Kosher power to the people?

Kosher power to the people?

Jerusalem rabbi behind controversial community kashrut certification to speak in Teaneck

When newly ordained Rabbi Yosef Leibowitz left Yeshiva University in New York to assume his first pulpit in Berkeley, California, some 40 plus years ago, his classmates jokingly bought him a gas mask.

At the time, the University of California’s Berkeley campus was in the news for student protests, which Governor Ronald Reagan was suppressed by sending out National Guard helicopters armed with tear gas.

Aaron Liebowitz

Now Leibowitz’s son Aaron is in the family business (Yosef’s father also was a rabbi, with a New York congregation), serving a community in Jerusalem as well as running a small yeshiva. Perhaps fittingly for someone raised in Berkeley in that turbulent time he finds himself embattled, taking the side of free speech against governmental authority. Though, in a move Ronald Reagan’s libertarian economic advisors might approve, he is also fighting against a government-enforced monopoly – in particular, the Israeli rabbinate’s control over kashrut supervision. The free speech issue is this: Can a restaurant declare itself kosher without buying the certification of the official rabbinate, and paying its inspectors?

The battle is not likely to bring on tear gas or rioters; for now, the struggle is taking place in small restaurants and newspaper columns and Facebook groups; ultimately, it may spill over into the courts and then, perhaps, Knesset legislation. But just as the Berkeley struggles heralded a new American era – a time of protest, fewer limits on speech, and the rising star of Governor Ronald Reagan as the voice of the conservative backlash, Leibowitz’s struggles over kashrut both exemplify and herald a changing balance between religious observance, Israeli society, and government regulation.

Leibowitz’s yeshiva, Sulam Yaakov, as well as the synagogue he led, is in the Nachlaot neighborhood in Jerusalem, which he describes as “a little bit like the Greenwich Village of Jerusalem, with a very interesting mix of out-of-the box people.”

If Nachlaot is Greenwich Village, then Salon Shabazi is a prototypical Village coffee shop, designed to be part living room for students living in apartments too small for socializing, part cultural salon. It’s the sort of place where you can find a musical act featuring a modestly dressed, apparently Orthodox female singer, two bearded-and-capped musicians, and two more musicians who appear secular. Not long after Salon Shabazi opened, Leibowitz noted that young people with kipport were frequenting the cafe – and that it had no kashrut supervision.

“I understood that they had ideological objections to the legal requirements for kashrut supervision. I proposed we build a community-based, trust-based supervision,” he said.

In his vision of kashrut, rather than the restaurant paying a supervisor, and answering to him in terms of which suppliers from whom to buy, supervision would be a learning opportunity. He would study the laws of kashrut with the restaurant owners, they would be open with their customers about their standards of observance, and the kitchen would be open for customers to inspect.

What would happen in the restaurant would mirror what happens in a kosher home, where a family maintains a kosher kitchen without hiring an outside supervisor.

Leibowitz’s neighborhood efforts coincided with a trend unfolding across Jerusalem. A couple of Orthodox students had started a Facebook page called “Kosher without certification” to publicize restaurants and coffee shops in the city that claimed to be kosher but chose not to have the chief rabbinate’s certification. He publicly endorsed the effort. “I support the right of any restaurant to claim that they’re kosher and place the responsibility on the consumer to learn about the level of supervision the restaurant employs,” he said.

“A big part of the campaign is to transfer more responsibility for kashrut to the consumer. Now the consumer tends to rely on a piece of paper from the chief rabbinate that says everything is kosher. The problem is very often the certificate isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. The level of supervision is very inconsistent. Standards are minimal. The fact that the mashgiach” – the supervisor – “is on the payroll of the restaurant creates a huge conflict of interest.

“Let’s open up the market for certification and let the agencies compete for the consumer’s faith,” he said.

There is one set of alternative supervisions: That of the various charedi courts, collectively known as “badatz.” But, Leibowitz said, they don’t provide a model for a free market in kashrut supervision. It’s not clear what standards the rabbinate uses when it approves another supervision; the supervising court has no transparency in the standards it employs; and because they are only allowed as an additional certification, “anybody who subscribes to those agencies is basically employing two kashrut agencies. There’s no challenge to the monopoly the chief rabbinate has over the industry,” he said.

Not surprisingly, the rabbinate has not ignored the challenge. It has issued citations to the restaurants that are advertising themselves as kosher without certification. In turn, the restaurants have refused to pay the fines.

“Everyone is waiting to see how it plays out,” Leibowitz said. “There are huge legal questions as to whether the citations are enforceable. In most cases, the rabbinate has dropped the case before it came to court.”

As drafted by the Knesset, the kashrut law is anti-fraud regulation, not religious legislation. Some lawyers argue that because it’s an anti-fraud law, there has to have been actual fraud if violators are to be punished. If the food is kosher but uncertified, it is not fraud to call it kosher, according to this interpretation. That means that the rabbinate would have to prove that the non-certified restaurants actually are not kosher.

Liebowitz said his alternative certification project reflects real, and “huge,” changes in Israeli, and particularly Jerusalem, society.

“There’s a large community of young people who grew up in Orthodox homes and have gone what we used to call ‘off the derech'” – off the path – “but still hold dear a lot of the values they grew up with. That’s one trend. The other trend is young secular Israelis who are reclaiming a relationship to tradition. There’s a growing community of autonomous observance. There are many people who want to eat kosher food, but don’t wear kipot, don’t feel the need for a rabbi to tell them it’s kosher.

“It’s an exciting thing. It reflects a drawing close of the Israeli populace around a shared ground of valuing Jewish identity.”

Liebowitz sees a “remix” of Jewish identity in Israel, exemplified by political parties such as Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid putting rabbis and Orthodox representatives onto their lists.

“We no longer can assume somebody’s practice based on what they look like. That’s huge. That’s good news. I hope that heralds an end to the disenfranchisement which has been directed at the non-observant community from their Jewish identity and their Jewish roots,” he said.

Who: Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, dean of Sulam Yaakov ““ The Beit Midrash for Community Leadership Development

What: A talk on “Alternative kashrut in Jerusalem”

Where: The Jewish Center of Teaneck

When: Wednesday, February 13, at 7:45 p.m.

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