Analysis: Kashrut in Jerusalem is all about power

No one is going to risk losing the custom of Jews who observe kashrut.

By
December 25, 2006 23:16
haredi man behind book 88

haredi man book 88. (photo credit: )

 
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The Christian community in Jerusalem might be small but you would expect their presence to be tangible on Christmas Eve, at the very least. But on Sunday night, not even one hotel in the western part of the city hosted a party. Doing so would have been financial suicide. In the past, the Jerusalem Rabbinate has revoked the Kashrut certificates of hotels who dared celebrate yuletide, and no one is going to risk losing the custom of Kosher-eating Jews. The same is true of New Year's Eve. Even though in the eyes of many it is not a religious event, the parties will only take place in joints without Kashrut supervision. In some places where the local rabbinate is less vigilant, there are celebrations under the guise of someone's 47th birthday or the ninth anniversary of the company's big project. In Jerusalem, the rabbinate is on the lookout, and not only during the last week of December. A hotel or restaurant that hosts a slightly risqu show, or a belly-dancing performance is also liable to lose its certificate. What does New Year's Eve or costumed dancers have to do with kitchen regulations? The Jerusalem rabbis are adamant that their job isn't limited to keeping bacon and eggs off the breakfast menu. Hoteliers and restaurant owners who considered going to court in the hope of forcing the state-funded Rabbinate to mind its own business and stick to the Kashrut issue were told that if they won in court, they would receive a certificate reading: "Kosher under the supervision of the Supreme Court." Too often, these clashes between the rabbis and the food business are about power, not the strictures of Halacha. Kashrut certificates have been revoked over waitresses' clothing and the paintings on a restaurant's walls, but never over the staff not being paid on time, an infringement of a Torah commandment. Shabbat is perhaps the thorniest issue. There are halachic grounds for disallowing food cooked on the holy day, even though it's still technically Kosher, and by extension denying certification to a restaurant that operates on Shabbat. However in Jerusalem, the Rabbinate refused for decades to okay restaurants and coffee shops that observed all the Kashrut and Shabbat rules if they belonged to a chain with other branches open on Shabbat. That's why you can buy a Kosher Big Mac at Ben-Gurion Airport, and even in the Harel Mall, five minutes drive from the capital and under the supervision of the Mevaseret Zion Rabbinate, but not in Jerusalem. The capital rabbis reason that the branches might be kosher but that if they approve them, it might confuse the public, who would think that every golden arch in the country, even those serving cheeseburgers, are kosher. Not all rabbinates are the same. For example, in some parts of the Galilee and Golan, rabbis have realized it is pointless to demand that restaurants close on the day when the most Israelis drive up north, and that if they remained adamant, there wouldn't be any place to eat kosher in the area. So they devised a special certificate that only applies to six days a week. The Jerusalem rabbis aren't so flexible. Their recent agreement to certify the Aroma coffee shops - only after a major re-branding of its Jerusalem branches - is a major concession. McDonald's is doing the same, painting its kosher outlets blue. The new agreement doesn't mean the Rabbinate is easing its stance, only that it's finally grasped how much business it's been losing by not working with the big chains. The rabbis have realized that most new restaurants prefer not to bother with a Kashrut certificate, relying on higher income secular Israelis for customers. The Tiv Ta'am supermarket chain is flourishing despite selling pork and shellfish, and many families prefer to stay at exclusive inns with no supervision in the kitchen instead of at larger hotels where they can't even get a hot cup of coffee on Shabbat. The Jerusalem Rabbinate is simply trying to regain some of its lost business, without relinquishing any of its power. That's also the reason that while the haredi community is fighting El Al over its flying on Shabbat, Kashrut supervision hasn't been withdrawn from the company's in-flight catering. They might boycott the flights, but that doesn't mean they plan to lose control over the meals. Kashrut supervision is the second biggest source of income for haredi men, after Kollel stipends, employing thousands around the country. The pay usually isn't that great, although the supervisors of hotels get a fully paid weekend for their family every Shabbat, but it isn't very onerous work either. Very few supervisors are on the premises the whole time the kitchen is working. Normally they make do with a short daily visit, and often they turn up even less frequently. In principle, supervisors have unrestricted access to the kitchens and no food from outside is allowed, but in practice they are rarely aware of the major outsourcing that goes on in most eateries. The state-financed local and national Rabbinates make little effort to ensure their supervisors are doing their jobs. The situation is generally much better than at the private Kashrut organizations, the dozens of Badatzim run by ultra-Orthodox groups or even by individual rabbis. These organizations are all out for a piece of the action and they are accountable to no one. Many restaurant owners prefer them since all they demand is a monthly payment and you get a certificate that, to the uninitiated, looks like the regular thing. "The rabbi came and gave my kitchen a once-over," one coffee shop manager told me, "and he hasn't given us any trouble since." The manager said he could easily violate Kashrut without getting caught. For many clients, Kashrut is a serious issue and a certificate is a basic requirement before opening the menu. Surveys show that most Israelis keep kosher to some degree. Distrust of the official supervision is widespread and will stay so as long as the Kashrut authorities are seen to care more about their own power and the number of jobs they have to dole out than what actually goes on the plate.

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