A kashrut alternative?

Some observant Jews may only use products sanctioned by, for instance, the Netanya badatz, rather than the Bnei Brak-based badatz.

Inspectors from the Hashgacha Pratit organization examine lettuce for insects at a Jerusalem restaurant. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Inspectors from the Hashgacha Pratit organization examine lettuce for insects at a Jerusalem restaurant.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz is no dreamy-eyed idealist, at least not in his professional sphere. He prefers the pragmatic approach. That much is clear from his achievements as head of the Hashgacha Pratit organization which, basically, seeks to offer a kashrut alternative to the state rabbinate.
Leibowitz, an Orthodox rabbi, made aliya from the United States more than 20 years ago. He lives in Jerusalem’s Nahlaot neighborhood, home to a mixed population of haredi, Orthodox, secular and bohemian Jerusalemites, and it was there that the seed of Hashgacha Pratit was sown.
For starters, it was, and still is, Leibowitz’s locale. And, like many a bright notion, Hashgacha Pratit was born from a pressing necessity but without forethought.
“It really started in Nahlaot in a coffee shop called Hasalon Beshabazi, which is no longer there,” the rabbi recalls. “It was like a little social enterprise on Shabazi Street.”
Leibowitz dropped by one day for a cup of Joe and, as an observant Jew, naturally asked if the place was kosher. He was told that the Jewish dietary laws were strictly adhered to, but that the proprietors were averse to working with the national rabbinate and, hence, could not officially call the place kosher.
The ball was set in motion.
“They introduced me to a Facebook group called Kasher Lelo Teuda (uncertified kosher) which was a sort of cooperative of businesses in Jerusalem that were supporting one another, that were saying we will keep kosher but we don’t want anything to do with the Chief Rabbinate.”
Leibowitz immediately sprang into action on his home turf and, as an ordained O r t h o d o x rabbi, offered to supervise kashrut at the Nahlaot coffee shop.
“I was the local rabbi and I provided kashrut for my community,” he explains. “I basically explained to them that, as far as Orthodoxy is concerned, a business owner is not really objective when he says his food is kosher, and also, as far as Halacha [Jewish law] is concerned, they will be skeptical about whether he knows everything it takes to keep kosher. So, there is an Orthodox halachic position that says you need someone objective with expertise, to certify.” Leibowitz clearly fits that bill.
“I told them I’d do it, as a volunteer. At the time I was training rabbis, and I’d send my students around. And I started doing it.”
One thing led to another.
“One day I was having a cup of coffee there. I was having a politics meeting with Rachel Azaria,” Leibowitz continues. The latter is currently a Knesset member under the auspices of the Kulanu party, following a seven-year stint as a member of the Jerusalem City Council as the leader of the Yerushalmim (Jerusalemites) party. Leibowitz is a member of Yerushalmim and also serves on the city council.
“We were talking about something else completely. During the meeting, I told her about what I was doing [with kashrut supervision] and she said, ‘You have to turn this into a movement.’ I said I’d think about it.”
Azaria is clearly pretty agile in the initiative department. “Rachel called me the next day and said she’d raised the first $8,000,” says Leibowitz with a chuckle. “She really pushed me into it.” It wasn’t all coercion. “I was ready for it,” he adds.
There is a fundamental question about what kashrut really involves. Is it just a matter of adhering to the strict letter of the dietary laws, or are their wider, ethical issues here, too? Cruelty to animals is considered, in the Torah, to be a serious matter. So, does that come into the Hashgacha Pratit equation? Leibowitz was wary of spreading his net too far, and the implications that may have vis-à-vis the state rabbinical authorities.
“One of the questions we asked with Hashgacha Pratit when we started was: ‘Are we going to link the kashrut to any other values?’ You could link it to cruelty to animals, you could also link it to the value of minimum wage for workers, or you could link it to the value of accessibility, for the disabled. We made a strategic decision with Hashgacha Pratit not to connect it with any other ethical issue.”
That, says Leibowitz, was simply down to the facts on the ground, and the political imbalance in the national religion arena.
“Our concern was the strong-arming that the rabbinate themselves apply over halachic issues, like having a belly dancer in a restaurant, or having a Christmas tree in a hotel or, for instance, being open on Shabbat.”
