This event is dedicated to a woman named Inez,? said Rabbi Ari Hart, one of the co-founders of Uri L?Tzedek, a Modern Orthodox organization that promotes social justice. Their signature program is the Tav HaYosher (Ethical Seal), a certification program for kosher restaurants that meet basic criteria for ethical treatment of their labor. Hart was speaking Sunday night to a packed house in a basement auditorium at the JCC of Manhattan, the setting for ?FesTAVal,? a celebration of the recent addition of the 100th Tav-certified restaurant.
Inez, Hart told the crowd, was a woman he and fellow co-founder Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz met in Postville, Iowa shortly after the 2008 immigration raid on Agriprocessors, the large kosher meatpacking plant there. Inez, an illegal immigrant who had worked for Agriprocessors, was wearing an electronic monitoring anklet. Her future was uncertain, but she told Hart and Yanklowitz of the dream she used to have of a better life in America. ?That dream was stripped away from her by Agriprocessors. We knew the Jewish community shouldn?t stand for that in the food that we eat,? Hart told the energized crowd. Businesses that have that Tav HaYosher, he said, ?have affirmed not just kashrut [kosher standards], but yashrut [ethical standards].? Food workers, Hart said, ?are the most vulnerable workers in our society.?
Dasi Fruchter, a New York City college student and a volunteer Tav compliance officer excitedly reminded the crowd how basic the Tav standards are: workers must be paid minimum wage, they must receive overtime and they must be able to work in a non-discriminatory environment. The standards, all derived from American law, are arguably so basic that many take them for granted. One of the lead compliance officers, Emily Winograd, also a college student, said, ?One of the things that surprises a lot of people is that each you?d think all kosher restaurants would follow the law, but the restaurant business is so cutthroat.?
?We have to tell the rest of the kosher restaurants to get with the program!? Fruchter added. Party attendees could fill in the blanks on the back of a form postcard and send it to the owner of a non-Tav kosher restaurant, encouraging them to join the Tav?s growing ranks.
Compliance officers, many of whom are college students and 20-somethings, are all volunteers who have been assigned to a few restaurants after going through a training program. ?Every few months we go in, they interview workers about the conditions, about how they?re feeling, they interview owners about how the partnership is working for them, how we?re promoting them, and basically just ensure that all the standards are being met,? Winograd said.
The event featured the food of a few New York-area Tav restaurants, as well as desserts from a Tav-certified caterer. Tav-certified businesses include the expected, like the New York falafel restaurant Soom Soom, and the less obvious, like a joint in Los Angeles called MexiKosher. Beyond the bicoastal Jewish population centers, there are also Tav restaurants all over the country, including a couple in Texas, and one in Canada.
When asked what the 100th restaurant was, Yanklowitz and Uri L?Tzedek Director Ari Weiss took a while to answer, before settling on a place in LA called Bibi?s. (Two new restaurants joined the same day, prompting some debate over which one was technically the magic number.) Bibi?s recently changed owners, providing an opportunity for Tav certification amid the turnover. Before, they weren?t paying their workers overtime. ?We?re not just certifying existing good standards, but coming in and raising them,? Yanklowitz said.
The seal has only been around for a few years, and things moved slowly at the beginning. ?I talked to a lot of restaurant owners who said, ?Oh, it?s never going to work, they?ll never let you talk to all their workers,?? Hart recalled. ?We had to work very hard to get the first three restaurants.?
And lest anyone leave the party and forget to buy from Tav-certified restaurants, there were fridge magnets available near the door with a reminder: ?Nothing in the fridge tonight? Support a restaurant that has Tav HaYosher.?