“Kosher with no certificate”

Gush Katif lettuce
Gush Katif lettuce

Some Jerusalem restaurants aim to alter the dynamic in the kosher supervision industry.

Two years ago, a few Jerusalem restaurant owners got fed up with the local rabbinate, and decided to give up their kosher certificates. They posted signs in their restaurants that read “Kosher with no certificate,” and even started a Facebook page, which has been gaining momentum.

The movement was started by Haya Gilboa, a young, formerly observant Jerusalemite, who was troubled by the fact that many of her irreligious friends slowly began leaving Jerusalem, in part because on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath, the city was dead, because local businesses are afraid of losing their kosher certificates. With the help of Jerusalem City council member Rachel Azaria, she reached Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz party secretary and head of Sulam Yaakov seminary, and together with the restaurateurs, they developed a pilot for a community-run kashrut (kosher) model.

The pilot gave birth to an entity called “Private Supervision,” which comprises seven Jerusalem businesses: Mizrahi Cafe, Topolino, Trumpeldor, Georgie Pitta, Hamakom Shel Itzik, Karusela, and Arbes Hummus. These restaurants and cafes have hung charters in their storefronts in which they pledge to diners that they adhere to kosher laws.

How is private supervision different from the Rabbinate’s?

The first step is a training course for all restaurant staff, including kitchen workers and waiters, so they are able explain the project to the clientele. After the training course, a loyalty agreement is signed between the business and the public. The third stage is maintaining the kashrut, which is enforced through visits by volunteers and the (paid) field coordinator. The kashrut supervisors are all women, on principle.

And payment?

“The business pays NIS 400 a month, in order to pay the field coordinator’s salary,” explains Leibowitz. “The administration and financial management is handled by the volunteers. My role is to advise on matters of Jewish law, for partial pay.”

Are you trying to replace the Rabbinate?

“Our model is not suitable for very big kitchens with menus containing hundreds of items, therefore, it is not the solution. We want to alter the power dynamics slightly in everything having to do with kashrut.”

Israeli law dictates that only the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, or a rabbi authorized by it, has the authority to issue a kosher certificate. Business owners are required to employ the mashgiach (kosher supervisor) at their own expenses, and the mashgiach is meant to advise the business owner regarding raw materials, and to make sure that everything is carried out according to the prescribed regulations. The kosher certificate is renewed twice a year. If the mashgiach finds a problem, he may deny the business a certificate, and publicize the matter.

According to the Rabbinate, a mashgiach earns NIS 37 per hour, and is expected to spend two hours at the restaurant three times a week, depending on what the managing supervisor decides, and what type of kashrut is required. According to the Chief Rabbinate, 100,000 businesses hold kosher certificates based on these criteria.

And does the system work?

The restaurateurs we interviewed for this piece (and others who wished to remain anonymous) insist that it does not. Most say they almost never see the mashgiach, that he shows up only to collect payment. Others tell of bullying and threatening behavior exhibited by some of the mashgichim (kosher supervisors). There are even some who report demands of under-the-table payments, and “off-site” salary negotiations.

This is what Karusela vegetarian restaurant-cafe owner Jonathan Vedai claims: “As soon as I paid, I asked for a tax invoice. The mashgiach told me there is no such thing. I could either not hire the mashgiach , or I could pay him under the table. In the end, I just told myself: ‘You’ll lose some customers, but it’s better to keep quiet.’ We bartered outside the restaurant. He demanded NIS 1,000, and I managed to talk him down to NIS 600. The mashgiach himself appeared for two to five minutes, took a cookie, and left. There was no added value to his work, other than the fact that I had a certificate on the wall. As a formerly observant person myself, I know that the certificate is worthless - it has no connection to kashrut, only to their big employment mechanism.”

Yuval Kohavi, who owns the restaurant Link in Jerusalem, has not had a kosher certificate for fifteen years. When he opened another restaurant, Georgie Pitta, he went to the Rabbinate to ask for certification. “The rabbi asked for a NIS 3,000 bank guarantee,” he explains.

For what, exactly?

“So I don’t bring a tomato in from my non-kosher restaurant.”

So what did you do?

“Their attitude was disgusting. We said we will have certification from the Rabbinate over our dead bodies.”

