Cityfront: Kitchen sink drama

Women who work as kashrut inspectors are fanning the flames of more than just the ovens.

kosher book 88 (photo credit: )
kosher book 88
(photo credit: )
When Nina Dvir first applied for a job as the kashrut supervisor of a local catering firm in Efrat, she did more than just raise a few eyebrows. She got the job and kept it for fifteen years. Despite opposition from many in the community and a few of the people who worked for the caterer, with support from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the city's chief rabbi, Dvir was successful in a field in which few women participate in a professional religious capacity. But that is changing. A course is about to begin in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv to train religious women for work within the kashrut industry. Over 40 women have already registered for the course, run by rabbinical court adviser Tamar Even-Chen and there is a waiting list. Even-Chen has received the support of numerous rabbis, including Israel's Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger, despite the fact that the lucrative field has traditionally been dominated by men. Support for the program however is not limited to rabbis of this generation. More than 30 years ago, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein supported the cause of women working in the kashrut industry in a responsum he wrote. "Throughout the ages, there has never been any halachic opposition to women working in kashrut, because there is absolutely nothing halachic which prevents them from doing so," says Even-Chen, who was among the first graduates of Midreshet Lindenbaum's Monica Dennis Goldberg Women's Rabbinical Court Advocate Program, the first and only school preparing female candidates to pass the difficult advocate test designed for men who spend decades studying in yeshivot. Toanot (advocates) most often plead the cases of religious women in divorce court and custody battles. In fact, Nina Dvir is not the only woman who ever worked in the industry. Even-Chen knows of a few women already employed in such positions, "particularly in places where it would be inappropriate for a man to be the kashrut supervisor," she explains, such as public beaches, where both men and women walk around scantily clad. "It just is not appropriate for a religious man to visit beach restaurants and kiosks all day and view scantily clad women while ensuring the kashrut of the establishments. However, for women this is not forbidden." Beaches are not the only place where it would be more appropriate for a woman to work in kashrut, according to Even-Chen, who insists she is not out to start a revolution, but rather to continue and encourage a trend that has already begun. "Small kitchens in which only women work are another place where it would be more modest for a woman to inspect the kashrut rather than a man"; the close working conditions would actually make it inappropriate for a religious man to spend his days there, she claims. Nurit Fried, the Rabbinical Court Advocate program's director, supports Even-Chen in her endeavor and firmly believes that just like the first toanot had to overcome "a lot of resistance and discrimination by the rabbinic establishment who believed that only men could work as advocates," women in the kashrut industry will most likely undergo a similar process. Today toanot are an integral part of the court scene. She believes that in the future, women will be a vital part of the kashrut industry and this type of work will be a viable career option for observant women. In the meantime, the letter of support that Even-Chen received from Rabbi Metzger supports and encourages women working as lettuce inspectors - to ensure that the produce is free of bugs, and surprisingly, as shatnez inspectors - women trained to check clothing for the halachically prohibited combination of wool and linen. She believes that this too will change, however, once there is a cadre of women who have passed her course who begin to work in the industry, "even if only as lettuce inspectors," she says. "These things don't happen overnight, and unfortunately there is usually a lot of resistance within the religious community to change; it will most likely depend mostly on the local rabbinic authority in each woman's community." In the meantime, Even-Chen's courses are set to begin soon after the holidays; the Tel Aviv course will be based out of the city's Standards Institute, the Jerusalem course's location has yet to be decided. Most of the women who have already signed up for the course are not revolutionaries, explains Even-Chen. "Many are out of work or looking for a new field, others want to work in the industry because the kitchen is where they feel the most comfortable and others feel that they have a lot to contribute to the kashrut industry." The course has received the financial support of Keren Shoresh, the New York Jewish Federation, which has also provided scholarships for single mothers to take the course, and the Standards Institute of Israel. The course has also received support from a more unlikely source. Shinui city council member Dalia Zomer has publicly come out in support of women working in the kashrut industry. "Over a year ago I brought up the issue with the Jerusalem religious council. It raised some eyebrows, but everyone agreed that there was no problem halachically." She thinks however that there will be more resistance once women actually approach the council looking for jobs. "It's a lucrative field and many of the men who work in the industry have had their jobs for years or got the jobs through a personal connection. "But I fully support any woman who wants to work in this field and am willing to help them in any way I can. Jerusalem has a serious unemployment problem and this is a field that is potentially open to religious women and one in which they could work locally, contributing to the public good of their own communities. Women are trusted to cook for and serve respected guests in their own homes, there is no reason why they shouldn't be able to do so in restaurants." Rabbi Riskin agrees. "Often women are more knowledgeable about kashrut than their husbands who are rabbis." Even-Chen wants to turn that hands-on knowledge into practical certification that will ensure that nobody will question her graduates' abilities to work in the kashrut and food industry. The course includes classes on parasitology and virology, quality control and work conditions, along with cooking classes, tours of various factories, restaurants and hotels and of course, rigorous halachic inquiry. "I firmly believe that as the need grows and as the graduates of the program are seen as trustworthy, the field will open up for women, but like everything in the religious world, these things take time." Dvir agrees, "it's all a matter of trust. At first people would say to me, 'Isn't it hard to work in a big industrial kitchen?' Eventually it got to the point that people would bump into me on the street and say 'We don't eat out in any restaurants, but if we know that you are certifying the kashrut, we'll eat at that function.' "I never claimed to know everything, but I knew enough to know the right questions to ask and the right authorities to contact if a problem came up. But I really spent 80 percent of my time sorting rice."