In about-face, state okays private kosher certification

Alternative organizations that fought to end rabbinate monopoly say battle will now move to who can use the word ‘kosher’

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, 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 government will no longer fine restaurant owners who present themselves as kosher based on private kosher certifications, the attorney general said this week, reversing a long-standing policy.

The government will also cancel any previous fines already handed out to Topolino and Carousela, the two Jerusalem restaurants named in the suit that were penalized for calling themselves kosher while not carrying the traditional kosher certification given by the rabbinate, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein said in an opinion to the High Court Sunday.

The move was hailed by a number of progressive and non-Orthodox institutions, but the rabbinate, a publicly funded agency made up of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox rabbis, reacted unhappily to the decision and planned on gathering an emergency meeting of its officials, the Ynet news website reported.

This significant turn of events in Israel’s kosher certification process has been in the works for several years.

The effort was first led by the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel, which has been offering its own kosher certification on wine for the last three years. Working separately, Jerusalem’s Yerushalmim party created its own, alternative private kosher certification process two years ago.

Yet it was the Reform Movement in Israel’s Center for Religious Action, the legal arm of the movement, that brought the kosher battle to the court on behalf of the two restaurants named in the case.

The decision emphasized that restaurants using any alternative method of kosher certification must make their designation very clear and obvious, so that customers won’t mistake it for the chief rabbinate’s certification.

In addition, they cannot advertise themselves using the word “kosher,” but only by saying that they have a private certification.

Owner Merav Mizrachi and Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz outside Cafe Mizrachi, in Mahane Yehuda (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Owner Merav Mizrachi and Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz outside Cafe Mizrachi, a Mahane Yehuda cafe that was one of the first to use Yerushalmim’s alternative kosher certification (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

“That’s the real battle, how the word kosher is now going to unfold in the Knesset,” said Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, the Yerushalmim councilmember who has been handling the party’s alternative kosher certification process. “The attorney general gave us a huge victory, but redrew the lines of battle and it’s going to be interesting.”

In November 2012 five Jerusalem restaurants decided to forgo their official kosher certification and took the city’s rabbinate to court after being fined between NIS 1,000 and NIS 2,000 for calling themselves kosher.

At the time, the Yerushalmim movement held rallies to raise public awareness and support, and then, led by Leibowitz, sought to create a working substitute for the rabbinate’s monopoly over kosher certification.

Last summer, Leibowitz ran a trial workshop of the alternative kosher certification program, starting with a local Jerusalem cafe.

Every establishment has a binder documenting their kosher certification process, which customers can look at if they wish.

The wording is very clear, said Leibowitz, stating that food is made according to the Jewish laws that pertain to the ingredients of the food and its preparation.

Ditto for the Masorti wording, which avoids using the word “kosher.”

Some restaurants have chafed under the rabbinate’s monopoly on kosher certification, complaining that the organization overcharged for its services and enforced a too-strict interpretation of Jewish law.

Progressive Orthodox NGO Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah said the decision proved the need for legislation in the Knesset to deal with a host of issues pertaining to state and religion in Israel.

“The problems in relation to kashrut, conversions, the religious court system and burial won’t disappear and it’s on us as a society to solve them together,” the group said in a statement.

Rujum Winery outside Mizpe Ramon was the first winery to use Masorti Movement kosher certification Courtesy Rujum Winery)
Rujum Winery outside Mizpe Ramon was the first winery to use Masorti Movement kosher certification (courtesy Rujum Winery)

For the Masorti Movement, which has been issuing its own form of kosher certification for wine for the last three years, the High Court decision is “a beam of light,” said attorney Yizhar Hess, the movement’s CEO.

The attorney general’s statement is not formally about Masorti certification or Yerushalmim’s private alternative certification, emphasized Leibowitz.

However, it does affect any certification other than that of the chief rabbinate, said Leibowitz, whether that of Yerushalmim or “bootleg Haredi certifications that also skirt using the word kosher,” he said.

In fact, the ruling shows “that a lot of people are doing what we’re doing,” said Leibowitz. “That’s what has the rabbinate in a flurry. The rabbinate has been presenting us as illegal, and we just received our own certification. It’s a huge chink in the armor of the rabbinate, and of course the Haredim and religious Zionists will fight it in the Knesset, so that we’re placed outside the law.”

The next stage of the battle will be over the use over the word kosher, said Leibowitz. “As an activist and a rabbi, the issue of kosher certification is interesting to me, and this project forced matters. They’re on the defensive and the next move is theirs.”

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