Haim Hasid, who owns a Nes Tziona spice shop that has been operating for 35 years also reports such behavior. According to Hasid, for years he had a kosher certificate from the Rabbinate, for which he paid a few hundred shekels a year. Hasid says that after the municipality’s chief Sephardi rabbi, who has issued the certificate, passed away, the municipality’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi demanded NIS 12,000 a year for certification, not including Passover. Hasid refused.

“After I took down the certificate, all sorts of shady people came to see if I am saying the place is kosher even though I don’t have a certificate,” says Hasid. “Then they also fined me - I still have not paid it.”

Most people outside of the religious communities probably don’t know this, but plain lettuce, leafy greens, and cauliflower are very problematic in terms of kashrut. This is because they are full of insects and worms, which are sometimes very difficult to see. This is the reason “Gush Katif vegetables” exist. These vegetables are grown under conditions that make it very difficult for insects to survive. Why Gush Katif? Because the farmers from this region, whose citizens were evacuated during the disengagement in 2005, invented the “solution”: the vegetables are grown on beds that are detached from the ground, in sand that has been sterilized, in hermetically sealed hothouses. Growing vegetables in this manner makes them almost ten times more expensive.

At the end of 2012, then Chief Sephardi Rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Amar, made a revolutionary announcement: he said that eating leafy greens grown in an insect-free environment posed a definite public health risk due to increased use of pesticides, and he recommended that the public buy regular vegetables and clean them themselves, like in the olden days. In so doing, Amar refuted the claim that it’s not possible to clean vegetables in a manner that does not cost so much money and necessitate the use of so many poisons.

Topolino, the dairy, Italian restaurant in Jerusalem, lost its kosher certificate because the owner and chef Shai Gini refused to accept the Rabbinate’s dictate to use “Gush Katif vegetables.”

“We had a kosher certificate for a number of years, and the vegetables they asked us to use receive massive amounts of pesticide through the irrigation or from above,” recounts Gini. “It’s dangerous, it harms flavor, and it is more expensive. Someone who wants to know that there is kosher supervision is getting poisoned through the back door. There are very few suppliers and growers of insect-free vegetables. It is a grower’s gig. Jews washed vegetables with vinegar and salt for years. From our perspective, the situation was impossible and we turned to the Rabbinate and asked to be allowed to wash the vegetables and not to be forced to use these vegetables. They insisted. I tried to explain that I have the greatest interest to make sure there are no bugs in the vegetables. It didn’t help. In the end, we gave up the certificate.”

“In my religious education, I learned ‘He who adds, detracts.’ What happens today is that they just add and add, and make less work for themselves. True, you are not allowed to eat bugs. Secular people aren’t interested in eating bugs either. But they add things that you can’t eat out of fear for bugs and worms. You can’t eat cauliflower. You can’t eat asparagus tips, which are the tastiest part of the vegetable. The intent behind the rabbinic text is that people clean their vegetables. Once, the mashgiach would clean them, he was part of the kitchen staff. Today, out of laziness, they just ban vegetables.”

The Rabbinate said, “There is no basis to the claim that in the past people who kept kosher sufficed with rinsing vegetables under the tap. People who do this are simply not observing kashrut.”

And what about the health risks?

“The Chief Rabbinate is aware of the health consequences associated with this, however, our ability to take action on the matter is limited. The Ministry of Agriculture is responsible for oversight of pesticides. Two years ago, a joint Rabbinate and Agriculture Ministry team was established, and the Rabbinate suggested that an arrangement be reached through which the Rabbinate would withhold kosher certification for growers who exceed a certain pesticide level, which would be determined by the Ministry of Agriculture. There is a halakhic basis for this. However the Ministry of Agriculture has not yet provided the Rabbinate with this information, and, therefore, the initiative is being delayed.”

Why not simply let the supervisors wash the vegetables?

“It is against policy, and for good reason: First of all, the Rabbinate’s position is that washing is not sufficient; secondly, even according to the rabbinic opinions that allow washing (opinions that are contrary to the Rabbinate’s policy) - the degree of washing required for the volume of greens that pass through an average restaurant in a day would necessitate employing the mashgiach full time, plus. The difference in cost between hiring a mashgiach for two hours a day and hiring him full time is a few times greater than the price difference between regular vegetables and mehadrin insect-free vegetables.”

