An independent kashrut system takes shape

Hashgacha Pratit’s supervision is increasingly in demand, but Heaven forbid anyone use the ‘K-word’

RABBI AHARON Leibowitz (right), one of the founders of ‘Hashgacha Pratit,’ is photographed on the job at the Kaima Farm in Beit Zeit alongside two young farm helpers. (photo credit: Courtesy)
RABBI AHARON Leibowitz (right), one of the founders of ‘Hashgacha Pratit,’ is photographed on the job at the Kaima Farm in Beit Zeit alongside two young farm helpers.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Hashgacha Pratit, an independent, not-for-profit Orthodox kashrut authority, scored a major victory last week when the notable Eshel Hashomron Hotel in Ariel took the unprecedented step of dumping the rabbinate’s kashrut supervision in favor of Hashgacha Pratit’s, due to an unexplained demand to replace its kashrut supervisor.
Using loopholes in the law to work around the legal monopoly afforded to the state’s religious establishment, Hashgacha Pratit supervises 33 restaurants and food businesses.
The rabbinate’s kashrut system has come under unprecedented pressure over the last month due to scathing criticism leveled at it by the State Comptroller’s Report that was published last month and an order by the High Court of Justice for the Chief Rabbinate to implement reforms by next year.
This criticism stems from years of complaints by food business owners about poor practices in the rabbinate’s kashrut system and numerous allegations of corruption.
The hotel industry, too, has become increasingly dissatisfied with the rabbinate’s kashrut system, complaining of unreasonable demands by rabbinate kashrut supervisors for accommodation and regarding which food suppliers to use.
Hashgacha Pratit says that other hotels are in negotiations with it to switch over as well, and that the number of restaurants applying for its supervision is more than it can handle at the moment.
Despite its growing prominence, the organization is still small, and much of the public is not familiar with it or how it operates.
In order to understand how its kashrut supervision system works, The Jerusalem Post sat down with representatives of Hashgacha Pratit to get a sense of how the organization was started, how it runs its supervision operation, and how it functions in today’s current legal reality.
The concept for a grassroots, non-rabbinate kashrut supervision, similar to independent haredi kashrut authorities, was originally conceived in 2011. With the help of then-Jerusalem City Council member Rachel Azaria, now a Kulanu MK, and Orthodox rabbi and dean of the Sulam Yaakov yeshiva Rabbi Aharon Leibowitz, Hashgacha Pratit emerged.
The organization gained traction in Jerusalem, with several restaurants canceling their kashrut supervision from the capital’s rabbinate, due to their complaints over poor practices by rabbinate supervisors, and switching to Hashgacha Pratit.
The law, as it currently stands, states that only restaurants and businesses supervised by the Chief Rabbinate and local rabbinates are legally entitled to declare themselves in writing to be kosher, and that other businesses not under their supervision cannot use the word “kosher” anywhere in the establishments.
Hashgacha Pratit works around this limitation by giving restaurants and businesses it supervises certificates titled “Covenant of Trustworthiness” instead of “Kashrut Certificate.”
These businesses are not allowed to write on their shop fronts or anywhere in their establishments that they are kosher, nor may they use words associated with kashrut such as “supervision,” but they are allowed to say verbally that they are kosher to anyone who might ask.
To date, no business without a rabbinate kashrut license has yet been fined for advertising itself online as kosher, but Hashgacha Pratit recommends that its clients avoid doing so.
Instead, it tells businesses with its supervision to write the words “Is it kosher here?” in Hebrew on their websites with a link to Hashgacha Pratit’s website, which has further explanation.
This formulation is itself a tongue-in-cheek swipe at the Chief Rabbinate and its state-mandated monopoly over the use of a word, “kosher,” since the Hebrew for “Is it kosher here?” is rendered very simply into two words, “kasher po?” which without the question mark would mean “It is kosher here.”
The phrase therefore comes as close as possible to infringing on the rabbinate’s monopoly over the word without actually doing so.
Hashgacha Pratit also takes out paid advertisements in various publications where it declares the restaurants under its supervision to be kosher, since the current law bans only the businesses themselves from declaring that they are kosher, not anyone else.
To provide its supervision services, Hashgacha Pratit currently employs six supervisors, including three women, all of whom are religiously observant and who are responsible for overseeing the kashrut of its restaurants in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan, Ashkelon and Beersheba.
Five of the six supervisors have passed the rabbinate’s kashrut exams, while the sixth, operating in Beersheba, was approved by Hashgacha Pratit’s head of kashrut to begin work under his tutelage and with the presence of a supervisor from Tel Aviv, and will take the rabbinate exam at the next opportunity.
