Keeping it kosher, community-style

Some cafés and restaurants in the city are taking part in an alternative kashrut program that places trust at the center of things.

Shye Maurice Ghini (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Shye Maurice Ghini
For Shye Maurice Ghini, the owner of Italian trattoria Topolino on Agrippas Street, moving to an alternative kashrut certification meant anything but lowering his standards. He is in fact quite proud of his unique, private certification.
“I have Badatz Leibowitz,” he says of his Hashgaha Pratit certification under the supervision of Rabbi Aharon Leibowitz.
A quiet revolution is sweeping restaurants and cafés in the capital in the past months as more and more businesses decide to set aside their traditional kashrut certificates and declare themselves as kosher under the auspices of an alternative, community-based project.
Hashgaha Pratit (a play on “private supervision” and “divine providence”) is a program that provides businesses with private kosher certifications as an alternative to the ones distributed by the Chief Rabbinate, the government-sponsored religious establishment that presides over almost all Jewish religious aspects in the country.
The program was set up when its founder, Leibowitz, discovered that cafés and restaurants that served kosher food were reluctant to have kashrut certifications because they were displeased with the Chief Rabbinate’s kashrut policy.
“I understood them, and I suggested that we do something communal. We set up an alternative model,” says Leibowitz.
This model includes the deployment of “kashrut trustees” to businesses that have undergone training regarding issues pertaining to kashrut laws, who maintain the kosher standards required by Jewish law in the kitchens.
The kashrut trustees take over tasks such as inspecting and washing the greens, sifting flour and checking legumes to guarantee that the produce is up to halachic standards. In accordance with Jewish law, Hashgaha Pratit’s kashrut trustees are Orthodox, although other volunteers are from various religious backgrounds. The organization prefers to work with Orthodox women trustees as affirmative action against their exclusion from the Chief Rabbinate.
The program is based on “a language of reciprocation and partnership and not of criticism and force,” says Leibowitz, highlighting the issue that bothers many business owners and customers with regard to the Chief Rabbinate’s kashrut system, which many view as being forcible, expensive and unfair.
The program’s success is “part of a very significant development in Jerusalem of Jewish renewal, a place where the city isn’t divided between religious people and secular people, [where there is] a spectrum of interpretations toward Halacha,” says the American-born Orthodox Leibowitz, who holds the No. 3 spot in the Yerushalmim party at the Jerusalem Municipality.
“There are, of course, denominations and communities that will never accept a kashrut that is different,” he says, but on the other hand there is “a range of types of kippot” seen eating at the restaurants and cafés Hashgaha Pratit works with. “The crisis with the rabbinical establishment, and especially with the Chief Rabbinate, is part of the public mood that allows us to succeed and grow,” he says.
And it certainly seems that his organization is gaining ground. Since Hashgaha Pratit began its work in March, nine restaurants and cafés have joined the program, and the organization recently raised more than NIS 70,000 through the Israeli crowdfunding site Headstart to continue to expand its activities.
Among the businesses that joined the program is Azura, the legendary Jerusalem establishment in the Mahaneh Yehuda market. Despite the restaurant’s being strictly kosher ever since it opened, Hashgaha Pratit is the first kashrut certification to hang on its wall.
“We never had supervision. We didn’t relate to the Chief Rabbinate’s supervision,” says owner Shabi Azura, whose father founded the restaurant. As for Hashgaha Pratit, he says that “there isn’t a thing here that someone comes to check our tzitziot [level of observance]. [They] just keep everything that needs to be kept.”
One of Azura’s objections to the Chief Rabbinate’s kashrut policy is its insistence that restaurants use Gush Katif greens, which have been chemically sprayed to eliminate insects.
“For us, Gush Katif is chemicals, and it doesn’t suit our cooking, which is based on authentic vegetables,” he says.
Another issue is the price. While Hashgaha Pratit charges NIS 420 a month for its services, which includes frequent and lengthy visits from kashrut trustees, the Chief Rabbinate charges much more and, according to Azura, doesn’t do as much.
“It only makes sense that a person who works for his money needs to work and not only visit me once a fortnight,” he says of the Chief Rabbinate. The alternative program, he says, “works almost voluntarily. We are very pleased, and we very much cooperate with them.”
The alternative kashrut program “is gaining momentum not so much in businesses but in the general public. The public refuses to be captive in the hands of the monopoly that is the Chief Rabbinate, which has monopolized the word ‘kosher,’” he says.
TOPOLINO’S GHINI agrees. The eatery had a Chief Rabbinate certification for four years, then went without one for three years, and eight months ago decided to join the program.
“We didn’t have a problem with kashrut, we had a problem with the Chief Rabbinate,” he says. “They insisted that we use Gush Katif greens. We thought, and not only us, that this is a very sprayed vegetable.”
When the eatery decided to give up its kashrut certification, “We explained to people that we are kosher, that we keep all the mitzvot and that we know them,” he says.
