What is the best recipe for employing more women kashrut supervisors?

MEMBERS OF the first cohort of a course for women kashrut supervisors, jointly organized by Emunah and Tzohar (photo credit: ARIEL BASHOR)
MEMBERS OF the first cohort of a course for women kashrut supervisors, jointly organized by Emunah and Tzohar
(photo credit: ARIEL BASHOR)
Some 30 women are sitting in a large room, hunched over books written in small, dense print, studying the text before them. The rabbi sitting at the head of the table begins the discussion about whether a certain meat vessel may be kashered and then used to cook dairy foods, and vice versa. “The Mishna clearly states that…”
One woman present presses on and asks, “But what is the ruling regarding a wooden spoon?” and a second woman follows up excitedly with a more specific question: “And is it enough to dip it in hot water, or do you need to wait a few minutes?” The rabbi looks around with a look of great satisfaction on his face.
“These are excellent questions. Let’s take a look at what the sources say.”
These 30 women are participating in a groundbreaking course for women to become mashgihot (kashrut supervisors). The course was launched last week as a joint venture between Emunah, the national religious women’s movement, and Tzohar, an Israeli organization of rabbis that aims to bridge gaps between religious and secular Jews. During the seven-session course, which is taking place in the Emunah offices in Tel Aviv, the women are learning about modern technological food production, kashering methods, insects and worms in food, commandments that apply only to Land of Israel, Shabbat restrictions for institutional kitchens and restrictions for Jewish holidays.
“I think it was my destiny to become a mashgiha,” says Dalya Prosen.
“Granted, every woman is a mashgiha in her own kitchen, but my goal here is to open a window for women to enter the profession. Six months ago, we opened a sandwich bar and after two months, we fired the mashgiah, because he wasn’t doing anything except looking at receipts. For three months, we were without a mashgiah, but we didn’t know what we were doing, so we had to hire someone. When I saw an ad for the course, I thought to myself, hey – I could be our mashgiha. When I spoke with my rabbi about this option, he told me that people can’t be a mashgiah in their own business, but there was no reason I couldn’t work as a mashgiha at another place.
THIS IS not the first course in Israel aimed at training female kashrut supervisors. A similar course was opened in 2013, but the Chief Rabbinate refused to recognize it, and therefore none of the students were allowed to sit for the examination.
“They wouldn’t specify the reason for their refusal – they just mumbled something about modesty,” says Tziporet Schimmel, the legal adviser at Emunah. “We knew, however, that everything was according to Orthodox practice and that their only problem was the fact that they were women. The men were worried that this highly protected and guarded field would be breached by women.”
In July 2014, Emunah submitted a petition to the Israel Supreme Court. Before a ruling could be handed down, however, the Chief Rabbinate announced that passing their official qualification exam is no longer a precondition for applying to work as a kashrut supervisor in Israel.
“In other words, women are no longer prevented from working as mashgihot,” ruled Supreme Court Judge Noam Solberg. “The change was noted with an asterisk in a small footnote on the side of the page,” says Schimmel. “It stated that the change applies to men and women alike.”
Immediately following the ruling, a number of women took the test and passed with flying colors. And yet, the situation on the ground has not improved much for women: Out of 178 kashrut supervisors who were hired over the last 18 months in 93 religious councils, not even one woman was appointed. There are currently only nine women working as mashgihot, who were appointed by local rabbis. These outrageous figures led State Comptroller Joseph Shapira to state in a report from May 2017 that women are systematically being excluded from working as kashrut supervisors.
“There’s no reason women shouldn’t be integrated into this field,” says Emunah chairperson Liora Minka.
“We are focusing on this field for three reasons: ideological motives, a desire to empower women and to improve kashrut supervision in Israel. We’ve seen how the integration of female rabbinical court pleaders has improved the quality of the position, and we believe that the same will happen with kashrut supervision. I’m sure that women will make this field more user-friendly and service-oriented than it is today, and will create a positive connection with the Israeli public. I believe that the difficulties that exist today could be solved by using skills that are considered feminine.”
When I asked the women taking the course if they feel like they are involved in something groundbreaking, I received diverse responses. “I don’t think there’s anything revolutionary in what I’m doing,” says Renana Gutman. “There’s no reason I can’t work in any job I choose.”
“Women can do everything,” says Devora Ringel. “This is pretty exciting that we’re going through a door that has just been opened for us.”
“The situation is not as utopian as you’re making it sound,” interjects Idit Gotlieb. “Just a few decades ago women were not integrated at all and the only reason we’ve gotten this far is because the Supreme Court ruled in our favor. The men are still in control of the monopoly.”
The women learning in the course hail from all around the country and are very different from one another. One wears trousers, whereas all the rest are in long skirts. Some of the women cover their heads with long scarves, and others with wigs. Some are young, and some are more mature. Some are students, and others are working. One is an archeologist, another is a rabbinical court pleader and a few have their own businesses.
None were drawn because of salaries, which are not especially attractive. “Most of us are not expecting this to be our main income,” says Gotlieb. “Most of the women are here for ideological reasons, or to bring in some additional income.”
Do any of you fear that it’ll be hard to find a job in this field?
Prosen: “I’m not afraid of anything. I plan on approaching hotels and restaurants and offering my services, even if they only pay me minimum wage. I feel like this is a mission I must complete.”
Gutman: “If we’re extremely professional, we shouldn’t have trouble finding jobs. I plan on looking for a job in a small place and moving up from there.”
Ringel: “It’s not going to be easy, but that’s okay. I’ll do everything I can to succeed. Women shouldn’t need to wear pants in order to be successful, but just show that we are skilled. Women have superior sensibilities and talents, especially when it comes to interpersonal skills, and we should use this to our advantage.”
Prosen: “Most of the rabbis who work in kashrut supervision are from the haredi community, and none of them are Tzohar rabbis, which is a problem. When I told a rabbi that I plan to study in the course, he looked at me like I’d just fallen off the moon.”
How did people react to you when you told them you were taking a class to be a kashrut supervisor?
Gotlieb: “My rabbi, who belongs to Tzohar, was very positive about it.”
Gutman: “No one in my family is surprised, because I run a pretty tight ship at home. My friends have been extremely supportive and the rabbi I approached also found no problem with it. A mashgiah that I met by chance thought it was a great idea and that the field is totally appropriate for women.”
Ringel: “It’s pretty awesome, especially considering that being a Torah scholar has not been open to women for very long.”
AT EMUNAH, they are preparing themselves for the possibility that Israeli society will not welcome these newly certified mashgihot with open arms.
“Before we joined forces with Tzohar,” says Schimmel, “we approached the Chief Rabbinate and asked them to train more women. They responded by saying, if you find any women who are interested, have them contact us. Is integrating women the sole responsibility of individuals or should the officials be required to do some of the work?
“The Chief Rabbinate claims to offer equal opportunities to men and women, but nothing has actually changed yet. We are deeply invested in improving kashrut operations in Israel, integrating women into religious services in general and as kashrut supervisors in particular, and improving the public image of kashrut supervision. We are not involved in placement – only with job training – and we hope that changes start trickling down.”
In response, the Chief Rabbinate stated, “From the point of view of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, there is nothing preventing women from serving as kashrut supervisors.” 
Translated by Hannah Hochner.