One of the more complex kashrut- related issues is the requirement that kosher restaurants not operate on the Jewish Sabbath (Friday evening-Saturday evening), in order for the food to be certified as kosher. Israelis who do not observe the Sabbath, but who do strictly observe the laws of kashrut, cannot enjoy a kosher meal in a restaurant on Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath).

The Chief Rabbinate responded, saying, “Food that is cooked on Shabbat is not kosher. Period. There is no halakhic difference (difference according to Jewish law) between food that was cooked on Shabbat and shrimp. Kashrut on Shabbat raises a hundred times more halakhic questions than the rest of the week, and this complexity is expressed in specialized kitchen equipment, adapting the menu, adapting work methods, and more supervision hours. For these reasons, as a rule, it is not cost-effective to open a kosher restaurant on Shabbat.”

The Chief Rabbinate promises: “Significant structural changes.”

The Chief Rabbinate responded to this report, saying, “A few months ago, the Chief Rabbinate and the Ministry of Religious Services announced a significant structural change in matters of kashrut. The central matter in the process, in terms of the Chief Rabbinate, is ending the employer-employee relationship between the supervised and the supervisor, and transferring the responsibility to a brokering company. This will solve the conflict of interests between the supervisors and the supervised. This process is currently underway.”

The Chief Rabbinate responded to the specific claims, saying, “When assessing the status of the kashrut system in Israel, the business owners are the less-reliable angle. They are limited in their business profits and would rather write that the business is kosher and enjoy income from the kosher-observing population without the Rabbinate getting under their feet. For these reasons, it is not surprising that restaurant owners complain. Of course, when there are specific complaints, we take them very seriously.

“The supervisors’ work hours at each place of business are set by the local rabbi. The restaurant owner is the mashgiach’s employer, and it is his responsibility to verify his attendance at work, just as he verifies the attendance of all his other employees. If a mashgiach does not follow the employer’s instructions, or does not show up for work, the business owner can easily contact his supervisor and report him, and the matter will be taken care of. Based on reports from the field, there are very few complaints regarding mashgichim failing to show up for work. Because it is one of the most common complaints in the media, we need to investigate the source of this discrepancy.

“Regarding payment: because there is no employer-employee relationship between the Rabbinate and the mashgiach, we have no authority and no ability to oversee methods of payment. The mashgiach is a supplier, or an employee of the business owner, and his payment is, in principle, a recognized tax-deductible expense. Just as any law-abiding business owner would not agree to pay other suppliers without a receipt, there is no justification for paying a mashgiach in such a manner. We do not, of course, support illegal methods of payment.

“With regards to the serious allegations of crude behavior, we are unable to respond in the absence of details. A mashgiach has no authority to make unreasonable demands from a business owner. A business owner can go to the Chief Rabbinate’s website at any time and check whether or not the mashgiach’s demands have basis or not, and he can also turn to the mashgiach’s supervisor. In cases where a certificate is revoked, or not granted, the law allows the business owner to lodge an appeal with the Chief Rabbinate board.

“The Chief Rabbinate employs five supervisors in Israel, who have authority to fine businesses that present themselves as kosher illegally. These supervisors have been granted authority to do their jobs by the Ministry of Justice. Business owners who receive fines are not happy about it, but it is this very activity that allows the public to trust the kashrut of a business owner who holds a legal kosher certificate from the Rabbinate. If anyone could hang a sign saying ‘kosher’ without it having any basis, no one would be able to trust the kashrut of any business owner whom he or she did not know personally.

“At the end of the day, kosher certification is a business decision. A business owner can decide not to market kosher food at all, or he can hold a kosher certificate. If the restaurant is in a geographical area in which a large proportion of the clientele is affiliated with these demographics, it may make sense for the business owner to request supervision from entities other than the Rabbinate. This is a business decision between the place of business and those entities, and it has nothing to do with the Rabbinate.”

Israel Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau responded to the article with the following statement: “Every system has problematic exceptions at the extremes. This is true for every commercial company, business, or organization. Since I took my post eight months ago, I have been primarily working on creating transparency in the kashrut system, and we have many examples of this. We have to give our efforts the time to become effective, and I am certain we will be able to make great changes.”

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on June 19, 2014

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2014

Gush Katif lettuce
Gush Katif lettuce
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