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From the start, too, this effort faced opposition from those in the Orthodox movement who have a virtual monopoly on kosher certification. It’s difficult to say whether this opposition is based purely on philosophical grounds — that kashrut should apply narrowly in the religious realm, while the secular government is tasked with enforcing its own laws on labor, the environment, etc. — or whether it’s a more blatant struggle for control.
Whatever. Orthodox opposition, stated or implied, has been enough to push away already reluctant participants.
This complexity and opposition could be overcome, however, if there was a sustained groundswell of support from Conservative Jews. Yes, the leadership says all the right things. Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly: The R.A. “continues to support Magen Tzedek, both the organization and its ideals.”
Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism: “The fact that Magen Tzedek has not gotten to market yet does not diminish the great value of this initiative.” Allen is even scheduled to speak at the USCJ’s upcoming centennial.
And yet there is little agitation from rank-and-file Conservative Jews or their leaders for what could have been a groundbreaking, signature attempt to meld ritual tradition with contemporary concerns. After all, the organic food movement faces extensive regulation and industry opposition, but consumer demand has made the organic label commonplace. When Magen Tzedek was first announced, a Forward editorial wondered whether Conservative Jews would care enough about kashrut to lift it to a new level. Apparently not.
The contrast with efforts to promote a Tav HaYosher, an “ethical seal,” is instructive. Four years ago, Uri l’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization, launched a local, grassroots initiative to reward kosher restaurants that met three standards for their workers: The right to fair pay. The right to fair time (that is, overtime.) And the right to a safe work environment.
This seal is less ambitious than Magen Tzedek, no doubt. Still, so far more than 80 kosher establishments around the country have the Tav HaYosher, and Rabbi Ari Weiss, Uri L’Tzedek’s executive director, attributed the success to several factors. His organization doesn’t charge for certification. The standards simply reflect existing law — requiring the minimum wage, for instance, while Magen Tzedek has demanded more than that. Plus, the kind of Jews who are going to patronize kosher restaurants are undoubtedly more engaged.