Why Israel needs kashrut reform

Changing such an ingrained culture as that which surrounds kashrut supervision will not be easy.

Stickers with kashrut stamp of Rabbi Moshe Alloun. (photo credit: Chief Rabbinate)
Stickers with kashrut stamp of Rabbi Moshe Alloun.
(photo credit: Chief Rabbinate)
In recent weeks, considerable attention has been focused on a decision to introduce competition and transparency into Israel’s kosher supervision marketplace.
Driving that conversation – which has admittedly led to no small amount of debate – was the announcement by the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization to enter into this market as a new option for eateries seeking kashrut supervision.
We made this move with the full understanding that it would not be greeted with enthusiasm by all segments of Israeli society. But we persevered out of the sincere belief that such change is necessary and over time will be recognized as beneficial for all.
Since Israel’s founding 70 years ago, legal kashrut supervision has been under the authority of one primary agency – the Chief Rabbinate. For much of Israel’s modern history this system thrived and a strong, honest and reliable network of kashrut supervisors and auditors was set up throughout the country. Every individual who wanted to be sure they were eating kosher was able to see the certificate of the rabbinate and know that they were getting what they wanted.
But the reality of the Israeli experience is that the system grew too fast and too large to be able to provide that necessary level of reliability.
To achieve optimal levels of kashrut, costs soared and the kashrut industry in Israel under the rabbinate became less of a certifying agency and more of... well, an industry. Transparency and accuracy all too often became a secondary priority.
In a recent report by the State Comptroller it was revealed that there was no common set of prices and fees for kashrut supervision. Supervisors could theoretically be charging one business one price and the shop next door, being afforded the exact same service, a different one.
The victims of these troubling trends are the store owners – and consumers.
The food business in Israel – like in much of the world – is deeply competitive and challenging. The margins separating success and failure are extremely thin. And while surveys show that a sizable percentage of Israeli-Jewish food businesses want kosher certification, the costs and uncertainties that come with that process have alienated many.
While some have suggested that a complete takeover of the rabbinate’s operations is necessary, we don’t believe that is either necessary or in Israel’s best interests. Nor do we see ourselves as any form of a replacement for the rabbinate. The existence of a central and respected Chief Rabbinate is necessary for the preservation of Israel as a strong and vibrant Jewish state and it would be to the country’s detriment if that were to change.
While certainly the rabbinate’s kashrut supervision requires significant changes and adapting to new realities – as they themselves have admitted – within the agency are many dedicated, hardworking and honest individuals and dismantling that structure would be damaging in multiple ways. We also firmly believe that the rabbinate – even with its flaws – is committed to ensuring that all food certified as kosher is indeed kosher.
But we understood that in order to best create an operationally and fiscally efficient system, competition must be introduced to the kashrut marketplace. This is the model which has proven itself in parts of the Western world – most notably the US – where multiple options are available for stores and producers to choose from. The result of such competition is that the supervisors work to a higher standard and the consumers serve to benefit.
Despite the critics who argue that we are revolting against the rabbinate or introducing a system that encourages weaker standards of supervision – just the opposite is true.
The standards for kashrut that we will be ensuring are based on the same strict halachic codes as those maintained by the rabbinate. Leveraging modern technology like a mobile-based application, we will be able to monitor where all our supervisors are at any given time so that we know that the eatery is being effectively supervised. We have also chosen to employ many female supervisors out of the recognition that they have a passion for Halacha that, combined with an attention to detail, makes them the best candidates for this role.
Over the past month since we made this announcement we have been encouraged by the response of many businesses – who previously refrained from seeking kashrut supervision for the reasons mentioned above – who have sought us out and intend to now become kosher-supervised. The result is that many Israeli Jews who were previously eating in non-approved establishments will be eating food supervised and approved as kosher by the highest of standards.
Changing such an ingrained culture as that which surrounds kashrut supervision will not be easy. We know that there will always be critics who don’t share our vision or appreciation for why this is a necessary and positive development.
But we are committed to continuing this path because we understand that it is in the vital interests of our identity as a proud Jewish nation – one that strives to uphold tradition.
We invite all who share that passion to open your minds and your hearts to that understanding so that together we can ensure its success and in so doing build a better Jewish Israel for all.
The author is a rabbi and founder of the Tzohar rabbinical organization.