According to the law, a place that doesn’t have certification from the Chief Rabbinate can’t display any sign that says it is kosher, so Topolino, like other places without certification, didn’t have the word “kosher” hanging anywhere.
Hashgaha Pratit’s certification also can’t call itself kosher and is instead called a “trust alliance” between the business place and its customers, in which the business states that it sees in the trust given to it by the customer a “sacred social value,” underlining the importance of the community in the program.
Ghini says that his customers are generally pleased with the arrangement.
“A lot of people are happy because many don’t agree with the halachic direction of the Chief Rabbinate,” he says. “Most religious and traditional people have a problem [with the fact] that the Chief Rabbinate is ultra-Orthodox and that this whole establishment is a state institution.”
He compares his certification to the ones used by haredi restaurants, which don’t rely on the Chief Rabbinate but have their own strict supervision under the auspices of Badatz (Eda Haredit Rabbinical Court).
“I have Badatz Leibowitz. I don’t see any difference,” he says. “I’m very pleased. We have supervision, we have a certified and respected rabbi, an Orthodox rabbi, who isn’t reinventing Halacha.”
Another pleased business owner is Itzik Ya’acov, the owner of Itzik’s Place on Bethlehem Road. He had Chief Rabbinate certification for two years, and then worked without a kashrut certificate for a year before joining the Hashgaha Pratit program. He took down his Chief Rabbinate certificate “because the Chief Rabbinate is supposed to come and give you a supervision service, and they didn’t do it,” he says, noting the sporadic appearance of his former supervisor.
“These guys, the supervisors, you don’t choose them… some are nice and some aren’t,”’ he says of the Chief Rabbinate. Hashgaha Pratit, on the other hand, “are very nice people, very courteous. We work together with them. We work in harmony.”
Another reason for joining the alternative kashrut project was to bring in a little competition to the kashrut sector.
“You need competition in everything. They took ownership of the word ‘kosher’… I’m all for competition,” he says.
Like other business owners, Ya’acov was also displeased with the Chief Rabbinate’s insistence on Gush Katif greens, which he says cost twice as much as regular greens. Nowadays, he buys greens and soaks them according to Jewish law to get rid of any insects.
The café’s customers seem to be in favor of the new certification.
Ya’acov estimates that he lost between 5 percent and 10% of his customer base following the move to Hashgaha Pratit but gained 20% more clients.
“People come and support the program,” he says. “More and more people are discovering that the Chief Rabbinate is something fictitious,” he says, noting the infrequency of its supervisors’ visits.
THE CHIEF Rabbinate, of course, begs to differ.
“It’s not true,” says Jacob Ruhamkin, the director of the Chief Rabbinate’s kashrut department in Jerusalem. “The supervisors are standing guard,” he says, adding that they visit businesses according to need.
As for the insistence on Gush Katif greens, he says that it is a “kashrut obligation.”
Asked why washing the greens independently isn’t an option, he says, “We can’t allow such a thing… the business’s owner or the staff don’t always know how to do it.”
“A lot of noise is being made over small things,” he says of Hashgaha Pratit. “Overall, they haven’t taken off,” he says, adding that the organization is working with business places that didn’t have a kashrut certification beforehand anyway. “They aren’t of interest to anyone. People in Jerusalem want kashrut from the Chief Rabbinate.”
And the customers? Hashgaha Pratit has received support from a wide range of Jerusalemites, and the cafés and restaurants that participate in the program still attract observant crowds. While some people feel uncomfortable eating at a place with an alternative kashrut, others are more than happy to do so.
Nadia M. Levene is one of the program’s avid supporters. For her, one of the most important aspects of Hashgaha Pratit is “openness, trusting people, believing them and teaching them,” she says.
As a self-declared feminist Orthodox woman who observes Shabbat and mitzvot, she says that “the hashgaha [supervision] is probably at a higher level” at places that participate in the program.
She is the co-chairwoman at Limmud Jerusalem and has worked alongside Leibowitz.
“I trust all the people who are involved in this,” she says.
The communal aspect of the initiative and the bond that is created between the business owner and the customers are important to her. The program is about “saying to people, ‘We trust you,’ building bridges between different people. Building relationships – that’s what we really need,” she says.
The program has also attracted the attention of people who don’t observe kashrut. Hebrew University student Yuval Hananel, for example, chose to donate to the crowdfunding, effort even though he doesn’t keep kosher himself.
“I wanted to support the Hashgaha Pratit project because I believe that the issue of kashrut, whether I keep it or not, affects me. We’ve all eaten at kosher restaurants, and at the end of the day we are all suffering as consumers from the corrupt monopoly that exists,” he says.
“Kashrut is anyhow based on a certain level of trust. When you go to a friend’s house and he tells you that the food is kosher, you believe him that he does keep kosher. You don’t ask that friend for a kashrut certification,” he adds.
Leibowitz is pleased with the momentum his organization is gaining and believes that Hashgaha Pratit can serve as an example to other initiatives in the city.
“A change can start from the bottom. It is time that we started building the city that we dream of, Jerusalem,” he says.