Not so kosher after all

“There is a serious concern that the kashrut supervision by the Jerusalem rabbinate, as provided by the religious council, doesn’t meet the standards that consumers expect."

Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Aryeh Stern (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Aryeh Stern
In an era characterized by the quest for more open access to kashrut certification – which has given birth to the “alternative kashrut” movement funded and directed by Jerusalem City Council member Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz – the capital’s religious council is facing a new scandal in that sphere.
Located in an old building on Hahavatzelet Street, the council is responsible for religious services such as marriages, burials and kashrut. Although dissatisfaction with council representatives and kashrut inspectors is far from a novelty, it has recently reached new heights, as complaints about lax kosher supervision have led to the involvement of the state comptroller and tensions with Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Aryeh Stern.
A few weeks ago, city council member Elad Kaplan (Hitorerut), who is religious, received information alleging that some of the religious council’s kashrut inspectors were remiss in performing their duties. He presented the information to the city comptroller, who also supervises the religious council.
Considering the sensitivity of the accusations – that some kashrut inspectors were not showing up for weeks or months at the sites they were supposed to monitor daily – Kaplan decided to take the issue to the state comptroller as well.
The city and state comptrollers queried the religious council’s president, Yehoshua Yishai – who is additionally suspected of facilitating the appointment of relatives as inspectors, in violation of ministry guidelines.
Yishai – a relative of former Shas minister Eli Yishai – responded to the city comptroller that “being the only child of my late parents – I don’t understand which relatives we are talking about here.” Later, his assistant clarified that one case involved a kashrut inspector who had been appointed before Yishai’s term in office, and that another case had to do with a distant relative who had been hired as an inspector before the current regulations were in effect.
Following Kaplan’s request that the state comptroller investigate, the Knesset Interior Committee held a special session on the issue about two weeks ago, prompting harsh reactions from employees of the religious council. Suspicions reached the point that some kashrut inspectors who were not involved hesitated to discuss the matter on their cellphones, fearing misinterpretation.
Furthermore, when Stern’s cabinet director, Avinoam Kutcher, was incorrectly identified by Yishai as the key leak to Kaplan and the state comptroller, Yishai sent a letter to Stern, demanding Kutcher’s immediate dismissal. Stern refused.
Afterward, some confidential decisions from meetings in the chief rabbi’s chamber reached Yishai’s assistants.
This led the chief rabbi and his staff to suspect that someone might have installed listening devices, and they ordered an inspection. Nothing was found, but the relationship between the religious council head and the chief rabbi grew even more tense.
“Basically,” Kaplan told In Jerusalem, as he did the Knesset committee, “there is a serious concern that the kashrut supervision by the Jerusalem rabbinate, as provided by the religious council, doesn’t meet the standards that consumers expect. This is not a petty matter.
It has to be addressed, because people trust the rabbinate’s kashrut, and this could turn out to be a great sin.”
Asked what the most common problems are, Kaplan says that inspectors allegedly do not come to the sites they supervise “sometimes for a month or more. In some cases, instead of coming daily for about six hours, they show up once a week for 20 minutes. That’s not the way to ensure that a customer in a restaurant or a supermarket obtains the kashrut level he expects. No one dares to talk about it publicly for fear of retaliation, but this has to be stopped.”
Additionally, in at least one case, Kaplan discovered that a tender for a kashrut inspector position had gone to a candidate who was already working in another post at the religious council during the same hours. When a Chief Rabbinate staff member sent a request for clarification, the response was that “the employee in question managed to get someone to change the payroll reports on his working hours to enable him to get the position,” according to Kaplan, who was alerted by one of his sources about this alleged infraction.
“That was too much,” he says. “I simply went to the Jerusalem Police and submitted a complaint of fraud.”
The police and the state comptroller are investigating the matter.
Meanwhile, Kutcher, who Yishai and his staffer believe originated the story about the kashrut inspectors in order to weaken them, remains in his post, and has declared that he supports Stern in his efforts to ensure that the rabbinate’s kashrut system remains trustworthy.
Knesset Interior Committee head David Amsalem – until recently an employee of the municipality – told the Knesset panel that the core of the problem was largely a “bad relationship between the parties,” and proposed handing the matter over to the committee.