Food in Israel - How is private supervision different from a rabbinical one?

So many customers – whether private or owners of a business – feel so tired of the Rabbinate and its rules.

 DRAMATIC CHANGES ahead: Grabbing a bite with a furry friend at a Jerusalem Aroma.  (photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
DRAMATIC CHANGES ahead: Grabbing a bite with a furry friend at a Jerusalem Aroma.
(photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)

Nili (not her real name) owns a small hotel downtown. Last week, after almost two pandemic years without tourists, she was happy to receive a reservation for a group of six tourists for a week’s sojourn in the Holy City.

Though the group, Christians from South America, requested only breakfast, Nili found that in order to keep her kashrut certificate from the Jerusalem Rabbinate, she had to host the mashgiah (kashrut supervisor) and his wife for the Shabbat before the arrival of the Christian tourists, and to supply them lunch and dinner, at her expense. Frustrated, angry, but helpless, Nili had no choice but to host the couple.

This kind of story, which has happened more than once, illustrates why so many customers – whether private or owners of a business – feel so tired of the Rabbinate and its rules. Nili’s small hotel still holds the official Rabbinate kashrut certificate – since it is located within walking distance from the Old City and the Kotel and a majority of her clients are religious and haredim, she cannot take the risk of renouncing it.

But over the past few years, more and more Jerusalem eateries have moved to the alternative kashrut service that provides a strictly kosher service, but outside of the Rabbinate and its conditions, of which many had tired.

These days dramatic changes in the Rabbinate kashrut services are taking place, as new Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana has presented a revolutionary kashrut plan.

According to that plan, the kosher market will be opened to competition. Kosher corporations that meet the halachic criteria set by the Chief Rabbinate and can prove economic and managerial affiliation will be able to be awarded kosher certificates.

Moreover, private training organizations will employ and supervise training supervisors. At the head of a private kosher body will be a “Mira Datra” (someone with the knowledge required), with the ability to be a city rabbinate supervisor. Kashrut bodies will publish the halachic standard (set by the Chief Rabbinate) to which they undertake to adhere.

A supreme supervisory body of the Chief Rabbinate will be established to supervise the private kashrut bodies and ensure they meet halachic standards. Last but not least, a kosher corporation that wishes to do so will be able to choose to meet a more basic standard than that set by the rabbinate, as long as it is approved by three city rabbis.

Avivit Ravia, the first woman kosher supervisor in the country, felt she didn’t have any other way to work as a mashgiach but in an alternative kashrut structure.

“I took this course on it, but pretty soon I understood that the Rabbinate would not let me pass the test at the end, and would not enable me to become employed, as a woman,” Ravia said. “It was a challenge I had to answer somehow. While I was still considering my next step, I was introduced to Rabbi Aharon Leibovitch, who launched the idea of alternative kashrut, which he called Hashgaha Pratit, and for me, it goes without saying it was a sign from heaven that it was the right thing to do and join him.”

Following a 2013 petition to the High Court of Justice by the religious women’s organization Emuna, the new chief rabbi, Rabbi David Lau, ruled that women should be allowed to serve in the profession. Ravia was already beyond it, but it did open the gates for many more women.

Yet even before that, a group of Jerusalemites who were concerned about kashrut but felt totally alienated by the Rabbinate rules decided to do something.

Haya Gilboa, Nassimi Naim-Naor, Avivit Ravia, Yonatan Vadai and of course Leibovitch, the first rabbinical authority to support their initiative and give it his personal support, were the men and women who decided in 2012 to break the Rabbinate monopoly and offer a different approach to kashrut.

Hashgaha Pratit folded in 2018 after they won the support of the highest authority in kashrut issues in Israel, Rabbi Oren Duvdevani, and from there it was just a matter of (a short) time until the whole initiative was taken over by the Tzohar Rabbinical Association.

While among the haredi and large parts of the religious sectors there are cries of rupture and threats to the destruction of halachic observance, among the Jerusalemites who initiated the issue a few years ago, one can hear emotion and satisfaction and even cheers for victory.

Yonatan Vadai, among the first to join the initiative, went one step further, as he decided to open Bab al-Yemen restaurant/bar on Azza Road, which is open on Shabbat without any Shabbat desecration. His popular coffee shop, Carousela, is covered by the alternative kashrut, and Vadai says he feels a huge satisfaction on a personal level.

“Hopefully, the new bodies will be backed by religious figures that the public knows and trusts,” he said. “If not, the reform will fail and the Rabbinate will still have a monopoly. As we demanded and suggested, the Rabbinate would remain a regulator, which is a tremendous achievement.”

How is private supervision different from rabbinical supervision? In the first phase, training is provided for all café staff, both the kitchen staff and the waiters, who can talk about the project to customers. Post-training, a loyalty agreement is signed between the business and the community. The third stage is the maintenance of training, which is carried out through visits by volunteers and a field coordinator (for a fee).

Kashrut supervisors, by the way, are all women. This is one of the principles that is kept under private supervision to create the alternative. Since Leibovitch started his revolution, increasing numbers of Jerusalem eateries have waived the Chief Rabbinate's kosher certificate – fed up with the conduct, and the financial and halachic demands of the kosher supervisors.

At more than 10 businesses and restaurants in Jerusalem, alternative kosher certificates have been hung on the wall instead. Although the certificates indicate the business is kosher, they bear the title “alliance of loyalty,” but if you look for the word “kosher” on them, you will not find it, as the owners risk violating the law prohibiting fraud in kashrut.

That is perhaps one of the first things that will change following the new rules issued by Kahana.