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Keeping kosher, and doing it with some style

In Genoa, Italy, his plate arrived with octopus. In Cologne, Germany, it was filled with bloodwurst. And in Mykonos, Greece, Yaniv Madar, an Israeli entrepreneur, was served starfish. Mr. Madar keeps kosher, so these and other forbidden foods remained untouched on his plate. His observance of kashrut, Hebrew for Jewish dietary laws, does not get in the way of conducting business. But it can limit his fine dining options while traveling abroad.

"Tuna fish and crackers - that is the equipment for kosher travelers," Mr. Madar said from his office in Rishon L'Zion, south of Tel Aviv. "You really want to leave that behind, eat normal meals and enjoy your stay."

With that aim in mind, Mr. Madar, his brother and a handful of fellow high-tech colleagues joined forces several years ago. On their frequent business trips abroad, they began collecting listings of kosher restaurants, hotels and Orthodox synagogues to help prevent future issues involving gastronomy, ritual and conscience. And in 2001, as a hobby, they devised a Hebrew-language database of kosher resources overseas. Word soon spread and demand for their free listings became so strong that they started a comprehensive online service, complete with multilingual interface, earlier this year. Called Seder Olam, which roughly translates to world order, the company now operates parallel sites in English and Hebrew, SederOlam.com and SederOlam.co.il. A French version is also in the works. In November, hits exceeded three million.

"Travel always comes with some doubts and worries: 'Where shall I eat? Where shall I pray?' " Mr. Madar said. "And sometimes you face these questions at the most unexpected times." Before Seder Olam, a travel agent booked Mr. Madar in a hotel believed to be in close proximity to Cologne's Jewish community. When he realized the mistake, hotels closer to the synagogue were already booked with convention-goers. Mr. Madar said he ended up walking five hours through freezing weather to attend synagogue on the Sabbath, when halacha, Jewish law, prohibits driving or riding in a cab.

A play on Hebrew terminology for appropriate times to pray, Seder Olam also echoes the name of a Jewish text called Seder Olam Rabbah, believed to date from the year 240. The text records historical events from the start of creation according to a predetermined 6,000-year plan. Its contemporary namesake offers assistance planning trips from here to eternity.

Seder Olam features more than 10,000 kosher and Jewish facilities, 3,500 kosher restaurants, 4,450 synagogues and Jewish community centers, 370 kosher hotels, 920 ritual baths and 800 kosher shops and businesses. There are also addresses and phone numbers of Israeli consulates and embassies, candle lighting times for the Sabbath and holidays and loads of other information of use to kosher travelers.

In the question-and-answer section, a rabbinic authority answers questions relating to Jewish observance and travel. Seder Olam even provides ratings, to move beyond mere survival tactics. "It's not enough to simply find kosher restaurants," Mr. Madar said. "You also want to enjoy your meal."

This summer, Seder Olam began placing advertising from a number of companies, including Koshertreks, Royal Kosher, Tour-Olam.com, Kibbutz Lavi Hotel, Diesenhaus Masoret and Natour, Israel's largest tour operator. Besides Mr. Madar, the site has two silent investors. It has yet to make a profit.

Seder Olam stands among a cornucopia of sites catering to the needs of niche travelers. Other sites catering to Jews, for example, include TotallyJewishTravel.com and JewishRoutes.com. Driven by advertising, these sites are filled with material from retail vendors booking the gamut of Jewish travel, from kosher resorts with Jewish entertainment, visits to Israel and short-term apartment rentals in the Holy Land, to vacations for Jewish students and singles, Passover getaways, family trips for bar and bat mitzvahs, even gatherings of Holocaust survivors. Jewish travelers seeking kosher hospitality for Shabbat, Hebrew for Sabbath, can visit Oneg-Shabbat.org, founded by Moshe and Ruth Harizy. Mr. Harizy owns Ali Baba, a Manhattan restaurant serving kosher Yemenite food.

A leading site for Christians is Christian-Travelers-Guides.com. Begun by Irving Hexham, who teaches in the Religious Studies Department at the University of Calgary, it features suggested itineraries like German cities where Martin Luther lived and worked, travel tips for Christians and links to related sites. These include travel agencies like Journeys of Faith Christian Tours (JofTours.com), or ReformationTours.com, as well as GoCatholicTravel.com. A retired pastor operates ChristianTravelers.com to book hotel and travel arrangements for attendees of the annual Southern Baptist Convention.

Muslims can visit Zabihah.com, Halalapalooza.com and Eat-Halal.com for information on halal meals that follow Islamic dietary laws. OneHajj.com, IslamiCity.com, Barakahhajj.com and a host of other sites offer Hajj pilgrimage packages to Saudi Arabia.

VegDining.com and HappyCow.net offer meat-free listings for vegetarians. And 12-step travelers can turn to Alcoholics-Anonymous.org, GamblersAnonymous.org, NA.org (for Narcotics Anonymous) and OA.org (for Overeaters Anonymous) for support.

Seder Olam links travelers with news from CNN, BBC and The Associated Press as well as Israeli sources like Haaretz, Arutz 7, Kol Yisrael and The Jerusalem Post. It also offers information about mass transit, car rentals, exchange rates and global temperatures; provides links to travel-related publications, digital maps, driving directions and "Time Out," a popular guide to entertainment in 33 urban centers, and has news about Jewish holidays, exhibitions and conventions. Much of the information about Jewish communities abroad comes from travelers who feed it into the site, whose three employees and six volunteers then confirm it.

Ed Frank, an international marketing consultant and former New York City resident who is based in Herzilya, Israel, says Seder Olam provides relief from "briefcase meals" of instant soups, energy bars and pop-top cans of hummus. Still, there are occasional challenges. On a November trip, Mr. Frank frequented his favorite kosher restaurant in Istanbul, dining each time with a different Turkish business colleague. By local custom, each host felt obliged to explain the menu to him and to recommend dishes. "We were there three times in three days and had to pretend it was the first time each time," Mr. Frank said.

On another recent foray, Mr. Frank spent three consecutive days in three European cities. On Monday, he mined Seder Olam for a kosher Parisian dinner and croissants. He bought additional pastries for Tuesday, when he had no time for meals in Geneva. He supplemented that with fresh fruit, kosher "triangle cheeses" requiring no refrigeration and crackers from home.

That night, he used Seder Olam to locate a hot meal at Arche Noah (Noah's Ark), a Glatt kosher meat restaurant in the Jewish community center in Berlin. And, on Wednesday, he found a dairy lunch at Beth Caf in the middle of town.

Yair Danziger, co-owner of a tour company called Kosher Holidays, based in Ra'anana, Israel, which advertises on Seder Olam, says the site allows him to escape his old routine of carrying kosher food on overseas travels. He recalls taking matzos, kosher wine and chrain - Yiddish for bitter herbs that recall the bitterness of slavery in Egypt - on a business trip to Rimini, Italy, a few years ago.

A customs officer confiscated these unfamiliar items, which Mr. Danziger intended to use for the Passover Seder, or ritual meal, suspecting that he planned to sell them. Exasperated, Mr. Danziger persuaded the official to taste the chrain - raw horseradish root.

"From the look on his face, it was clear that it was not for commercial purposes and only for ritual and nothing else," Mr. Danziger said.

The official relented and allowed Mr. Danziger to take his supplies, bitter herbs and all, with him.

(New York Times, December 28, 2004)

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