An Orthodox rabbinical group on Monday launched a private kosher supervision program in a bid to “challenge” the monopoly of the state-run Chief Rabbinate.
The announcement by the religious-Zionist Tzohar organization came after a High Court of Justice ruling in September said restaurateurs could inform their clientele that they serve kosher food provided they don’t explicitly designate themselves as a “kosher establishment.”
The decision, which was seen as a dent in the rabbinate’s control over the kosher supervision process, made way for Tzohar’s new licensing division but will also require it to provide a detailed explanation of the kosher standards in all of its restaurants.
The new initiative has set itself a goal of licensing some 10 percent of Israeli eateries in three years, largely targeting establishments that currently do not carry a rabbinate kosher certificate, according to its mission statement.
“We didn’t come to replace the rabbinate, but rather to challenge it, to create competition in a monopolistic market,” said Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein of Tzohar at a press conference on Monday morning.
“We don’t want to take away from the rabbinate,” he added. “I’m not playing innocent; there will be those [businesses currently supervised by the rabbinate] who will come over to us, but from our perspective we are not going to steal others’ livelihood or kashrut, but we are merely increasing the kashrut [certifications] in Israel. We want to include more businesses, which were not kosher until today, into the fold.”
Other organizations, including the Hashgacha Pratit (Private Supervision) NGO, behind the High Court petition have long sought to break open the rabbinate monopoly.
“Tzohar’s joining in the campaign is a declaration of victory and a sign that [our] struggle has succeeded,” said Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, the head of Hashgacha Pratit. “From here on out it will only get better.”
Tzohar’s kosher division will be headed by Rabbi Oren Duvdevani, an ex-rabbinate official who also formerly worked with Hashgacha Pratit.
Duvdevani was in charge of the kosher certification department of the rabbinate of Givatayim, a suburb of Tel Aviv, and previously spent time working in Mexico for OU Kosher, the certification and supervision department of the Orthodox Union, as well as for OK Kosher.
“Tzohar’s efforts mark a brave, significant, and important step in breaking the kashrut monopoly and opening the kosher market to competition,” said Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria, a founder of Hashgacha Pratit who was also involved in the new Tzohar initiative.
“The kashrut monopoly, like all monopolies, offers bad service and exacts high and unjustified prices from businesses,” added Azaria. “Many people in Israel want kashrut [certifications] but are not willing to cave to the monopoly. And today the Tzohar rabbis have created a professional, official, and Israeli alternative.”
Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie also hailed the initiative, predicting that the increased competition would ultimately make the rabbinate more efficient and kosher food less costly.
“Unfortunately, the kashrut system in its current formation does not serve the kosher-observant public in Israel,” Lavie said, describing it as “bloated and corrupt.”
“The entry of new groups — under supervision and with transparent and clear rules — is the best way to streamline the existing system, will strengthen the trust in the system, and will make food in Israel less expensive and more kosher,” said Lavie in a statement.
Israeli law does not oblige restaurants to be kosher, and nonkosher establishments are common, mainly in areas with a less religiously observant Jewish population. But restaurants that do want to be considered kosher must have the supervision of the Chief Rabbinate under current Israeli law. Private kosher certifications exist in the ultra-Orthodox community, though the various “badatz” licenses are given only on top of the rabbinate’s approval, rather than as a standalone certificate.
The cost of official inspections and a certificate for a medium-sized restaurant is in the range of NIS 9,500 ($2,500) per year.
Those opposed to the current system allege it is corrupt and unfair — and that it does little to confirm that a restaurant is indeed kosher.
The Chief Rabbinate dismisses such allegations, saying it is best placed to handle the process and that any allegations of corruption are investigated.
Jessica Steinberg and AFP contributed to this report.