'It’s not a significant change in how we understand halacha'

Amended Conservative Jewish Passover policy taps into booming gluten-free market

Rabbis make a pandemic-era emergency measure permanent, allowing certain FDA-certified products to be purchased ahead of the holiday even without a kosher for Passover label

The Conservative Movement's 2023 Passover guide recommends browsing for certified gluten-free, oat-free products ahead of Passover when making their holiday purchases this year. (Getty via JTA)
The Conservative Movement's 2023 Passover guide recommends browsing for certified gluten-free, oat-free products ahead of Passover when making their holiday purchases this year. (Getty via JTA)

JTA — Ahead of Passover 2020 — as life worldwide ground to an abrupt halt in the face of a rapidly spreading pandemic and people faced the specter of empty grocery shelves, or staying confined at home — a range of rabbis tried to make it a little easier to observe the holiday.

Long lists of foods and newly lenient guidelines from Jewish organizations circulated among people who keep kosher for Passover, explaining which foods they could purchase and eat on the holiday, given the year’s extraordinary circumstances. The message — sometimes explicit, sometimes implied — was that these special permissions applied only temporarily.

Now, one rule instituted as a COVID provision by the Conservative movement is becoming permanent: Before Passover begins, Jews may buy certified kosher products that have kosher-for-Passover ingredients and are certified gluten-free and oat-free — even if they aren’t explicitly certified kosher for Passover.

When it first appeared in 2020, that rule was written in a way that suggested it was an emergency measure, using the words “when the situation demands.” This year, that four-word phrase has been removed from the Rabbinical Assembly’s Passover guide, and the guidance has moved from a separate section into the main list of allowable products.

The edit reflects how some shifts in Jewish practice that first appeared at the outset of the pandemic as stopgap measures have since been normalized. It also allows — for at least a narrow set of Jews who observe Jewish ritual in accordance with the Conservative movement’s dictates — more robust and potentially less expensive options for keeping kosher during Passover.

Rabbi Aaron Alexander, chair of the Kashrut Subcommittee on the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which issues the movement’s Jewish legal rulings, said the change does not reflect a shift in the movement’s approach to Jewish law, known as halacha. Instead, he said, it reflects confidence that the Food and Drug Administration’s strict rules about how products can be labeled can be trusted when it comes to Passover observance.

“It’s not a significant change in how we understand halacha in general and how we understand the general Passover laws,” Alexander said. “It’s always been the case that there are products you can buy without a KP [symbol] before Passover, when you can be pretty sure that there’s no chametz and that any accidental admixture would be minimal.”

The requirement for foods to be certified gluten-free and oat-free, Alexander said, is “an extra line of defense” for people buying products before Passover that are not explicitly labeled kosher for Passover.

The policy shift opens new doors to kosher-keeping Jews: Rather than seeking out specialty items with Passover kosher certification, often carried only in kosher supermarkets and in major markets, they can observe Passover by taking advantage of the increasing number of products that are labeled kosher, gluten-free and oat-free, as long as the ingredients accord with Passover laws.

The gluten-free marketplace is estimated at $6 billion a year in the United States and is growing by an estimated 10% each year, according to industry trend reports. The marketplace serves people with celiac disease — whose incidence is rising — as well as people who seek to reduce or eliminate their gluten intake for perceived health reasons.

Some people with celiac disease say they look forward to Passover because more products will hit shelves that they can count on to be free of gluten. Now, Jews who follow the Conservative movement’s guidance can benefit from some of the wide array of gluten-free foods that are already available.

On Passover, five types of grain are prohibited (except for when they are used to make matzah): wheat, spelt, barley, oat and rye. By purchasing products that are certified gluten-free and oat-free, consumers can avoid buying food that contain those five ingredients.

More gluten-free products are available at Passover, and an array of blogs offers recipes on how to use them. (Hillel Kuttler/JTA)

“In an effort to definitively alert consumers to the presence of wheat gluten in packaged foods, the FDA mandates that any product including the words ‘gluten-free,’ ‘no gluten,’ ‘free of gluten,’ or ‘without gluten’ must contain less than 20 parts per million of glutinous wheat, spelt, barley, or rye,” a footnote to the guide states. “This eliminates the possibility of a gluten-free packaged food containing 4 of the 5 hametz-derived grains in any quantity that would be viable according to Jewish law.”

