A kashrut conundrum

Some Jerusalem restaurants say they are kosher but won't hang a rabbinate certificate.

marakiya 248.88 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
marakiya 248.88
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
Most kashrut-observant Jews are accustomed to walking into an eatery and asking the restaurateur or waiter whether the establishment is kosher. Often the customer is told, "Yes, we are kosher but we don't have a teudah (kosher certificate) because we are open on Shabbat." It therefore may come as a surprise to the customer when he/she is told, "Yes, we are kosher and we are closed on Shabbat, but we choose not to have a teudah." The Jerusalem Marakiya is one restaurant where you will receive such a response. Owner Noam Frankforter, an observant Jew, says that the restaurant is kosher and closed on Shabbat, but he chooses not to have a teudah for ideological reasons. "Part of the point is that I am trying to break the sense of alienation, distrust and suspicion that exists among people in today's society. I say to people who come here that if they try to get to know me, they will realize that I keep kosher." Frankforter believes that in general there is no need for a teudah. But if restaurant owners choose to acquire one, it should be administered by an organization with trustworthy workers, who do not give in to self-interest and corruption. He says that this is a significant consideration in his decision not to acquire a teudah from the rabbinate. "I don't want to pay the rabbinate money," he says. "In my opinion, the rabbinate does not do a good job. They are detached from reality. They have their own self-interests and are not faithful agents of kashrut." Frankforter says that many people in Jerusalem's religious community have responded positively to what he is trying to achieve. "In general people ask if I have a teudah and I try to be patient and explain the idea behind not having one. It is more complicated than simply not having one, and there are many people out there who believe in what we are doing." One potential problem with this approach, however, is that the Marakiya displays an old-fashioned wooden sign that reads "Kosher" on a ledge at the back of the restaurant. In one case, customers ordered their food and only then realized that the restaurant did not bear a kosher certificate from a halachic authority. Another Jerusalem restaurateur who considers his establishment kosher, even without supervision, is Gilad Kanfi, owner of Humous Ben-Sira in the center of town. According to Kanfi, the restaurant uses strictly kosher products and is completely kosher, serving Beit Yosef meat, mehadrin chicken, badatz humous and rabbinate vegetables. His reasons for not having a teudah are primarily financial but also out of frustration with the rabbinate, believing that he would not get value for money from the rabbinate. "I don't need someone to come and check up on me for half an hour and simply sit and drink coffee instead of doing his job," he says. Kanfi admits that not having a teudah does affect business but that "It is all a matter of priority." He says that being around for 40 years means that people have gotten to know and trust him. The restaurant has regular customers, which include haredim. Michael Shaulson, a 27-year-old observant Jew who will eat in kosher restaurants without a teudah, explains his decision to do so. "If I go to a friend's house, I don't ask to see a teudat kashrut. Just like I'll go to a friend's house that fits the kashrut criteria, I will also go to a restaurant that fits the criteria," he says. "Kashrut isn't a set of certificates, it is a set of laws. If you know them well enough, then you can negotiate your way through life applying them without having someone else [kashrut authorities] doing it for you," he adds. He also suggests that although teudot kashrut may serve as an important tool to the kosher consumer, it does not imply that establishments without certificates are invariably not kosher. "They [teudot] can play an important purpose in saying that restaurants are kosher, but that's not saying that if an establishment does not have one it is not kosher," he says. "Kashrut existed before there was such a thing as a teudat kashrut. There weren't chains of kashrut authorities when people ate in inns in the Middle Ages. It was kosher because someone who ran it kept kosher." However, not all Jerusalemites view restaurants without teudot in the same way. Sarah Asch, a 25-year-old Modern Orthodox Jew, won't eat in a place in Jerusalem without a hechsher (kosher certification) even if its owners claim that it is kosher. "For me it's a matter that if there are kosher restaurants available, why would I want to go to one that doesn't have a hechsher? I understand the plight of these people [restaurants without teudot], but I want to go to a place where I know that someone has taken responsibility for inspecting the place in which I am eating." Asch, an immigrant from Australia, says that in her hometown of Melbourne she may have considered drinking coffee in a place without a hechsher, and the same with places like Tel Aviv, where the majority of restaurants do not have kosher certification, but if the option is available to eat in establishments with teudot, then she will choose to eat there. "In Tel Aviv I'm more likely to go to a bar that is not kosher, but I would never dream of getting coffee in Jerusalem from a place without a hechsher," she says. While some eateries are opting to not have kosher certification, other religious groups are establishing alternatives to rabbinate certification. In Israel, there are private haredi organizations called badatzim - Beit Din Tzedek (Court of Justice) - that oversee kashrut alongside the chief rabbinate. While some establishments with badatz certification also obtain a rabbinate certificate, some rely solely on a badatz teudah. In addition, Masorti movement leaders met a few weeks ago to discuss a program, due to begin next fall, that will train Masorti rabbis to be mashgichim (kashrut supervisors). Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the Masorti Rabbinical Assembly of Israel, says that the Masorti movement wants to create a kosher structure independent of the rabbinate whose standards are in keeping with the philosophies of the Masorti movement. When asked about restaurants with no kosher certification, Sacks advised that consumers need to be cautious about eating in such establishments. "We don't have a teudah in our homes and our friends come and eat, but in a commercial kitchen they may have a financial incentive to cut corners, so we rely on a mashgiach to say it's kosher. If something does not have a teudah, then an individual needs to be extra scrupulous in determining whether or not the place is kosher or not kosher." Sacks says that the main differences between the Masorti and rabbinate hechsherim are that in the case of the Masorti movement, "Kashrut will be based on laws and not the economic interest of the overseeing body." Sacks also says that the Masorti movement does not believe in the concept of mehadrin, a term that literally means "beautiful" or "embellished," but which in the kashrut world refers to food that has undergone a higher level of kosher supervision. "We do not believe in mehadrin. Something is either kosher, in keeping with our standards, or not," says Sacks. No response was available from the rabbinate by press time.