of Rodal’s Judaica store, Dovid Leib Silverstein, released an audio recording with the happy news.

“I’m happy to report that the customs issue with the Dalet Minim in Canada has been resolved,” he said, explaining that the efforts of local MP Bendayan proved to be key.

“So this wasn’t a big blanket ban. It was a mistake,” said Shimon Koffler Fogel, the president and CEO of CIJA.

According to CIJA, the importer and his shipper had used the wrong codes and description on the bills of lading to describe the lulavs. That mislabeling triggered the border inspectors to block the goods. They have now been released, officials say.

The Canadian government has always granted commercial waivers for these potentially risky plants imported for Sukkot, CIJA said. This will remain in effect again for this year. The new rules were aimed solely at private travellers who come in to Canada with their own lulav sets.

shimon Koffler Fogel
Shimon Koffler Fogel, of CIJA. (Submitted photo).

Koffler Fogel felt that the panic displayed by some of the Jewish importers was understandable, because this is a crucial time of year for their businesses. He likened it to what might happen if Christmas tree growers discovered they couldn’t get any inventory right before their busy holiday season.

However, he cautioned the community to think carefully next time about harnessing the power of social media to spread information that turned out not to be a thing.

“We have to probably figure out a better way, as a system, to be able to alert people to issues when they’re real, and advise people when they’re not real, so that they can really understand and respond in an accurate way to situations that emerge,” he said.

Canada’s Food Inspection Agency was not able to respond to The CJN by deadline.

  • Hear why Rabbi Leibele Rodal’s community fretted they would all be left without lulavs this Sukkot holiday: on The CJN Daily podcast.

With files from: Zachary Kauffman and Avi Finegold.