Crucially, the supervisors are paid a monthly salary by Hashgacha Pratit, unlike the system employed by the rabbinate whereby the supervisor is paid directly by the restaurant he supervises, a situation that has been heavily criticized as an inherent conflict of interests and the source of many bad practices.
When a restaurant first applies for supervision, the head of kashrut for the organization, Rabbi Oren Duvdevani, visits the premises to identify any possible problems in the kitchen that might affect upholding kashrut requirements, and makes kosher any equipment and kitchen infrastructure that requires it.
Duvdevani is a world-renowned expert in kashrut supervision who recently defected from the rabbinate to Hashgacha Pratit.
All kitchen and waiting staff are then given a workshop by Duvdevani in kashrut and the practical measures required to maintain kashrut standards in the restaurant.
The rabbi also explains to the staff Hashgacha Pratit’s background, the reasons why it was established, and what they may tell patrons regarding the kashrut of the restaurant.
The designated supervisor then visits the restaurant every day for a week to work with the staff in the kitchen and continue the teaching process, to ensure that everyone is aware of the kashrut requirements and is working in accordance with Jewish law.
After this week is complete the restaurant is issued the Covenant of Trustworthiness certificate from Hashgacha Pratit to display, and can begin telling its customers, verbally, that it is a kosher establishment.
Hashgacha Pratit’s supervisors visit every restaurant two or three times per week, visiting the establishment without notice.
According to Hashgacha Pratit director Ayala Falk, the supervisors work in the kitchen with the restaurant staff during their visits to form a working relationship with them, washing vegetables, sifting flour and performing other jobs required by kashrut.
“We are trying to enlist the goodwill of the restaurant owners and to create a positive relationship of cooperation and partnership so that there is no thought of trying to deceive us,” says Falk.
Problems involving human error can and do occur, she says, and are investigated by the supervisor to determine if something contravening kashrut standards was done deliberately or by accident, and what steps need to be taken to ensure that kashrut is maintained going forward. If necessary, Duvdevani is consulted to advise the supervisors.
The arrangement between Hashgacha Pratit and each restaurant states explicitly that if the establishment in question is found to be deliberately deceiving the kashrut supervisors or consistently failing to meet the required standards, Hashgacha Pratit is entitled to make this information public and will subsequently withdraw its supervision.
This has occurred so far with two restaurants that were failing to comply with kashrut regulations, which led Hashgacha Pratit to retract its supervision and publicize the fact.
“As the most professional and ethical kosher supervision in Israel, we are revealing the fact that the law that is meant to prevent [kashrut] fraud is actually perpetrating a fraud by giving a substandard service a monopoly,” Leibowitz told the Post.
He added that the current reality in which the rabbinate controls the kashrut licensing market would be altered only with a bottom-up, grassroots change in attitude by consumers and businesses, and that only once such a process has happened could legalization be enacted to guarantee those changes in law.
The Chief Rabbinate obviously sees things very differently. It has repeatedly questioned the legality of businesses using Hashgacha Pratit and says that it is causing business owners to transgress the law.
It argues that privatizing the kashrut licensing market could lead to mass confusion and an increase in kashrut fraud, although one proposal to solve this problem has been to turn the Chief Rabbinate into the industry regulator, overseeing the running of independent kashrut authorities.
But the Chief Rabbinate, in particular Chief Rabbi David Lau, has in recent months woken up to the fact that there are severe deficiencies in its kashrut system, and recently approved a series of reforms.
The reforms, adopted by the Council of the Chief Rabbinate in April, would have kashrut inspectors employed by the local rabbinates instead of by the businesses they supervise, and the business would pay a supervision fee to the local rabbinate.
The supervision models would also change, with restaurants and food businesses able to choose either to be monitored remotely by installing cameras in their kitchens, or to appoint a member of staff as a “kashrut trustee” who would be responsible for ensuring the kitchen is run in a kosher manner. Kashrut supervisors would then conduct regular inspections of the premises without giving prior notice, to ensure kashrut standards are being maintained.
It remains to be seen whether the Chief Rabbinate can implement these reforms, and the High Court of Justice has given it until September 2018 to do so.
Leibowitz has called the proposed reforms insufficient, however, since they retain the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on kashrut supervision, and said that such efforts are akin to “connecting a corpse to a life-support machine.”
He vowed that Hashgacha Pratit would continue operations until grassroots momentum and public pressure for reliable kashrut lead to legislation to change the law.