January 6, 2013 – Several restaurants in Jerusalem are challenging the state rabbinate’s monopoly on kosher certification by claiming kosher credentials without certification by the rabbinate. Five of these restaurants have also banded together and are taking the city’s chief rabbinate to court after being fined for calling themselves kosher without certification. These restaurants are working with the support of the Yerushalmim political party and associated social action groups advocating for a more pluralistic city. Targum Shlishi is helping to support this grassroots effort to establish an alternative and more just method of kosher certification in Jerusalem.
These actions were prompted by restaurant owners’ claims of corrupt practices and objectionable management techniques by the rabbinate, such as requiring them to purchase goods only from certain suppliers. “It’s not easy to challenge the status quo or the rabbinate, and it’s important to realize that the restaurants who have affiliated with this project and the Yerushalmim Party are motivated by their commitment to the laws of kashrut,” says Aryeh Rubin, director of Targum Shlishi. “They are not challenging the laws of kashrut – instead, what they are challenging is the way the Jewish laws of kashrut have been implemented in Israeli law. Quite simply, the system is broken, and we applaud this effort to find a better way.”
The project, developed by Yerushalmim in partnership with Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, has received a good deal of media attention. The initiative made a splash in October when a Facebook page of “kosher but unsupervised” restaurants in Jerusalem was established, which resulted in a flurry of visits to the restaurants from the rabbinate and fines for calling themselves kosher without certification. In response, Yerushalmim formally launched a campaign to fight back, which it kicked off on November 2 at a gathering of several restaurants. At that event, Rabbi Leibowitz explained the plan for a community based, volunteer kosher supervision program, the Kashrut Yerushalmit project. The alternative plan, which as presented in November applied to smaller establishments such as coffee shops, food stands, and bars (the plan for larger-scale restaurants was still being refined), involves supervision by community volunteers who make periodic visits to the establishments and calls for restaurant owners, kitchen staff, and the supervising volunteers to attend kashrut classes together.
Rabbi Leibowitz is a community activist, an Orthodox rabbi, and dean of the Sulam Yaakov Yeshiva. As he told The Jerusalem Post, he views Kashrut Yerushalmit not as anti-rabbinate, but as pro-alternative: “This is a healthy alternative that would bring more kashrut to the streets of Jerusalem. It would be a breath of fresh air. I am critical that it’s illegal to implement an alternative.” Leibowitz hopes that ultimately, working towards this alternative will bring positive change. “Imagine if kashrut were a vehicle for building trust and community, instead of the divisive issue it has become,” he wrote in an opinion piece in The Jerusalem Post. “When will the rabbinate wake up and realize that it is the face of Torah, and that stellar service, best practices, impeccable ethical standards, and the highest of human relations skills are required?”
The restaurants that were fined say that the rabbinate’s actions amount to harassment. “The fines issued by the rabbinate reflect their work system with the restaurants that are based on intimidation and harassment, instead of the ideals we believe a kosher system should be based on – collaboration and trust,” Jerusalem councilmember and head of the Yerushalmim political party Rachel Azaria told The Times of Israel. “We honestly believe that this is an ideological and legal battle that we can and must win.”
A political party, Yerushalmim was founded for the 2009 municipal elections by a group of people dedicated to a more pluralistic Jerusalem. Yerushalmim, or The Jerusalemites, is the group’s political party. HaTenua HaYerushalmit (The Jerusalemite Movement) is the associated social action organization. For more information, visit Yerushalmim’s website.
About Targum Shlishi
Targum Shlishi is dedicated to providing a range of creative solutions to problems facing Jewry today. Premised on the conviction that dynamic change and adaptation have historically been crucial to a vibrant and relevant Judaism and to the survival of its people, Targum Shlishi’s initiatives are designed to stimulate the development of new ideas and innovative strategies that will enable Jewish life, its culture, and its traditions to continue to flourish. For more information on the foundation, visit its website.