As rabbis of Conservative Judaism begin work on a new, ethically motivated food certification, they are coming under attack from a number of Orthodox kosher authorities.
The Conservative movement decided last December to create a Tsedek Hekhsher, or justice certification, after finding substandard working conditions at the country’s largest kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa. The movement, made up of more than 700 congregations, is currently devising a way of certifying the labor standards at kosher food plants.
The most organized criticism of the new effort has come from a group of ultra-Orthodox rabbis belonging to the Central Rabbinical Congress, or Hisachdus Horabbonim, which released a proclamation condemning the Conservative rabbis. The proclamation from the congress, which is affiliated with the Satmar Hasidic sect, was echoed in a column in the Jewish Press, a leading Orthodox publication. The Jewish Press columnist, Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum, said Jews should “repulse any attempts of introducing such alien impositions.”
Tannenbaum wrote that the “injection of social or humanitarian considerations, especially by outsiders, would be an unallowable breach of the time honored halachic administration of kashrus standards.”
A few days before the Jewish Press column, the trade publication of the kosher food industry, Kosher Today, published a stinging criticism of the Conservative campaign and the Minnesota rabbi who has led it. The editor of Kosher Today, Menachem Lubinsky, said he is personally opposed to the Tsedek Hekhsher, as are most of the Orthodox rabbis with whom he has spoken.
“On the Orthodox side, there is total opposition to it,” Lubinsky said. “It just doesn’t make sense to them.”
The Conservative rabbis working on the new certification say they have received positive feedback from constituents. The decision to create a Tsedek Hekhsher was taken just a few weeks after the Conservative movement’s controversial vote to allow the ordination of gay rabbis. Some Conservative rabbis say they have been surprised that the kosher issue has ended up generating more feedback than the much more high-profile vote on gay rabbis.
“The response from Conservative Jews is overwhelmingly supportive,” said Richard Lederman, executive director of the mid-Atlantic regional office of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Lederman is also a member of the committee working to create the new certification.
Lederman and his committee began looking into the issue of labor conditions after an article in the Forward detailed complaints from workers at AgriProcessors, the Iowa slaughterhouse that is the country’s largest kosher meatpacking plant. The USCJ and the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly created a task force to investigate the allegations. After numerous visits to the Iowa plant — and to another slaughterhouse in Pennsylvania — the task force issued a report declaring that “there are significant issues of concern at the plant, including issues of health and safety.”
At the same time, the movement announced plans to create the Tsedek Hekhsher, which, the rabbis announced, would provide a seal of approval to kosher food producers who have “met a set of standards that determine the social responsibility of kosher food producers, particularly in the area of workers’ rights.”
Since December, the Conservative movement task force has been divided into two subcommittees that are working on the specifics of the new certification.
“Right now we’re trying to figure out how we’re going to do this,” Lederman said. “We’ll have to add some staff here and perhaps contract with some outside research organizations.”
Lederman and his committee have been adamant that any new certification would be a supplement, not a replacement, for current kosher certification that looks solely at the process of food preparation. But this argument appears to hold little sway with Orthodox critics.
The rabbinic administrator at the Central Rabbinical Congress, Yitzchok Glick, told the Forward that he had spoken with kosher companies and told them not to permit Conservative rabbis into their factories.
“We said that they shouldn’t allow them in,” Glick said. “The Orthodox kosher producers are all of the same opinion. They will adhere to our proclamation. They will not allow them into the plant.”
Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of the largest kosher supervision agency, the Orthodox Union, said his organization is “not taking a position” on the Tsedek Hekhsher. But Genack said he believed that labor issues would be better left to governmental authorities.
Until now, Orthodox rabbis have had almost total oversight of the kosher industry, and the looming entrance of the Conservative movement is being met with a great deal of suspicion in some circles. The Jewish Press columnist referred to the “suspicious machinations” of the new Conservative campaign.
The debate took on a much more explicitly personal tone in Kosher Today, which detailed the grievances of Asher Zeilingold, an Orthodox rabbi in Minnesota who felt he had been wronged by the “deceptive behavior” of a local Conservative rabbi who is leading the new committee.
Zeilingold, who is paid to provide kosher certification for the meat at AgriProcessors, was an early defender of the company when the original allegations appeared in the Forward. In Kosher Today, Zeilingold said that the Conservative task force was “delighted to accept all the lies and slander of the Forward article as absolute truth because it gave them a pretext by which they could gain entry into AgriProcessors and other plants positing as the champions of ‘kashrut’ and the rights of workers.”
Zeilingold’s Conservative counterpart, Rabbi Morris Allen, was not contacted for the Kosher Today article, but Allen’s synagogue did write a letter to the publication, defending their religious leader.
“That Rabbi Allen’s efforts — which are of no financial benefit to him — are attacked by fellow Jews who also believe in the sanctity of kosher laws is unfair and misguided,” the letter said.
In addition to the criticism of Allen, Zeilingold told Kosher Today that an official for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had visited AgriProcessors and gave him a report praising the company’s labor practices.
Reached this week, Zeilingold said he could not release the OSHA report; however, he did say that the OSHA official was not working in an official capacity when he made his visit, but rather as a “private consultant.”
About the Tsedek Hekhsher, Zeilingold said that “all it will accomplish is drive a wedge between Conservative and Orthodox.”