Certainty without certification?

The list of restaurants that claim to be committed to running a kosher establishment yet do not want to be associated with the rabbinate is growing.

Cafe Mizrahi (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Cafe Mizrahi
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The small but loud demonstration last week on the corner of the Rehavia neighborhood’s Gaza and Metudela streets was – so far – the most outspoken stage of a new but rapidly growing protest movement. A few owners of restaurants and coffee shops, from various parts of the city, stood on the sidewalk and explained to passersby why they had decided to stop using the Chief Rabbinate’s kashrut certificates, and why despite that decision, customers who cared about kashrut should still come to their establishments.
It all started a few months ago, following the Chief Rabbinate’s decision to raise the fees for the kashrut certificates they provide to restaurants and coffee shops in the city. The first to decide simply to renounce the service was Gil Gini, owner of Topolino in the Mahaneh Yehuda market area. Since this restaurant does not serve meat, things were a little less controversial, and all Gini’s customers, including many observant Jews, kept coming. Soon afterward, it was the turn of a few others – Rehavia’s Carousela and Muiz cafes, among others – and recently the well-known Café Mizrahi at the shuk joined the movement, adding a touch of celebrity to it.
At the little protest gathering on December 11 in Rehavia, Eli Mizrahi revealed that his father, who had owned a restaurant in the city all his life and been a very religious man, had never bothered to get a kashrut certificate, but nevertheless had a large number of faithful religious customers.
“At the beginning, I did hold a kashrut certificate,” recalled Mizrahi, “but a few months ago I gave it up.... I don’t need it, my customers trust me – that’s enough.”
The Chief Rabbinate’s reaction was quick: It began to issue fines to the restaurants and coffee shops that took these measures. The next step is to publish an announcement that those venues are no longer under the supervision of the rabbinate’s kashrut department, a step that could be problematic for many religious customers.
Most of the “rebel” eateries say that so far they have not witnessed significant changes in their customers’ habits, but there is no assurance that it won’t happen in the future.
STRANGELY ENOUGH, there is an Orthodox rabbi among the major supporters of this move – Rabbi Aharon Leibovitch, a resident of the Nahlaot neighborhood, who was recently elected to the board of the Lev Ha’ir community council. Besides being a rabbi, Leibovitch is considered a community leader and sees his involvement in this situation as a typical community project.
“Competition in kashrut supervision in Jerusalem is long overdue, and I firmly believe this is the only way to bring change. We should adopt the situation existing in the US, where each one can choose the kashrut he trusts,” he explains in a phone interview this week.
There are essentially two strategies in the current kashrut certificate boycott. One of them, perhaps the most innovative, is the project led by Leibovitch’s community members, which focuses on the Salon Shabazi community coffee shop in Nahlaot.
“Members of the community volunteer to help at the Salon with kashrut issues – like checking the origin of the products or helping in the kitchen according to halachic rules of kashrut,” says Leibovitch. “It is based on trust and partnership, and has nothing to do with solutions provided at the national level – it is local, communal and involves neighbors first.”
He emphasizes that this way works only on the local level and with small businesses, and that it cannot be a solution for largescale restaurants with varied menus. In those cases, he explains, the only solution would involve the customers taking it upon themselves to decide what kind of kashrut they needed and wanted, rather than leaving the decision in the hands of the state.
So what will enable people to actualize this change? Leibovitch mentions three issues.
“One first has to answer the question, ‘Does it really matter to me?’ then inquire if the owner of the restaurant has a personal interest – like attracting kosher-observant clients. And the last, but not least, would be to find out, how much do I know about kashrut laws? In that aspect, the community has the power to help, because activists in a community who care about this issue will come to a restaurant and help the owner to keep kosher – that’s both a way to enhance trust and to strengthen the community ties.”
FOR THE moment, owners of restaurants that are listed as kosher but have ceased using the rabbinate’s certificates have received fines. Owners have been prepared to pay these fines so far, though at the Tnua Yerushalmit (Jerusalem Movement) – one of the bodies that strongly supported this initiative from the beginning – there is an effort to fight the fines.
“The fines issued by the rabbinate reflect their work system with the restaurants that are based on intimidation and harassment, instead of the ideals we believe a kashrut system should be based on – collaboration and trust,” says city councillor Rachel Azaria of the Yerushalmim party. “The restaurant owners are definitely on the front line, and as pioneers in this battle, they are exposed to risks. As a political group we have promised to give them our full support, and provide them with one of the leading lawyers in Israel on this issue. We honestly believe that this is an ideological and legal battle that we can and must win.”
A former mashgiah (kashrut supervisor) at the rabbinate explains that there are multiple reasons for the rabbinate’s concerns.
“Of course, they sincerely worry that not all the owners and the chefs in the restaurants can really be trusted – many of them, by the way, out of simple ignorance of the rules of kashrut, which are not easy to master,” he says. “But there is more. Without hinting at any kind of greed, let’s not forget that this is also a source of income that the Chief Rabbinate and the mashgihim won’t give up so easily.”
The rabbinate did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Two young customers wearing black kippot, who had just finished eating their breakfast at the Muiz coffee shop on Aza Street last Thursday, said they had decided to continue to come despite the lack of official kashrut certification. One of them explained that they had discussed the matter between themselves and concluded that as longtime customers of Muiz, they had a good sense of the owner’s sincerity.
“We just trust him, because we know him personally, so we don’t worry and we keep coming here,” said the younger one.
Asked whether he would go to a restaurant he did not know personally that promised kashrut without a certificate, his friend answered immediately, “I don’t think so. After all, it is first of all a matter of trust, and when you don’t know the person, it is a delicate matter. Also, I wouldn’t want to influence other people through my example. But here, I am 100 percent sure.”