newsJewish & Israeli Culture

Alternative to Israel’s Chief Rabbinate spices up kashrut

The goal of Tzohar Organization of Rabbis is not to replace, but to rework. “No one likes competition. But there is a great buzz now, and they are shaking. As a result, they understand that they must make changes, and this was our goal,” says co-founder Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein.

Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein from the Tzohar organization poses for a picture in Jerusalem on March 5, 2018. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein from the Tzohar organization poses for a picture in Jerusalem on March 5, 2018. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

According to Israeli law, only the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel via its supervisors can declare an establishment that serves food, such as a restaurant, hotel or catering hall to be considered kosher—in other words, meeting strict Jewish religious dietary standards and requirements.

However, a revolutionary 2017 High Court of Justice ruling allowed food proprietors who wanted to attract kosher diners, without having the Rabbinate’s seal of approval, to list the standards of their inspection and the observance they keep as long as they don’t claim outright to be certified as a kosher establishment.

The ruling paved the way for private organizations seeking to break the Rabbinate’s monopoly over religious kosher observance to interpret the decision as an opportunity to offer their services as alternative and reliable food supervisors.

One of those entities is the Tzohar Organization of Rabbis. Founded 22 years ago, its mission, per its website, is to provide “Jewish services that are warm and welcoming to today’s secular Jewish people around the world.”

Co-founder Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein serves as director of the organization’s food-supervision program, which started six months ago, following the court ruling.

He explains to JNS that his organization’s main goal “is to bring Jewish identity to the State of Israel. We try to create an ethos that is the glue connecting all the tribes [different types of Jews] in Israel. Let’s agree that we are not just unique because we are Jewish, but we have Jewish values regardless of how you interpret it, whether you drive on Shabbat or not.”

Feuerstein says that Tzohar started in the field of marriage by offering to conduct meaningful wedding ceremonies for couples in Israel outside of the Rabbinate as an alternative and to counter the phenomena of Israelis traveling to Cyprus to get married in civil ceremonies. He says his organization conducts 5,000 weddings a year.

Shai Berman, CEO of the Israel Restaurant Association (left), Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein (second from left) and Rabbi Dr. Moshe Be’eri (center) at a Tel Aviv press conference on the establishment of a new kashrut system as an alternative to that of the Chief Rabbinate, Feb. 26, 2018. Photo by Flash90.

At the same time, he makes it very clear that Tzohar’s goal wasn’t to replace the Rabbinate when it came to marriages, but says “today, there is competition. You have a choice. We don’t want replace the Rabbinate, we want to create better services.”

“It is that same model after our success in the field of marriage that we used to make a change in kashrut,” he explains. “We wanted to change the branding and bring back the trust of non-religious Israelis as an important value [keeping kosher] to public life in Israel. The goal is to change the way people identify with kashrut; it’s a change in climate.”

So half-a-year ago, Tzohar started offering food businesses around the country the services of their own trained mashgichim—male and female kosher supervisors/inspectors. Feuerstein says that currently, 100 businesses utilize his services, with the vast majority (around 85 percent) not having any prior certification from the Rabbinate.

In other words, he says most of the businesses he certifies are those who “would rather have lost clients [by remaining non-kosher] than deal with the Rabbinate.”

Kosher supervision can ‘lack transparency’

In a possible setback for Tzohar however, Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit this past July issued a ruling that while a restaurant owner could list data about his or her religious standards per the Supreme Court’s decision, only the Rabbinate’s logo could appear on a “kosher” establishment. That decision has yet to be enforced.

But Feuerstein remains undeterred. He claims that the Rabbinate’s system lacks transparency, as the country is divided into 200 different regions where the fees business owners pay to receive kosher certification are not in uniform. He also notes that the standards are not in sync from region to region. Another critique is the policy of the store owner paying the supervisor directly, which could lead to a conflict of interest.

In fact, this past August, Mandelblit threatened to take away the Rabbinate’s monopoly if it failed to comply with a recent court ruling outlawing the practice of direct pay to kashrut supervisors. The ruling came shortly after a top kashrut official and several others were arrested on suspicion of taking bribes in order to expedite the approval of foreign kashrut certifications for food products they wanted to import.

