JERUSALEM (AFP) — Jonathan Vadai just wanted a certificate confirming his Jerusalem restaurant as kosher, but he found himself fed up with the Israeli religious authorities overseeing the process.
“I had to employ the person supervising me and pay him,” 34-year-old Vadai said at Carousela, his trendy cafe in the city’s quiet Rehavia neighborhood.
“Sometimes he asked that I pay under the table.”
Such accusations are not unusual among Israelis, and now Vadai and others are part of an effort to break the ultra-Orthodox Jewish establishment’s monopoly on kosher certificates in the country.
They are embroiled in a legal battle over the issue with potentially wide-ranging implications.
The Chief Rabbinate, the Jewish religious authority overseeing the certificates, wields power over a range of issues in Israeli society in an arrangement that critics call outdated.
“Israeli law gives the Chief Rabbinate a monopoly on kosher supervision, but there is lots of corruption and unjust pressures,” said Aaron Leibowitz, a soft-spoken rabbi and Jerusalem city council member involved in the effort to end the monopoly.
For many Israeli Jews, knowing that a restaurant is kosher when they eat there is of paramount importance, and not having a certificate can cost owners significant business.
Kosher refers to the set of Jewish laws on what foods to eat and how to prepare them.
Israeli law does not oblige restaurants to be kosher, and non-kosher 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.
The cost of official inspections and a certificate for a medium-sized restaurant is in the range of 9,500 shekels per year ($2,500).
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.
‘A kosher alternative’
A few years ago, restaurants fed up with the rabbinate decided to declare their food kosher but without supervision.
Leibowitz joined forces with them, leading to the formation of Hashgaha Pratit — Hebrew for private supervision.
The initiative has since 2013 provided restaurants and cafes with supervision and a certificate. Its members currently number a few dozen, mostly in Jerusalem.
“It gives a true and kosher alternative to the Chief Rabbinate,” Vadai said.
“They understood the rabbinate’s problems and implemented the improvements, which the rabbinate can’t currently fix.”
Leibowitz says the supervisors have the same training as those from the rabbinate.
The certificates omit the word “kosher” to avoid misleading customers into believing it was related to the rabbinate.
It instead notes the duty to “uphold all conditions stipulated by Halakha,” or Jewish law.
He calls the system “a model of a social contract.”
“Instead of a state and law, we’re building a contract of social commitment, transparency and true supervision totally parallel to that of the rabbinate, but in language of trust-building and partnership,” he said.
A ruling by the High Court of Justice earlier this month, however, determined Leibowitz’s certificates illegal.
The court said the certificates gave the impression of kosher supervision, which in Israel can only be under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate.
In response, the initiative issued even vaguer certificates, removing its logo and any reference to food. The rabbinate said they too were illegal and would prosecute offenders.
An example of how seriously kosher certificates can be taken in Israel was seen at Vadai’s Carousela.
A young, bearded ultra-Orthodox Jew left without ordering after inquiring about kosher supervision and being referred to the “loyalty pact” issued by the private initiative that hangs on the wall.
Rabbi Rafi Yohai, head of the fraud department in the rabbinate’s kosher division, said the private initiative was not practical.
According to Yohai, it demands the commitment of restaurateurs who tend to be preoccupied and chefs who don’t always know or care about dietary religious laws.
“I want kosher supervision according to known and transparent conditions,” he said.
For Eitan Steinberg, a young religious man, such assurances are not enough. He said he had little trust in the rabbinate.
After the court ruling, which received widespread attention in Israel, he met with Leibowitz to proceed with private supervision over his soon-to-open Jerusalem cafe, the Butke.
“People understand that the rabbinate is less and less relevant, and doesn’t really represent Jews here,” he said. “Things must be fundamentally changed.”
A veteran Jerusalem restaurateur who spoke on condition of anonymity said spending money on the rabbinate’s supervision was a business expense like any other since he would lose customers without it.
But the “concept of kosher certificates is passe and bankrupt,” he said, since only he really knew what went on in the kitchen once the rabbinate supervisor left after one of his 30-minute inspections.
“It’s like protection you pay the rabbinate,” he said.
“People don’t care what actually goes on in the kitchen as long as you have the certificate.”