Eating at your conscience

Introducing social awareness into cafe culture isn't easy.

restaurant 88 (photo credit: )
restaurant 88
(photo credit: )
Re'ut isn't the least bit concerned that her favorite restaurant, Kahlo, has recently lost its tav hevrati (social seal), the certificate that guaranteed the establishment's social "kashrut" which includes minimum wage for all employees, wheelchair accessibility and fair working conditions. She sits on a wicker chair by a window of the ethnically decorated cafe on an uncharacteristically warm December day, smoking a cigarette and sipping Turkish coffee. "Don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't care about these issues, but it won't stop me from coming to the cafe," she explains from behind the cover of the novel she is reading. "Cafe Kahlo is a special place." As reported by In Jerusalem ("Seal of approval," May 13), the tav hevrati was initiated by five social activists, Efrat Degani, Asaf Banner, Shmuli Bing, Chili Troper and Gidon Rosenberg, who founded the organization Ma'aglei Tzedek (Circles of Justice), an organization which is leading a grassroots effort to give out a 'tav hevrati' to establishments that pledge and prove that they abide by certain standards of social justice. In order to receive the certificate, the proprietor must be able to check off every item on a checklist drawn up by the organization, and agree to allow weekly inspections by a member of the Ma'aglei Tzedek task force. Items on the list include wheelchair accessibility, a guarantee of minimum wage [NIS 17.93 for workers over 18], not employing minors or foreign workers and paying for workers' transportation to and from work, which amounts to about the cost of a monthly bus pass. But the distributors of the tav hevrati, which is attempting to focus today's youth on the many social justice issues that plague Israel, claim that Re'ut's attitude is precisely the reason why places like Cafe Kahlo may continue to lose the tav hevrati. Kahlo is not the only cafe that has not passed inspection by volunteers who check that each recipient of the certificate is holding to its stipulations. And they acknowledge that it most likely won't be the last, either. According to Rosenberg, one of the organization's two salaried employees, in the case of Kahlo, a volunteer inspector received a call from a waitress at the caf claiming that the owner refused to pay her social security. Upon confronting Kahlo with the accusation, he insisted on meeting face-to-face with the employee who accused him, a request which could not be granted because of the confidentiality promised to the employee by the volunteer inspector. As a result of the standstill, the organization removed the tav hevrati from the establishment. Re'ut's reaction is also precisely what the cafe's owner, who prefers to be known only as Kahlo, is banking on. "I want to work things out with the tav hevrati people, I really do. I'm happy to rectify whatever I did wrong so long as they bring me face to face with the person who accused me of wrongdoing. But it's not like having or not having the certificate is going to affect my business," explains the confident fifty-something owner. "People come here because they trust me, that's enough for my patrons," he expresses, while standing outside the cafe, "I have nothing to hide." Since the tav's inception in 2004, over 40 restaurants and cafes and 10 wedding halls have received the certificate. In addition, 16 kibbutzim have received the certificate for their 85 various facilities. So far six places have lost their certification. In Jerusalem decided to take a closer look at where the tav hevrati is going in the wake of the organization's decision to revoke these certificates from certain establishments. The owner of the cafe Shamai 12 on Shamai Street, Itzik Ben-Tzvi, claims that he didn't lose the tav hevrati at all, he requested to have the certificate removed. "These volunteer inspectors came in two or three times per week and were constantly bothering my employees. The tav. was more of a pain than it was worth. I asked them to take away the certificate and leave me alone," he says, asserting that he has no desire to have the certificate reinstated. Rosenberg however refutes Ben-Tzvi's claims. He says that volunteers only visited the restaurant twice. "One of our inspectors arrived one day and saw that the owner had placed a barrier at the entrance to the cafe which made the place no longer wheelchair accessible. And a waitress complained about her wages. But the owner refused to make any changes when we tried to discuss the problems with him. We offered to come back another day and discuss the problems again but he told us to take the certificate and leave, so we did," he says. "For the most part," Rosenberg continues, "the feedback we get from owners and patrons is positive. But I think it's important to publicize the fact that a place has lost its certificate. "Our