Tzohar started offering food businesses around the country the services of their own trained mashgichim—male and female kosher supervisors/inspectors.

A picture of the Tzohar certificate that says at the bottom: “This restaurant does not have a kashrut certificate from the Rabbinut.” Credit: Sara Meckler.

Feuerstein feels that the business owner should be paying the Rabbinate—and not the inspector directly—to avoid this type of scenario.

In addition to claiming that his inspectors are thorough in carrying out their duties to ensure that food establishments under Tzohar’s auspicious are reliable, he stresses that similar to their marriage services, a key point is for his team of inspectors to build a friendly and inviting working relationship with the business owners. Feuerstein’s goal is to triple the number of businesses that will work with him over the next two to three years.

At the same time, the Chief Rabbinate in Israel is very much against the idea of private organizations, whether it’s Tzohar or others having the authority to issue kashrut certificates.

Spokesperson for the Rabbinate Kobi Alter shared with JNS why he believes that “you must have a central body to declare what is or isn’t kosher.”

Alter gave numerous examples of restaurants and other food establishments whose kashrut certifications were removed by the Rabbinate for various violations caught by their inspectors, only to see that those establishments then turned to private organizations for certification that were unaware of their previous offenses.

While stressing that the Rabbinate has no intention of singling out Tzohar, Alter said that “once you have multiple groups [issuing certifications], you don’t know who is behind them, what their procedures are for quality assurance, or what it would take to remove their certification [in case of violations]. That’s why you need a central body.”

Alter, however, does agree with Tzohar that the kashrut inspectors should not get paid directly from the businesses they supervise, and says the Rabbinate does want to change this practice to reflect more positively on the 5,000 supervisors who work under the Rabbinate’s umbrella throughout the country.

‘Their approach is really nice’

Sara Meckler is a mashgicha (female kosher inspector) from Ra’anana who works for Tzohar for two hours each morning, serving as the supervisor for two restaurants in the center of the country. Both the Rabbinate and Tzohar allow for women to serve as kashrut inspectors, and Meckler is also on the verge of being certified to work as an inspector for the Rabbinate. One of the reasons she chose to work for Tzohar she says is that “their approach of making a restaurant kosher is really nice.”

She says that she finds it particularly moving when “people who own non-kosher establishments choose to change so that everyone can come in, especially chayalim [soldiers] who can eat with their friends, thanks to Tzohar, who does it in a halachic way [meaning according to Jewish law] and with a smile.”

When asked about the Rabbinate’s concerns about a lack of transparency with too many organizations claiming to be reliable kosher supervisors, she says that “I grew up in the U.S., so I’m familiar with many different hechshers [kosher certifications], and I have interacted with kashrut authorities worldwide. While there isn’t one that is perfect, what Tzohar is doing is training the mashgichim and mashgichot to walk into an establishment and do a job. I’m the one who is there to make sure that it’s done. I personally do it.”

She adds that her colleagues are a tight-knit group of supervisors who communicate regularly via WhatsApp to share their experience, ask questions and learn from each other to carry out their jobs more effectively.

While extremely proud to represent Tzohar, she says that she has “nothing against the Rabbanut at all.”

Nissim Moyal runs a dairy and fish restaurant in Ramat Gan. He says that he used to have a kosher certificate from the Rabbinate, but changed to Tzohar.

The problem, he explains, is that when it comes to your kitchen, “the Rabbinate looks at you as if you are a criminal and you serve non-kosher, and then comes in and decides if you are innocent.” With Tzohar he says, “they walk with you hand and hand, and are your partners. They give you the tools you need so you don’t make mistakes. I realize that I don’t know 100 percent [about kashrut]. I might know about 60 percent, but they fill in the gaps. It’s really an issue of culture.”

Just as Feuerstein was clear that Tzohar’s goal was not to replace the Rabbinate when it comes to marriage, the same, he says, is true in regard to kashrut. “The Rabbinate doesn’t like competition; no one likes competition. But there is a great buzz [about Tzohar] now, and they are shaking. As a result, they understand that they must make changes, and this was our goal.”

He explains, “We believe in the need for it [the Rabbinate]. Our vision is for the Chief Rabbinate to become a regulator. The Rabbinate should set up the principles and allow for competition. With competition, this can be a wonderful system which they can control.”

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