(photo credit: REUTERS)
Kashrut in Israel has become a highly charged issue, with the Chief Rabbinate trying to defend its monopoly over kashrut supervision against the actions of insurgent activists trying to tear it down.
Last week, the High Court of Justice heard a petition against this monopoly and the justices sharply criticized the Chief Rabbinate, which leaked details of plans it has for reforming kashrut supervision.
Against this background of turmoil, the settlement of Efrat has for over 10 years been employing a system for kashrut supervision which eliminates one of the key aspects of the national system that has been the cause of much of the dysfunction and corruption of the rabbinate’s system.
Around the country, food businesses such as restaurants, catering services, grocery stores and butchers are assigned kashrut supervisors by the local religious council. But it is the business itself which pays the supervisor directly.
There is a clear conflict of interests in this system, which has led to countless allegations of corruption and unprofessional practices.
Reports abound of supervisors not turning up to work, demanding payment in cash and otherwise not performing their duties as is required.
But more than a decade ago, the system in Efrat was changed so that the local religious council, which employs kashrut supervisors, pays them itself and designates which of the 35 businesses requiring supervision around the town those supervisors will oversee.
The businesses themselves pay an hourly fee for the supervisor to Efrat’s religious council.
The supervisors are required to submit a document every month stipulating how many hours they spent at each business, while one of the rabbis from the religious council visits the businesses to ensure that the supervision is being conducted properly.
“It’s the only model that will work, because supervisors need to have loyalty to the rabbis [of the religious council] and the customers, not to the business owner,” said Bob Lang, head of the Efrat Religious Council.
Lang said that in the national system, business owners are anxious to have a minimum of bother over kashrut issues and simply pay the supervisor without undue interference, so the supervisor is less inclined to point out problems to the man providing his paycheck.
Lang and the Efrat Religious Council had to fight with the Religious Services Ministry for years to allow them to dispense with the national system, largely because the Finance Ministry does not want to fund more employees in the local religious councils. Therefore, this is not currently a system that can be adopted en masse by other religious councils.
However, the Chief Rabbinate has said it is considering this model as one of the ways to reform the national kashrut supervision system, with a final decision expected in the coming months.
At the same time, activist groups who have brought legal pressure against the Chief Rabbinate are unwilling to back down, saying that despite years and even decades of complaints and state reports nothing has been done to solve the problem.
The Ne’emenai Torah Va’avodah organization points to a government committee established in 1992 to deal with the issue as evidence of the long-term failure to solve the problem, along with State Comptroller’s Reports criticizing kashrut supervision from 1993, 2009, 2014 and a new report scheduled for publication in the coming months.
NTA recently joined the High Court petition filed by two restaurants several years ago against the Chief Rabbinate, which requests that the court allow establishments to declare themselves to be kosher if they have supervision from an independent kashrut supervision service.
The organization took heart from the criticism that the High Court judges, including its president, Miriam Naor, leveled at the current system.
“The judges expressed support for our position that the kashrut market should be open for competition and to free kashrut consumers from the monopoly of the rabbinate...to ensure that the quality of kashrut will be improved,” NTA said.
The organization envisages a system where private kashrut supervision organizations are allowed to operate and provide businesses with supervision, while the Chief Rabbinate acts as a regulator of those various organizations.