Keeping it kosher

A kashrut initiative from the capital branches out to Tel Aviv and beyond.

Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz and Baker’s Boulangerie and Patisserie owner Lior Glickman sign the ‘trust alliance’ certification. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz and Baker’s Boulangerie and Patisserie owner Lior Glickman sign the ‘trust alliance’ certification.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Trends usually flow from Tel Aviv to the rest of the country. In the case of alternative kashrut program Hashgaha Pratit, however, it flowed in an unlikely fashion from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.
Hashgaha Pratit (a play on “private supervision” and “divine providence”) is a program that provides businesses with private kosher certificates as an alternative to the ones distributed by the Chief Rabbinate, the government-sponsored religious establishment that presides over almost all Jewish religious aspects in the country.
The program was set up when its founder, Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, discovered that cafés and restaurants in the capital that served kosher food were reluctant to obtain kashrut certification because they were displeased with the Chief Rabbinate’s kashrut policy. The project deploys “kashrut trustees” to businesses that have undergone training regarding issues pertaining to kashrut laws.
While an alternative kashrut certification program definitely has an audience in the capital, expanding the scope of kashrut options in Israel’s mostly secular “Sin City” may seem adventurous.
Yet there seems to be a growing demand among Gush Dan locals for a certificate that doesn’t originate in Chief Rabbinate supervision.
“There’s a niche market of our fans in Tel Aviv who also require kosher restaurants,” says the American-born, Orthodox Leibowitz, who holds the No. 2 spot in the Yerushalmim Party at the Jerusalem City Council, describing the clientele as “20- and 30-somethings in the dati-leumi [national-religious] world, especially those who move in pluralistic circles.”
Calling them “a growing demographic,” he says that “it used to be that you could see very few kippot in Tel Aviv, and that’s not the case anymore.”
This fact apparently hasn’t escaped business owners in the central region.
“We had a lot of requests from Tel Aviv,” he details, adding that at the moment there is a waiting list to join the program.
Describing the program’s reception in Tel Aviv as “very warm and very enthusiastic,” Leibowitz is pleased at the how the program is growing. Following its inauguration in March 2014, Hashgaha Pratit now boasts 17 locations in Jerusalem, three in Tel Aviv and two in Herzliya, and is growing at a rate of a new location a week.
Having launched in the White City last month, the founder does clarify that there are some differences in comparison to Jerusalem. First and foremost, while in the capital the enterprise is well-known, in Tel Aviv it still requires some explaining.
Another difference, according to kashrut supervisor Avivit Ravia, is people’s surprise at such a friendly face of Judaism. The ultra-Orthodox mother of seven from Betar Illit says that she often hears, “Wow, you’re such fun religious people” or “It’s so nice to have Judaism presented this way.”
“Judaism in Tel Aviv is seen as much more threatening than in Jerusalem,” she asserts of people’s reactions.
“In Tel Aviv you sense the religious experience from the media,” which portray the religious world in a certain way. Hashgaha Pratit, she says, enables “an unmediated connection with human beings.”
Ravia, like the program’s other kashrut supervisor, Hemda Shalom, is a graduate of Emunah – National-Religious Women’s Organization’s female kashrut supervisors’ course. She teamed up with Leibowitz two years ago, and has been busy with the project ever since.
The kashrut trustees take over tasks such as inspecting and washing the greens, sifting flour and checking legumes to guarantee that the produce is up to halachic standards. In accordance with Jewish law, Hashgaha Pratit’s kashrut trustees are Orthodox, although other volunteers are from various religious backgrounds. The organization prefers to work with Orthodox women trustees as affirmative action against their exclusion from the Chief Rabbinate.
“A lot of restaurants avoided taking a hechsher [kashrut certification] because of the rabbinate,” Ravia explains. “They didn’t want to get into a relationship with the rabbinate in the first place, so they didn’t have a certificate.”
With Hashgaha Pratit, she says, they understand the added value of a certification that is based on trust, and not on what many view as the Chief Rabbinate’s arbitrary demands.
“This is the main point,” she stresses, “that a lot of the work is based on a relationship of trust.”
The issue of trust also stands at the heart of the certification itself. According to the law, a place that doesn’t have certification from the Chief Rabbinate can’t display any sign that says it is kosher, so Hashgaha Pratit’s certification also can’t call itself kosher – and is instead called a “trust alliance” between the business and its customers, in which the business states that it sees “a sacred social value” in the trust granted to it by the customer.
Hashgaha Pratit is waiting to see how it will be received by Tel Aviv’s religious council, which is under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate. In Jerusalem, says Leibowitz, there’s an open channel with the city’s chief rabbi.
“We don’t agree on everything, but we understand that we share a concern for the kosher consumer.”
“The [Jerusalem] rabbinate’s approach to what we’ve been doing has always been pragmatic,” he recounts, noting that while the religious body publicly criticizes the program, it hasn’t taken steps such as filing lawsuits against it.
He posits that this may be because of the abundance of Chief Rabbinate-certified restaurants, so Hashgaha Pratit’s partnership with a relatively small number of kosher restaurants doesn’t hurt the rabbinate financially.
In Tel Aviv, where the competition over certification for the smaller number of kosher restaurants could be fiercer, the local rabbinate’s response may be less indifferent.
Leibowitz is quick to point out that his program isn’t out to make money – its funding comes from private donors, crowdfunding and a small fee from the participating businesses.
“As activists, we’re not looking to be a financial threat, we’re looking to float the issue,” Leibowitz says.
Meanwhile, a Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee vote on amending the kashrut bill was postponed for the second time on Sunday. The bill, proposed by MK Yoav Ben-Tzur of the Shas Party, aims to guarantee that restaurants without certification from the Chief Rabbinate would not be able to present themselves as kosher, and would in fact ban Hashgaha Pratit’s model.
“The rabbanut [rabbinate] is feeling the pressure,” Leibowitz declared before Sunday’s postponement, adding that he is grateful for the stance of MK Rachel Azaria and her Kulanu Party, opposing Shas’s move. (Before joining the Knesset, Azaria headed Jerusalem’s Yerushalmim Party – comprised of secular, traditional and Orthodox residents, and committed to maintaining religious freedom in the city.)
FOR LIOR GLICKMAN, the owner of Baker’s Boulangerie and Patisserie off Sheinkin Street, one of Tel Aviv’s most “Tel Avivy” streets, getting certification from Hashgaha Pratit was the right move.
“It was a principled decision and a business decision,” he says of joining the organization.
“I want to answer a need that exists for customers.”
Most of Baker’s customers are European – French in particular – and a lot keep kosher, so the issue of certification is one that Glickman wanted to address, but not through the rabbinate.
“The rabbinate is a very problematic body, like any body that has a monopoly in the country for a long while,” he maintains.
He heard of Hashgaha Pratit through a Swiss customer with family in Jerusalem, and got in touch with the organization, which told him it wasn’t yet operating in Tel Aviv. When the organization began looking to work in Tel Aviv, “we saw that we think the same, and progressed from there.”
“I’m pleased with the good and trusty guidance of the organization,” he says.
“It’s thorough and friendly and pleasant.”
As for his customers’ reception of the idea, he says that it’s a work in process.
While older clients aren’t as responsive to the program, younger ones are in favor of the change.
“It’s a matter of process and time. People need to open up and understand that there’s no reason that kashrut supervision should be solely in the hands of the rabbinate.”
“Go to the website, learn about our standards and system,” Leibowitz offers to those hesitating about eating in places with Hashgaha Pratit certification.
“If you’d like to know more, pick up the phone to us. Ask your friends – and bete’avon [good appetite].”