It isn’t easy to snag a table at Mahane Yehuda’s Cafe Mizrachi. The first cafe to open in Jerusalem’s shuk back in 2002, it has long been a meeting point for locals, both religious and secular — even when it wasn’t officially kosher.

“The whole thing seemed like a farce,” said owner Merav Mizrachi, explaining her decision to operate without official kosher supervision for the last year and a half. “I just got tired of how it was conducted. The kosher supervisors would come around to inspect once in a while and get their check, but ultimately, the responsibility was on me.”

Not much changed when Mizrachi terminated her contract with the chief rabbinate of Jerusalem a year and a half ago. She still closed the cafe on Shabbat, used the same kosher cheeses, and continued to buy Gush Katif greens, known for being grown through methods aimed at minimizing bug infestations that would render them nonkosher. She just didn’t have the official certification from the chief rabbinate.

Some customers stopped coming.

“I had customers who couldn’t eat here without the kosher certification, but many supported me,” said Mizrachi, who took over the cafe from her father, Eli Mizrachi, the second-generation shuk proprietor often credited with helping turn around the market in the last decade. “Most people stayed. It’s a very Jerusalem thing; this is my place, and and this city is a rabble of people.”

So when Rabbi Aharon Leibowitz, secretary of Jerusalem’s Yerushalmim political party, approached Mizrachi to ask if she’d like to try their new alternative kosher certification program, she was more than game.

“I want everyone to feel comfortable here,” Mizrachi said. “For me, that is pluralism in Jerusalem.”

The Yerushalmim party has been grappling for the last two years with the issue of how kosher certification is offered to local eateries. In November 2012, five Jerusalem restaurants that decided to forgo their official certification took the city’s chief rabbinate to court after being fined between NIS 1,000 and NIS 2,000 for calling themselves kosher without formal certification from the rabbinate.

They never paid the fines, and the case was never tried.

At the November 2 "Mash(g)iah lo ba" event (Courtesy Rachel Azaria)

At the “Mash(g)iah Lo Ba” event, November 2, 2013 (photo credit: Courtesy Rachel Azaria)

But the Yerushalmim, led by Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Rachel Azaria, continued fighting the rabbinate. The movement held rallies called “Mash(g)iah Lo Ba” (The Kosher Supervisor Isn’t Coming) to raise public awareness and support, then sought to create a working substitute for the rabbinate’s monopoly over kosher certification.

The name of the event is a takeoff on the popular Shalom Hanoch song, “Mashiah Lo Ba” (The Messiah Isn’t Coming), with an added “gimmel” or “g” that transforms the word “mashiah” (messiah) into “mashgiah,” the term for a kosher supervisor.

Last summer, party members ran a trial workshop of their alternative kosher certification program, starting with Salon Shabazi, a local cafe. The cafe has since closed — unrelated to its kosher supervision — but the system is growing slowly.

Working with a team of volunteers and one paid kosher supervisor, they hold a seminar in the restaurants that are part of their program, showing the employees how to keep the kitchen strictly kosher. The paid supervisor then oversees the volunteer trustees — each trustee is assigned to one specific restaurant — who visit the restaurant several times a week, making sure the system is working. The restaurant pays NIS 400 each month to the organization, which uses the funds to pay the supervisor.

“It’s a covenant of trust between the community and the business establishment,” said Rabbi Leibowitz, sitting over a cappuccino at Mizrachi, which was to begin working with a supervisor the following day. “The volunteers view themselves as in charge of the abstract community, and we view this as a socially sacred confidence to retain the kosher status of this particular kitchen. There’s a declaration there, and if the business owner acts fraudulently, then the establishment will be advertised as such in the community.”

Part of the process includes weekly visits from the restaurant’s designated volunteer trustee or supervisor, who will help in the kitchen with matters related to their kosher status, such as washing lettuce or going through rice, looking for bugs. Every establishment also will have a binder documenting their kosher certification process, which customers can look at if they wish.

“We believe we’re creating a different kind of system, creating a shift at the core of how it works,” he said.