Alexander emphasized that the gluten-free and oat-free guidance should be seen as “a good way to figure out whether or not the products you’re getting before Passover could be problematic.” He cautioned that looking at the rest of the ingredients is crucial: Some certified gluten-free products, for example, could still be prohibited for Passover because they contain yeast.

Sarah Chandler, an ordained Hebrew priestess and Jewish educator who used to run a pickle business, already bought food with gluten-free labels during her pre-Passover shopping.

“It’s very practical, and it’s also consistent with other levels of kashrut,” Chandler told JTA regarding her pre-Passover shopping. “The fact that you and I can go to a grocery store and buy eggs — you don’t need a kosher symbol on it. We just know that it’s eggs. We’re not worried that the egg is from a bird of prey and not kosher. We can just assume that [if] it says ‘chicken eggs,’ they’re chicken eggs.”

She added, using a Hebrew term for kosher certification, “We don’t need a hechsher on it. The hechscher just means a certain level of supervision.”

Chandler is a vegetarian and eats a variety of nut butters, which are often expensive. Recently, she bought a jar of gluten-free cashew butter that was on sale for $6 instead of its regular price of $12. (A jar of almond butter by a kosher brand marketed for Passover can run around $18.) Because it’s still unopened and the ingredients are kosher for Passover, she plans to eat it during the holiday.

Illustrative: Kosher for Passover rolls at a Jerusalem bakery. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Kosher-keeping Jews with gluten intolerance and celiac disease have especially found a lifeline in the growing marketplace of gluten-free food.

Lisa Goldman, also known as the “Gluten Free Jewish Momma,” is an Orlando-based advocate for the gluten intolerant on behalf of her now-grown daughter, who was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2012.

“My daughter was crying over not being able to have matzah balls because matzah [is] very high in wheat,” Goldman recalled. “So it was so exciting when all of the Jewish brands started to come out with a gluten-free version of many of their products.”

By the Way Bakery, a kosher, gluten-free and dairy-free bakery in New York City founded in 2011 by Helene Godin, may be a destination where Jewish shoppers who abide by the Conservative ruling could get food for the holiday. It is offering multiple Passover items this year, though the menu isn’t certified kosher for Passover.

By the Way Bakery is certified kosher, and its individual products that are sold in Whole Foods are certified gluten-free.

“I’m really careful with the word ‘certified,’” Godin told JTA. “We are not certified with respect to Passover. I can tell you what is in [our products]. We’re very transparent. If you go to our website and you go to the FAQ section, there’s a link to our ingredient summary. And we list everything that’s in every product.”

Some of the items on this year’s Passover menu include an orange almond cake that Godin calls “the little black dress of desserts” because it goes with everything, and a chocolate truffle torte. By the Way Bakery’s cakes and cookies are made with wheat flour alternatives, many of which fall into the category of kitniyot, or foods such as legumes, corn, and rice that some Jews, including many Ashkenazim, avoid eating on Passover. Sephardic Jews traditionally eat kitniyot on the holiday and the Conservative Movement began permitting the consumption of kitniyot during Passover in 2016.

“There are people who say, ‘You’re not kosher enough,’” Godin said. “And there are people who say, ‘Oh, I’ll eat that.’”

Illustrative: Gluten-free pastries at Modern Bread & Bagel by Orly Gottesman. (Courtesy)

Another popular gluten-free kosher bakery, Modern Bread and Bagel, is offering non-kitniyot foods for Passover. Like By the Way Bakery, Modern Bread and Bagel is not certified kosher for Passover, but all of its kitchen’s ingredients are kosher for Passover.

Godin says her company gains new customers every Passover, but this year has been an especially busy time. The number of orders for the orange almond cake, which has not been on the menu in several years, was three or four times larger than what she expected.

“Our projections were that we would be up 20% over last year. And we’ve well exceeded that,” she said. “Post-COVID, people just want to celebrate and get together.”

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