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The butcher's story

Jack Rusin survived the Holocaust, then built a new life. He runs Tampa's only kosher butcher store, and he does it his way.

By JAY CRIDLIN
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 13, 2002


SOHO -- If you run the only kosher butcher store in town, as Jack Rusin does, you can afford to set your own hours.

On some days, Rusin comes to the shop at 11 p.m. to chop and stock meat throughout the night. On others, he'll stay open for an extra hour or two for that customer who's running a little late.

On this particular day, it's about 9:45 a.m. when he flips the sign in his window from OPEN to CLOSED.

"I don't have any hours," he says. His meat is stored safely in the freezer. "If somebody wants it, they'll come back."

They -- the strictly kosher Jewish community of Tampa -- have few other options for freshly cut kosher meat. Rusin's store, Tampa Kosher Meats on Morrison Avenue, is the only such shop in Tampa.

There are other kosher grocery and butcher shops within driving distance -- many locals shop at Jo-El's in St. Petersburg, for example, and some drive to a large store in Orlando.

But for those who would rather not tote their purchases home in a cooler, Rusin's shop is the only option.

Rabbi Mordecai Levy, who oversees the kosher meat preparation at Tampa Kosher Meats, says Rusin has always been exacting in his kosher preparation.

"He's a nice guy," Levy says. "His meat is very, very good, and I certainly endorse it."

Rusin's life story plays out like the classic American dream. But it began with little hope.

At the outset of World War II, he and his family were snatched from their home in Poland by German soldiers and placed in concentration and extermination camps.

Jack was a teenager then. He looks for his stolen birth records every year when he returns to Eastern Europe to retrace the steps of his childhood.

Jack's parents and sister were killed in the camps, but he spent the next six years moving between camps: Treblinka in Czestochowa, Poland; Bergen-Belsen near Celle, Germany; and many others.

He tells of being herded into a gas chamber in Eastern Germany with other Jewish prisoners and waiting to die, only to be spared by a malfunctioning gas release mechanism.

Jack and his brother worked on trains and machinery in bunkers and factories, carrying parts, cutting wire, even mowing lawns. The work was often gruesome -- Jack's skin turned yellow from toxic chemicals he encountered while working in a munitions factory.

"It is impossible to put it in words, what we went through," he says. "People were dying like flies. You work and you don't get your food. Sometimes you got a slice of bread and a little soup, sometimes nothing."

At the end of the war, the United States enacted the Displaced Persons Act, bringing thousands of orphaned and homeless Jews to America. Rusin was among them, coming to Philadelphia in 1950.

He quickly found work in a butcher shop in the Jewish quarter for a staggering $25 per week. "Don't forget -- at this time, it was 7 cents for bread," he says. "The whole apartment cost about $23."

Rusin proved a quick study. His $25 per week grew to $100 per week. With help from the store's owner, he learned to make it on his own. In 1953, just eight years removed from a concentration camp, Rusin had a wife, Liane, a house and his own business.

"The United States is a country where, if you work, you can do everything," he says.

After 30 years in Philadelphia, Rusin and his wife moved to Tampa and took over the already decades-old Tampa Kosher Meats.

Times have changed since he moved to Tampa. At first, his shop was packed every Tuesday, when the meat would come in fresh. "When Passover came, you couldn't even walk in here," he says.

Most of his customers were Jewish retirees who had migrated south from New York or Philadelphia to the nearby Jewish Center Towers. They ate nothing but kosher meals.

"Now, they're all passed away," Rusin says. "One at a time, they die."

While Rusin's shop still does well enough to be profitable, he acknowledges that his clientele isn't what it used to be.

Rabbi Levy says many Jews may not understand how a shop as unremarkable as Tampa Kosher Meats can stay afloat, and are thus inclined to shop at larger, more convenient stores.

"It's a smaller establishment, and they wonder exactly what he's doing there by himself, with the odd hours and so forth," Levy says. "In today's world of mobility, it doesn't matter whether a person says to himself, 'I'll drive to St. Pete. It doesn't bother me if I have to drive there rather than go to Jack's."'

Rusin believes fewer people keep a strict kosher diet these days. In Tampa, he says, "you have 120,000 Jews, and only six are kosher."

Levy puts the figure a tad higher -- perhaps 30 percent.

Still, Rusin doesn't worry that his regulars will stray. He has never advertised, yet he draws enough Jewish customers from throughout Tampa Bay -- even a few non-Jewish ones -- to stay open for the foreseeable future.

"Anything they buy is good," he says knowingly.

"They figure out that it's very nice. They figure it out."

* * *

NAME: Jack Rusin

  • AGE: 78.
  • HOMETOWN: Czestochowa, Poland.
  • HOME: Mid Peninsula in South Tampa.
  • FAMILY: Wife, Liane, died in 1986; a son, Mark, in Tampa; a daughter, Harriet, in Washington, D.C.
  • BUSINESS: Tampa Kosher Meats, 2305 W Morrison Ave.
  • PILGRIMAGE: He returns to Eastern Europe each year.
  • LAST CITIES VISITED: Czestochowa, Jedwabne and Bialystok, Poland, in April.

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