A Jerusalem Rabbinate kosher certificate (Courtesy Jerusalem Kosher News)

The traditional kosher certificates will become electronic in the new system (photo credit: Courtesy Jerusalem Kosher News)

Certain aspects of the system didn’t work at first, said Leibowitz. They shut the project down in one restaurant when they weren’t satisfied with the level of supervision, and learned that relying solely on volunteer trustees — as they did at the start — didn’t offer enough supervision.

So far, four restaurants have signed on for the alternative program, including Cafe Mizrachi; Topolino, also located in Mahane Yehuda; Hamakom Shel Itzik, in Baka; and Carousela, in Rehavia.

“I have lots of employees who don’t necessarily come from kosher homes and they don’t know anything about this,” pointed out Mizrachi, who grew up in a traditional home. “This way, they’ll learn what it means and they’ll understand why; that’s the big change.”

The Yerushalmim project was waved off by the rabbinate as a marginal program, said Leibowitz. At the same time, it seems that the political party’s efforts have had an impact. Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett, who also acts as the country’s religious affairs minister, announced a new kosher certification policy last month, which offers three levels of certification for food establishments.

Bennett said, at the time, that there haven’t been clear standards in the kosher certification policy and that there will also be legislation with regard to the policies. For now, the changes include creating a three-tier star system — indicating a food establishment’s level of adherence to kosher dietary laws — and having inspectors in Israel employed by an outside commercial corporation in order to make them independent of the businesses they inspect. But, as Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan said at the press conference announcing the changes, “We’re coming here to empower the Chief Rabbinate, to strengthen it.”

It will take time for the ministry and the Chief Rabbinate to get the new program off the ground, said Idit Dahan, Rabbi Ben-Dahan’s spokesperson. “We’re getting ready,” she said, “but the first stage, which is creating the company that will employ the kosher supervisors, will take half a year to establish.”

Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs, Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan (L), Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett (C) and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel David Lau seen during a press conference about Kosher certifications, February 3, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs, Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan (left), Religious Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett (center) and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel David Lau (right) at a press conference about kosher certification, February 3, 2014 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

There will be a complete separation between the supervisors and the restaurants, as well as an electronic kosher certification program put in place, added Dana Mizrachi, Bennett’s spokesperson. But she was very clear on the point that the rabbinate will continue to be in charge of the kosher certification process in Israel.

“What bothers the restaurants is that the kosher supervisor is so expensive, and that the Chief Rabbinate sets the prices,” said Mizrachi. “Now the supervisors will work with the rabbinate, but not for them.”

“I’m happy they’re doing it,” said Leibowitz, “because they’re finally on record, admitting there’s a problem.”

The problem is, “Who’s watching them?” he asked. “Ultimately, our claim is what has to be reformed is not the system, but the law. It’s a bad law… it’s an anti-fraud law that’s creating a fraudulent reality.”

The chief rabbinate will be creating a separate company to employ the kosher supervisors, but will still oversee the process (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

The Chief Rabbinate will be creating a separate company to employ the kosher supervisors, but will still oversee the process. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

According to Mizrachi, Bennett’s spokesperson, there is no plan in place for any legislation regarding the issue.

The Yerushalmim party held a conference Monday afternoon at Jerusalem’s Hartman Institute as part of its campaign to establish the alternative kosher training initiative. Deputy Minister Dahan was invited, but, according to Leibowitz, said he wouldn’t come to the presentation of an illegal program.

Of course, even the Yerushalmim system isn’t fail-safe, added Leibowitz. What has to happen is a privatization of the process, like in the US, where private agencies like the OU and the OK compete for the trust of the consumer and service they give to the restaurants.

“It’s like anything else,” he said. “People say it’s going to be chaos, but it’s chaos now. I’d rather they know there’re reliable agencies and informed consumerism.”

For now, the Yerushalmim system only works in small, community-based establishments like Cafe Mizrachi, where there is a core of regular, standing customers who are willing to take part in the new project, said Leibowitz.

“Our real challenge is the rabbinate and I think we’ve succeeded; we’ve generated a public conversation,” he said. “I’m a community builder, I’m not a kosher expert. We’re taking the kosher community and the nonkosher community and building trust and partnership.”

“It’s like YES and HOT,” added Mizrachi, referring to the satellite and cable television companies, respectively. “We need competition in this space, because it will make us all stronger.”