The battle over kosher Jerusalem

Five restaurants head to court against the rabbinate

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

The traditional kosher certificates will become electronic in the new system (Courtesy Jerusalem Kosher News)
The traditional kosher certificates will become electronic in the new system (Courtesy Jerusalem Kosher News)
A Jerusalem Rabbinate kosher certificate (Courtesy Jerusalem Kosher News)
A Jerusalem Rabbinate kosher certificate (Courtesy Jerusalem Kosher News)

Five Jerusalem restaurants are taking the city’s chief rabbinate to court after being fined between NIS 1,000 and NIS 2,000 for calling themselves kosher without formal certification from the rabbinate.

“This is harassment and revenge of the rabbinate against us without any reason or legal basis,” said Shai Gini, a co-owner of the Italian dairy restaurant Topolino in Mahane Yehuda, which was fined NIS 2,000, but does not call itself kosher in any of its materials or in the restaurant itself.

The five restaurants — Topolino, Rehavia’s Carousela cafe, HaSalon Shabazi in Nachlaot, Indian restaurant Ichikidana and the recently opened Adon Cohen in Talpiot — are being represented by attorney Aviad HaCohen, a lawyer for The Jerusalemite Movement social action organization, which is footing the bill for the lawsuit. The organization has been fighting the rabbinate with events called “Mash(g)iah Lo Ba,” (The kosher supervisor isn’t coming) in its effort to find a practical alternative to the rabbinate’s monopoly over kosher certification.

The rabbinate did not respond to calls, but according to Omri Sheinfeld, spokesman for the Yerushalmim Party, which works with the Jerusalemite Movement, the rabbinate was basing its fines on the references made to the restaurants’ kosher status on the Internet.

“The restaurants have a strong case because the law is written very simplistically, which makes it very open,” explained Sheinfeld. “The very first paragraph of the law states that if the restaurant doesn’t have a sign calling itself kosher, that’s okay. That simplifies the argument to be made in court.”

According to Sheinfeld, the organization had been waiting to see how the rabbinate would respond after their Friday protest several weeks earlier. It was a risky move for the rabbinate to slap fines on the restaurants, mused Sheinfeld, because if the rabbinate loses the case, it could change the entire face of the kosher certification industry.

At the November 2 "Mash(g)iah lo ba" event (Courtesy Rachel Azaria)
At the November 2 “Mash(g)iah lo ba” event (Courtesy Rachel Azaria)

“The rabbinate is very biased about how it decides to enforce the law,” said Sheinfeld. “In the haredi neighbohroods, there are quite a few restaurants that don’t have Jerusalem rabbinate certification. They have more stringent certifications, but they’re supposed to have Jerusalem rabbinate in addition to all the rest. It’s a double standard.”

The Chief Rabbinate’s office did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, but Yechiel Spira, an Orthodox Jerusalemite who writes the Jerusalem Kosher News blog in an effort to warn locals and visitors about various nonkosher foods and restaurants masquerading as kosher, said just because certain restaurants don’t hang up their Jerusalem rabbinate certification doesn’t mean they don’t have it. In certain neighborhoods, the clientele seeks particular kinds of higher kosher certification, whether Badatz, Mehadrin, or that of a community rabbi.

“Hanging out the Jerusalem rabbinate certification won’t add to their business,” said Spira. “They may have it and be operating legally or may not, and then they will fall prey to the same issues.”

There are problems with the current rabbinate certification system, acknowledged Spira. The system that worked when it was first set up during the establishment of the state doesn’t work now, he said.

“Israel is a much different place today and the rabbinate system has failed to maintain itself as an organ of supervision,” said Spira, referring to the rabbinate’s mashgihim, or kosher supervisors. “People are getting paid and not doing what they’re paid to do, but you can’t destroy the entire system.”

A kosher supervisor at a meat plant in northern Israel (photo credit: Doron Horowitz/Flash 90)
A kosher supervisor at a meat plant in northern Israel (photo credit: Doron Horowitz/Flash90)

The rabbinate, said Sheinfeld, believes the case has to do with their kosher supervisors, who aren’t seen as sympathetic characters. For the Jerusalemites organization, however, the decision has been to declare war and ultimately change the law.

“The fines issued by the Rabbinate reflect their work system with the restaurants that are based on intimidation and harassment, instead of the ideals we believe a kosher system should be based on – collaboration and trust,” stated Rachel Azaria, the Jerusalem councilmember who heads the Yerushalmim political party. “The restaurant owners are definitely those that are on the front line, and as pioneers in this battle, they are exposed to risks. As a political group we have promised to give them our full support, and provide them with one of the leading lawyers in Israel on this issue. We honestly believe that this is an ideological and legal battle that we can and must win.”

The five restaurants that were fined are “paying the price” in the current batter, added Sheinfeld, who called them pioneers. “Our lawyer says it will go all the way to the Supreme Court because each side has a legitimate side to appeal.”

No court date has been set yet.

“This is happening now because people are not doing what they’re getting paid to do,” said Spira, referring to the kosher inspectors. “I don’t think this is going away.”

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