Jerusalem restaurants scrambled up by rabbinate’s kashrut monopoly

Jerusalem restaurants scrambled up by rabbinate’s kashrut monopoly

A group of kosher capital eatery owners plan a get-together Friday to say they've had enough of expensive, sloppy oversight

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Jonathan Vadei, owner of the 'alternatively-kosher' Carousela, has just won a legal battle (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Jonathan Vadei, owner of the 'alternatively-kosher' Carousela, has just won a legal battle (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The tables outside Carousela, a quaint cafe situated at the busy intersection of Metudela and Aza streets in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood, were only partially occupied on a quiet Wednesday morning, but owner Jonathan Vadei was hoping for standing room only come Friday afternoon. That’s when he’ll be hosting fellow restaurant owners and Jerusalemites fighting the rabbinate in “Mash(g)iah Lo Ba,” a party in support of kosher restaurants that don’t have official 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.

Hosted by Vadei and backed by HaTenua HaYerushalmit — The Jerusalemite Movement social action organization, which wants to make the capital more livable for residents of all stripes — Friday’s party aims to draw attention to the chief rabbinate’s “bad management techniques,” Vadei said, and to find a practical alternative to the rabbinate’s monopoly over kosher certification.

According to one Facebook entry on the group’s page, the object is simple: “kosher without certification.” With more than 750 Facebook “shares” and counting, it appears there are many out there who agree with the concept.

The "Mash(G)iah lo ba" poster for the Friday party at Carousela on Metudela (Courtesy Jerusalemites Party)
The “Mash(G)iah lo ba” poster for the Friday party at Carousela on Metudela (Courtesy Jerusalemites Party)

The kosher conundrum of Carousela is a familiar one to many locals. The 30-year-old Vadei opened his cafe three years ago, and for more than a year paid for kosher certification from the chief rabbinate.

“I’m from a religious family, so it was important to me that the cafe be kosher, and it’s more economically viable to have the cafe be kosher,” said Vadei, explaining that his cafe appeals to the large number of religious residents in the area as well as the more secular university students who also populate the neighborhood. “I have a wide range of customers, religious and not religious, and I didn’t want to alienate anyone.”

Yet he found it was difficult to work with the rabbinate’s kosher supervisors. They rarely came to inspect Carousela’s kitchen, and when they did, it was only for a few minutes and they would perform just a cursory examination. They behaved inappropriately when they were on the premises, and at some point Vadei decided he didn’t want the stress of dealing with them and let the certification lapse.

The cafe remained kosher according to all the relevant requirements; it was closed on the Sabbath, and Vadei continued using only kosher-certified ingredients, including the stricter Mehadrin-checked vegetables for his salads. Some clients preferred not to frequent the cafe because of the lack of certification, but many religious customers remained.

“Some people need certification,” he said, shrugging.

A quiet Carousela before Friday's upcoming event (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
A quiet Carousela before Friday’s upcoming event (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

A week ago, the rabbinate’s supervisors came to Carousela and slapped Vadei with a series of fines, claiming he couldn’t call himself kosher without a certificate. That’s when he called the Jerusalemite Movement.

The Jerusalemite Movement comprises a political party and social action group that were founded for the 2009 municipal elections by a group of young, energetic Jerusalemites who wanted to forge a wave of change in the capital city. One of the founders, Rachel Azaria, won a seat on the city council, and is the head of HaYerushalmim, or The Jerusalemites, the group’s political party, while the parallel social movement, The Jerusalemite Movement, was founded to help advance young families and pluralism in Jerusalem. They are funded by the American Targum Shlishi (Third Interpretation) foundation, which supports projects improving the quality of Jewish life.

It was obvious to Vadei that this was a matter for the overall organization.

“We need more awareness of the issue,” he said. “It’s not about getting rid of the rabbinate, but reorganizing the institution and the way it works. The politicians need to take this to the next level. The law needs to be changed.”

The other local restaurants taking part in Friday’s party include Italian bistro Topolino from Mahane Yehuda, HaSalon Shabazi in Nachlaot and Indian restaurant Ichikidana, also located in the shuk. All three also serve strictly kosher ingredients and have been targeted by the chief rabbinate.

For Azaria, the goal of Friday’s event is to create discussion and to start “forcing Jerusalem’s leaders and rabbis to figure out solutions, because what exists now is not good,” she said.

A fierce and vocal proponent of creating a more pluralistic Jerusalem, Azaria said she first became aware of the inconsistencies in kosher certification when a well-known rabbi told her that “nothing is kosher in Jerusalem.” He was referring to the fact that kosher supervisors made only cursory supervisory checks, particularly on Passover when local establishments need to modify their entire kitchens in order to be certified for the holiday.

“It’s pretty crazy that you have to have this whole big kosher thing and in the end you’re not even sure if it’s kosher,” she said. “We have to change the status quo and change things so that the restaurants aren’t so terrified. It’s another situation where the Orthodox and non-Orthodox have to unite.”

The “Mash(g)iah lo ba” party begins at 12 pm, Friday, November 2 at Carousela, the corner of Aza and Metudela Streets in Rehavia.

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