Hebrew National Certified Kosher — But Not Kosher Enough for Some

By Miriam Colton and Steven I. Weiss

Published June 11, 2004, issue of June 11, 2004.
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Hebrew National became the unchallenged king of the kosher meat industry by marketing its product to non-Jews with the help of several catchy advertising slogans, including the famous, “We answer to a higher authority.” But its success masked a bizarre twist: Most kosher consumers won’t eat the company‘s products.

But with the departure of Hebrew National’s longtime in-house rabbi, Tibor Stern, who died in January, and the decision to seek outside kosher supervision, the company is showing signs of regaining the confidence of some corners of the kosher community.

The top lawmaking body of the Conservative movement, the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee of Jewish Law and Standards, ruled last week that it would now approve Hebrew National meat products. Members of the committee say the decision will have a large impact on religiously observant Conservative Jews, especially those living in smaller communities with limited access to kosher food. Law Committee members said that the status of Hebrew National is one of the most common questions they field regarding kashrut. Due to the perceived significance of the question, the committee veered from its recent policy of not issuing statements on the acceptability of various kosher certification agencies for fear of law suits.

The Conservative decision comes several months after a prominent Orthodox rabbi approved the company’s products.

In both cases, the key factor appears to be Hebrew National’s decision to turn to Triangle K, under the auspices of Aryeh Ralbag, an Orthodox rabbi. Ralbag, who was traveling this week, could not be reached for comment.

Ralbag has succeeded in securing the endorsement of Rabbi Yitzchak Abadi, a respected, former adjudicator of rabbinic law in the ultra-Orthodox stronghold in Lakewood, N.J.

Several months ago, Abadi’s son, Aaron, posted a note to the family’s website, Kashrut.org, stating: “The meat, however, is certainly kosher for all who do not eat only glatt.”

Aaron Abadi was referring to the category of “glatt kosher,” a term used to describe a more expensive and complicated form of rabbinical supervision that became the communal standard of Orthodox Jews in America following a post-World War II influx of strictly observant Holocaust survivors. Like Abadi, the Conservative rabbis ruled that Hebrew National was now acceptable for those Jews who keep kosher, but not for those who keep glatt kosher.

The recent decisions to approve Hebrew National for Jews who do not adhere to the stricter glatt standards could help put an end to the string of urban legends and sordid explanations for why Orthodox Jews won’t consume the company’s products. But, for a variety of sociological and religious reasons, the decisions are unlikely to translate into a significant increase in sales. The number of Conservative consumers who were unwilling to eat Hebrew National is believed to account for only a small share of the kosher market. And, Orthodox Jews, who make up the overwhelming majority of the market, the main problem remains: Hebrew National is still not glatt kosher.

Aaron Abadi said that he did not know of any specific Orthodox Jews who are now willing to eat Hebrew National as a result of his father‘s endorsement. “The communities that I’m in touch with locally are all strictly glatt,” he said. However, Abadi added, “I know that many of our thousands of visitors to our Web site are now eating it.” Abadi said that his Web site attracts Jews of varying religious standards, including consumers who are willing to eat kosher meat that is not glatt.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of the Orthodox Union’s kashrut department, the largest kosher certifying organization in the world, told the Forward that the O.U. only certifies glatt kosher meat, adding that his organization would “probably not” certify a non-glatt operation, if asked to do so. According to Genack, “there was a period when [the O.U.] certified both glatt and non-glatt,” but “it changed in the late ‘70s.” Genack said that “market conditions” had caused the organization to turn away from non-glatt certification.

Even the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s flagship institution, will continue to prohibit Hebrew National from being served at its facilities. Rabbi Joel Roth, a member of the Law Committee’s subcommittee on kashrut who helped investigate the issue and a professor at JTS, told the Forward: “For business reasons, we will remain glatt.”

But Rabbi Paul Plotkin, the chair of the kashrut subcomittee, said that the important issue is that the Law Committee has opened a door to religious observance for many of the Conservative movement’s followers.

“We wanted our population to be able to have as wide an access to kosher food as possible,” said Plotkin, who, along with Roth and Rabbi Mayer Rabinowitz, inspected the Hebrew National facilities. “The easier and more accessible you make quality kosher products at a reasonable price, the easier it is for me to convince people to become kosher,” Plotkin said.

“Over the years the powers-that-be at Hebrew National have been in touch with me and we’ve had a long dialogue on what it would take to make product acceptable for the Conservative movement,” Plotkin said. He added that the company informed him of the recent switch and offered to make the supervision process more transparent, a problem under Stern’s reign. “Because it’s not a glatt operation that wasn’t going to be able to appeal to the right-wing Orthodox, we constitute their number one Jewish target market,” he added.

A Hebrew National spokesperson said the company has no marketing plans for reaching out to Conservative communities; she said she could not reveal what percentage of Hebrew National consumers are Jewish or kosher.

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