Activists launch 'Kosher without Certification'

Plan calls for alternative method of kosher certification; Rabbinate says current system only way to trust businesses.

Jerusalem chief rabbinate 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jerusalem chief rabbinate 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
A grassroots effort in Jerusalem that is identifying restaurants that describe themselves as being kosher but do not pay the Rabbinate for certification will host an inaugural event on Friday called “The Mashgiah [kashrut supervisor] isn’t Coming.”
The party, a riff on the popular Shalom Hanoch song “The Moshiach [Messiah] isn’t Coming,” is the first public effort by the city’s Yerushalmim Party to draw attention to the issue and publicize a community-based volunteer kashrut supervision program that is currently in the planning stages.
Restaurants have complained for years that the Rabbinate exercises a kashrut monopoly over businesses. In August, Itchikidana, an Indian restaurant in the Mahaneh Yehuda shuk, Jerusalem’s colorful outdoor fruit and vegetable market, posted a sign inside where its kashrut certificate used to hang.
“Starting in August 2012,” the note said, “the Itchikidana family decided to stop cooperating with the Rabbinate. This is because they were forcing us to buy ingredients from just four specific vegetable stalls, and we were not ready to cooperate with this monopoly and destroy the livelihood of many other people.”
The note was met with applause among Jerusalem’s young activist population, which created a Facebook group called “Kosher with No Certification” that lists restaurants identifying themselves as kosher although without official certification from the Rabbinate.
The group has almost 1,500 members.
To celebrate these restaurants, the Yerushalmim Party will on Friday host a gathering at Carusela, a Rehavia eatery that gave up its certification a year and a half ago. At the event, Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, head of the Sulam Yaakov Yeshiva and a community activist, will present his plan for a communitybased volunteer kosher supervision program.
“My angle is not anti-Rabbinate, my angle is pro-alternative,” Leibowitz said on Wednesday. “This is a healthy alternative that would bring more kashrut to the streets of Jerusalem. It would be a breath of fresh air. I am critical that it’s illegal to implement an alternative.”
The alternative plan entails community volunteers supervising establishments such as coffee shops, bars and felafel stands.
As part of the model, which is currently being implemented at a coffee chop in the Nahlaot neighborhood, restaurant owners, kitchen staff and volunteers take kashrut classes together in order to understand the philosophy. Volunteers then make periodic visits to ensure businesses are following the rules.
Leibowitz concedes that fullscale restaurants pose a larger challenge. His group is still tweaking the prototype for voluntary supervision before rolling it out to other places.
“It’s scary to be in Jerusalem with no certification,” said Yoni Friedman, manager and sous chef at Itchikidana. “We really liked our mashgiah. He is still a friend. We have nothing against them.”
Friedman said that since the restaurant stopped relying on Rabbinate certification, it has seen no change in the number of customers. Religious customers still eat there, and many people stop by to congratulate the staff for taking a stand.
Friedman said the restaurant would definitely consider an alternative kashrut certification program “if they talk to us like human beings and make logical requests. We want to feel like we’re talking to a person and not to a body.”
Itchikidana is not alone in the Mahaneh Yehuda shuk. Despite the neighborhood’s conservative and observant reputation, shuk stalwarts such as Moris and 60-year-old Azura, mentioned in the the Yossi Banai song, have never had certifications yet attract a steady stream of religious patrons. Relative newcomers Topolino, Café Mizrahi and the 5th of May bar also do not have certifications.
Topolino chef and owner Shye Ghini said that the last straw for him came two years ago with the Rabbinate’s requirement that his establishment use only the Gush Katif company for leafy vegetables.
Gush Katif has the highest kashrut rating. Its goods are grown according special methods that help keep out bugs and insects, which are notoriously hard to check for in satisfying kashrut standards.
Ghini claimed the Gush Katif vegetables in the shuk were much more expensive but of much lower quality, and the stalls that sold them often ran out. As an Italian restaurant, not having a steady stream of quality basil was a serious problem, he explained.
Ghini added that some religious customers still come to eat.
“People do their own accounting, and everything here in the shuk is kosher, including dairy products,” he said. “One of the problems – which is an issue even in places with a certificate – is that the mashgiah isn’t always there, so someone who wants to get around kashrut requirements can do so. The certificate doesn’t solve the problem.”
But Rabbi Jacob Sabag, head of the Kashrut Division in the Chief Rabbinate, says certification by the Rabbinate is the only way to regulate restaurants so that the public can trust them.
“If there’s a certificate, you know that the Rabbinate stands behind this and there is a mashgiah,” he said. “How can you write it’s kosher without someone witnessing this?” Sabag added that restaurant owners who canceled their certifications were motivated solely by the bottom line. A threemonth certificate costs at least NIS 400, and the mashgiah receives a monthly salary of NIS 700-1,500 for visits of around 15-20 minutes a few days a week, according to area restaurants.
“Business owners want to make the biggest profit,” said Sabag. “They don’t want the pay the mashgiah. They don’t want to buy the most expensive vegetables. You can’t put out the minimum and expect to receive the maximum.”