Grassroots kashrut in Jerusalem
I have a deep sense of the social and spiritual potential in this partnership between Jews, those who keep kosher and those who do not.
Ultra-kosher for ultra-Orthodox. Photo: Ariel Jerozolimski
The Kashrut Yerushalmit project, a community volunteer-based supervision I have
been developing with the Yerushalmim Movement, has been prematurely cast in the
media limelight. This has emerged from left field as a result of the Jerusalem
Rabbinate delivering warnings and citations to restaurants that present
themselves as kosher but do not hold an authorized kashrut certificate from the
Chief Rabbinate and the local religious council.
establishments have violated the law is questionable, and I will leave that for
the legal experts to sort through, but I want to clearly state that by simply
claiming they are kosher, they have in no way violated the Halacha.
real question is, of course, whether people are permitted, or advised, to
believe them. We should note that there are good reasons not to accept a
business owner’s claim in this department. They are not objective and clearly
stand to profit by claiming they are kosher.
They are not trained experts
in the laws of kashrut and therefore are not able to make the claim with
authority. Last but not least, if they do not proscribe personally to all the
precepts of Jewish law, they will perhaps not assign sufficient gravity to the
details to satisfy those of us who truly care.
The laws of kashrut are
not simple, and those who choose to trust while saying “What here could not be
kosher?” may not be aware of the details such as tithe, hallah and infestations,
not to mention the myriad products in the modern kitchen that themselves require
That being said, it is also not rocket science. After all,
many of us maintain a kosher home without regular professional support. I
suspect that despite the details involved, many of these kosher claims may be
valid, or very close to valid. Certainly, one business owner I spoke to, who had
an authorized certificate for years, was well experienced and knowledgeable
enough in my judgment to continue to maintain the standards on his
If these eateries desire to maintain their kosher status, and indeed
claim to be doing just that, the Chief Rabbinate should be asking itself why
they have chosen not to subscribe to its service.
Sadly, the complaints
we are hearing raise significant questions. As citizens we should be demanding
more transparency from the rabbinate. How often is a kitchen inspected? Why are
mashgichim (kashrut supervisors) paid directly by the restaurant, and why does
the business not receive a receipt? What are the standards required and how are
they enforced when inspections are often few and far between? It breaks my heart
to hear well-meaning owners express their anger at the lack of significant
supervision, squeezed for what they feel amounts to paying for protection.
will the rabbinate wake up and realize that it is the face of Torah, and that
stellar service, best practices, impeccable ethical standards, and the highest
of human relations skills are required? Yechiel Spira, the owner of the blog
Jerusalem Kosher News, wrote in his summer advisory: “From my hours and hours of
visiting stores, monitoring stores, spying on stores, stakeouts, picking through
garbage, observing mashgichim, walking the shuk and other areas in the center of
Jerusalem I have reached the conclusion that one seeking reliable kashrus may no
longer rely on the Jerusalem Rabbinate hashgacha [supervision] in restaurants,
regular and/or mehadrin, unless you are personally familiar with the goings on
in the restaurant you wish to visit.”
I do not know for a fact that
things are as bad as Yechiel claims, but this statement does triangulate with
the complaints of the business owners we are in touch with.
The law that
mandates rabbinate supervision is at heart a law to protect the customer from
false advertising and fraud; what are we to do when in reality it may be doing
the opposite? Competition in kashrut supervision in Jerusalem is long overdue,
and I firmly believe it is the only way to bring change. The rabbinate should be
given the poetically just role of enforcing the best practices of private
agencies through supervision, investigation and the legal prosecution of
This way, the market would drive industry quality
up, and the government would be positioned in its natural role of legislation
Since time immemorial, and in almost all world cultures,
the sharing of food is a sign of trust and kinship. The acts of breaking bread,
raising glasses, or even meeting over a cup of coffee are ripe with symbolic
meaning. Imagine if kashrut were a vehicle for building trust and community,
instead of the divisive issue it has become. The Yerushalmim Movement and my
yeshiva, Sulam Yaakov, are developing a new model based on a covenant of trust
between the business and the community.
This unique process includes
study, emotional engagement and strict volunteer supervision by trained
community representatives and rabbis.
There will be no certificate;
rather this will mark a return to the days of the small village, where
reputation and word of mouth were the foundation of trust. The village square
will be the World Wide Web, where community members will be able learn about the
process, examine the standards, and read first-hand, dated reports from every
Jerusalem is the city of shalom and shleimut, peace and
unity. I have a deep sense of the social and spiritual potential in this
partnership between Jews, those who keep kosher and those who do not. This is
trust-building, and community- building at its core. It is the real rebuilding
of Yerushalayim, Jerusalem.
The writer is the dean of the Sulam Yaakov
yeshiva in the capital’s Nahlaot neighborhood and an activist for Yerushalmim.