Kosher Restaurant Revolt Brews in Jerusalem

Rebellion Grows Against Rabbinate's Certification Monopoly

Eatery Anger: Restaurateurs are fuming at the Israeli state rabbinate’s monopoly on kosher certification.
courtesy of jerusalem movement
Eatery Anger: Restaurateurs are fuming at the Israeli state rabbinate’s monopoly on kosher certification.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published November 11, 2012, issue of November 16, 2012.
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A restaurateurs’ rebellion is under way in Jerusalem.

A dozen eateries in the holy city are brazenly claiming kosher credentials without the state rabbinate’s say-so. They are shifting the perennial controversy over state and religion in Israel from well-worn subjects, like Orthodoxy’s monopoly over marriage and divorce, to the rights over this single word, kosher.

According to Israeli law, only businesses supervised by the state rabbinate can be described as kosher. But in a public nose thumbing at this stricture, in October a Jerusalem activist set up a Facebook page of “kosher but unsupervised” restaurants in the holy city.

The restaurants listed received prompt visits from the rabbinate, threatening them with fines — even though at their premises most of them call themselves kosher verbally only, not in writing. Amid this defiant mood, the Jerusalem Movement, a group that advocates for a more pluralistic city, resolved to run a full-fledged campaign to fight back. It launched the campaign at a high-profile party November 2 at one of the restaurants, attended by 150 people.

“You cannot have a franchise on a religious word,” said Asaf Ziderman, the Jerusalem Movement activist heading the campaign. His efforts have the support of an influential Orthodox rabbi, Aaron Leibowitz, head of the Sulam Yaakov Yeshiva. Leibowitz has called the law “unjust.”

But Yehoshua Yishai, director of the rabbinate in Jerusalem, told the Forward that he considers the notion of a kosher claim without certification to be absurd. He said it is akin to skipping a service on a car and “say[ing] to the police: ‘Here, the car is checked, but I checked it myself.’”

The rebellion began in the summer, after a small Indian vegan restaurant in the city center, Ichikidana, objected to new limitations imposed by the local rabbinate on where it could source its produce. There have long been rumors of corruption in Israel’s kashrut establishment, and restaurant owner Lahava Silliman believed that the demand on her to patronize only a small number of suppliers was intended to give certain businesses favored by the rabbinate extra trade. “It was very transparent to me,” she said.

Yishai said that the limitation stemmed from purely practical concerns. The supervisor in a restaurant needs the establishment to restrict the source of produce to shops whose own supervisor can liaise with him to verify the origins of all ingredients in the restaurant. The rabbinate requires this liaison because special religious laws apply to produce grown in Israel, which means that it cannot automatically be presumed kosher as it is in the Diaspora.

The rabbinate-Ichikidana dispute caused Silliman to give up her supervision, led to the establishment of the Facebook group and prompted the current campaign. Half the restaurants involved used to be supervised, and they have severed connections to the rabbinate.

They argue that the supervision they received from the rabbinate was so minimal that customers were left reliant on only their integrity as restaurant owners, and they are simply asking customers to eat on the same basis now, without what they consider the facade of a kashrut certificate. “It wasn’t really supervision — we could do whatever we wanted to do,” said Yona Sasson, owner of the formerly supervised restaurant Topolino.

Sasson claims that when he was supervised, he received from his supervisor, or mashgiac, just a half-hour visit every two or three days. Silliman said that she paid a salary of 1,200 shekels a month ($300) plus benefits, and the inspector spent about 15 minutes a week on her premises.

Supervisors are assigned by the rabbinate but paid by restaurants. According to a formula for recommended salaries, explained to the Forward by Yishai, the supervisors at Sasson and Silliman’s restaurants should have been present for about two and three hours a day, respectively.

The rebel restaurants mostly say that they enforce kashrut in their kitchens on their own without any rabbis or inspectors — though Leibowitz is starting to develop an alternative certificate which some are expected to sign up to. It will be based on a combination of kitchens that are open to all customers to inspect and checked regularly on a volunteer basis by rabbinical students at his yeshiva.

It isn’t just restaurateur rebels who have questioned the value of Jerusalem rabbinate supervision. Last year, Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yona Metzger, paid surprise visits to Jerusalem kosher restaurants and, according to local media, was worried by what he found. He learned that supervisors were only making brief checks and not properly completing tasks as they are meant to do.

Jerusalem’s self-appointed kashrut watchdog, Yechiel Spira, editor of the fiercely-independent Jerusalem Kosher News website, wrote to his readers in July: “I feel that you have a right to know that the kashrus situation in the holiest city in the world, Jerusalem, has reached an all-time low, at least since my aliyah, over 30 years ago.” He echoed the concerns of disgruntled restaurant owners and of Metzger that supervisors are not investing the time they are paid for to ensure that the restaurants are meeting correct standards. Spira even claimed that mashgichim are “all too often ‘no-shows.’”

Spira said, “From my hours and hours of visiting stores, monitoring stores, spying on stores, stakeouts, picking through garbage, observing mashgichim, walking the shuk [market] and other areas in the center of Jerusalem,” he has “reached the conclusion that one seeking reliable kashrus may no longer rely on the Jerusalem rabbinate hashgacha [supervision] in restaurants… unless you are personally familiar with the goings-on in the restaurant you wish to visit.”

Spira believes that the restaurateurs’ campaign is significant. “It’s snowballing,” he told the Forward. “If they stay tough, it’s not going to go away.” He declined to say whether he supports it.

At the Jerusalem rabbinate, Yishai professed puzzlement at the calls for change, asking, “What is there to change?”

It is “possible” that some supervisors are not spending enough time in restaurants, Yishai said, but it is the restaurateurs’ responsibility to complain to the supervisors’ superiors. They don’t, he stressed, because they “aren’t interested in complaining.” fd Life is easier for them without a supervisor present, so they resent absences by supervisors but don’t ask the rabbinate to rectify the problem, he said.

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com


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