goal is to create an awareness among the general public that eating out in a restaurant is about more than the food you eat. We want to create a concerned public that will only eat in establishments that boast our certificate and so the public needs to know when a cafe loses the certificate, the same way they would care to know if a place lost its kashrut certificate." The problem however, according to many proprietors, is a lack of awareness among the general public and a lack of publicity. The proprietor of the restaurant La Pasta on Shamai Street, Itzik Barnoi, whose establishment has the tav hevrati, complains that he doesn't feel the word is out yet. "People don't come to eat in my restaurant only because I have the tav hevrati. I don't think the organization has done enough to advertise the tav and you see it in the lack of awareness among the patrons." In response, Rosenberg says that the group is now focusing on that problem. "We feel that for now, there are enough cafes out there with the tav hevrati. We know we need to focus now on getting the word out." The group is attempting do so in a variety of ways. They are focusing on neighborhoods one at a time, having volunteers pass out flyers and explain to pedestrians about the tav, hoping to create social pressure on certain streets and in certain communities. "This technique has been especially successful on Rehov Emek Refaim," explains Rosenberg. "We spent a whole week passing out flyers and explaining to passersby what the tav hevrati is and getting patrons to ask store owners if they have the tav before eating in a cafe or restaurant. As a result, we received phone calls from Olive, Tal Bagels, Shnizi, Felafel Doron, Selena and Sandwich Bar who have all approached us and asked to join. All of the sudden they understood that we had power and wanted to be a part of things. "It could be that that is what it takes - to focus on one street at a time, one neighborhood at a time." The group is also investing efforts in education. Degani is in charge of getting the word out to schools, youth groups and community centers by creating and running educational programs about social justice. Ma'aglei Tzedek is also in the process of entering into a partnership with Yavneh Olami. After becoming involved with Ma'aglei Tzedek on a personal level, International Director of Yavneh Olami, a religious-Zionist student organization based in Jerusalem, Dyonna Ginsburg is trying to take the tav hevrati to the next level. "We want to bring a greater awareness of the tav hevrati to students studying here for the year, whether in yeshivot or in university or year-long programs, because these students eat out more than the average Israeli and it is important for them to be aware of these issues when they go out on a Saturday or Thursday night, that there are other calculations to make other than who sells the cheapest burger." Ginsburg held a parlor meeting at her home two months ago for a group of educators and leaders who are involved in some form of overseeing capacity with students in long-term programs to create an awareness of the tav hevrati and other social justice issues in which Ma'aglei Tzedek is involved. "Creating greater awareness within the Anglo community is critical," she says. "There is definitely a buzz going around the English-speaking community now, but this is a recent phenomenon. I only recently heard from colleagues of mine that they try only to take their students to or to order from restaurants with the tav." Ma'aglei Tzedek is also attempting to take the tav hevrati campaign beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem. Tamar Mantzura, a student at the Migdal Oz post-secondary school Torah seminary, approached Rosenberg with a request to take the tav to Ma'ale Adumim. Together with a friend, she successfully convinced almost ten restaurants in the city to agree to the certificate's terms, and even persuaded one establishment to build a ramp for wheelchair accessibility. She is now working with the youth movements in the city to create and run educational programs about social justice for all ages. Volunteers in the Gush Etzion region have also initiated a similar campaign. And after completing a training program two weeks ago, a group of motivated volunteers has just begun to approach cafes and restaurants around the city of Petach Tikva. "Though we thought it would go faster, in general we are happy with the progress we have made," says Rosenberg. The only way to change the way that cafe owners think, is to change the way people think when choosing a restaurant - "we are working to make the tav hevrati more important than what's on the menu. But it takes time to change the way people think." He explains that the group has realized that ultimately change is going to come only from the public, not from store owners. And the public will change only when it becomes more concerned with justice for all its citizens.