The inference here is that any of the above activities would disqualify the said enterprise from official Chief Rabbinate-sanctioned kashrut licensing, re-gardless of what goes on in the kitchen.
There’s more. Leibowitz, his colleagues and many others were also up in arms over the lack of professionalism and ethical conduct of the way the rabbinate went about providing kashrut supervision.
“In the area of kashrut, the Chief Rabbinate is rife with corruption,” Leibowitz declares. “That’s in the area of the actual service that’s provided. If you look at the last State Comptroller’s Report, we have been saying for a long time that the system’s corrupt, but you can say we’re not objective. It was important to have an objective reference that really puts it all out there.”
Indeed, it did. The report, which came out in May, opened with a withering attack on the state-controlled kashrut certification process. The roll call of misdemeanors included corruption, poor management and actual criminal deeds.
“The report talks about mashgihim [kashrut inspectors] that haven’t shown up for a long time. It also talks about an absence of clear tariffs for the service, that the prices change from place to place and about misreporting. There was one mashgiah, after they [the Comptroller’s Report staff] checked the time sheets, that was reporting working 25, 26, even 27 hours a day on the job.”
The judicial authorities, in a Supreme Court ruling, also pointed to the problem of conflict of interest inherent in the fact that restaurants were paying inspectors themselves.
“That’s how it works,” Leibowitz says. “It’s a twoway conflict of interest. On one hand you have a mashgiah who can threaten to take away the kashrut unless he gets a raise. That happens. Alternatively, the restaurant can tell the mashgiah that if he turns a blind eye to something, we’ll give you something, or, they can tell him that if he blows the whistle they can fire him.”
That does not sound a very religious way of going about ensuring Jews who observe religious dietary laws that what they are putting in their mouths at some eatery adheres to the letter of the halachic law.
Thus far, some 40 food establishments across the country have opted out of the state-controlled Chief Rabbinate kashrut licensing system, and have come under the Hashgacha Pratit umbrella. Most of the restaurants are located in Jerusalem, and include the Carousela café off Azza Street in Rehavia.
“I stopped working with the rabbinate in 2011,” says Yonatan Wadai, the proprietor. “First off, there was no supervision here. And secondly, when there was supervision it came with the despicable attitude of the mashgiah, and of the person responsible for the mashgihim.”
Wadai says there was a generous degree of protektzia (knowing the right people) involved, too.
“The rabbinate employees are not mashgihim. The mashgihim are people who are brought in by friends of friends, family – pure nepotism.”
Despite his secular appearance, Wadai says he hails from a religious Yemenite family and abides by the kashrut laws. Naturally, as he is no longer within the Chief Rabbinate kashrut fold, Wadai is not allowed to tell customers that he provides kosher food. That is unsubtly alluded to in a sign hanging above the entrance that simply asks, “Is it kosher here?” “The mashgiah supervisor used to come every two or three months, shout a lot, storm into the kitchen and leave,” Wadai continues. At least the supervisor didn’t stick around for a free meal at Carousela. Wadai says there was no chance of that happening.
“I don’t think they even eat at places that have a Rabbinate kashrut license,” he adds with a laugh.
Wadai says he is all for religious observance but rails against the way the rabbinate goes about its business.
“There are also religious people who want to enjoy kashrut but they don’t want badatzim [the pluralized form of an acronym that stands for Court of Justice whose purview includes kashrut authorization].”
There are several badatzim around the country. Some observant Jews may only use products sanctioned by, for instance, the Netanya badatz, rather than the Bnei Brak-based badatz. “A lot of people don’t want all of that,” Wadai observes.
“They want something socially cohesive, something genuine, something kosher. The female Hashgacha Pratit supervisor comes to us two or three times a week. That’s much better.”
Wadai recently filed a High Court petition against the rabbinate with the financial assistance of The Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism – against the advice of Hashgacha Pratit – which he hoped would allow him, and other restaurants that circumnavigate the rabbinate’s kashrut mechanism, to use the term kosher to describe their edibles. Unfortunately for Wadai, the ruling went against him.
“We have to be very careful about the wording now,” says Leibowitz. “It’s quite long-winded, but what it boils down is this: it says Rabbi Leibowitz and his crew trust us, and if you want to know about what, check out the website,” he concludes with a laugh.