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Growing Number of Israeli Restaurateurs Forsake Rabbinate Kosher Supervision for Private Orthodox Alternative

Growing Number of Israeli Restaurateurs Forsake Rabbinate Kosher Supervision for Private Orthodox Alternative

Public dissatisfaction with the state-sanctioned religious organ is translating into action

Two weeks ago, Israeli headlines proclaimed that Café Kadosh, a renowned establishment of five decades’ standing in downtown Jerusalem, had opted out of the kosher inspection system of the state Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Instead, it chose an alternative organization called Tzohar to inspect its kitchen and supply it with a certificate that its products are indeed kosher.

The café and patisserie has always been known for its mouth-watering pastries and old-time charm, but now it found itself gaining publicity by standing at the forefront of a fight against a monopoly on religion in the country, one that is heating up. Let me explain.

Observant Jews adhere to a set of dietary restrictions that dictate whether something is kosher or not. For example, the laws of kashrut forbid the mixing of dairy and meat products. Making sure that unprocessed food prepared at home is kosher is a relatively simple matter as one knows exactly what has gone into the pot. But how can you be sure when eating at a restaurant, or for that matter, what guarantee has one got that everyday supermarket items, such as ketchup or a chocolate bar, do not have nonkosher materials in them?

This is where kashrut inspection services come in. They send inspectors to supervise and make sure everything, from materials to preparation, is done according to Jewish law.

In Israel, a government body called the Chief Rabbinate of Israel is sanctioned by the state to carry out kosher inspections. Other organizations can perform inspections, but it is the only one allowed to designate food as “kosher.”

Over the years, this state organ has faced harsh criticism from Israelis – both religious and secular – for its conduct in a variety of matters, including its inspections. Critics say the organization is dominated by ultra-Orthodox Judaism, with its adherence to rules that go beyond what Jewish law dictates, and that the Rabbinate forces this specific, zealous brand of the Jewish religion on the general public.

Tzohar, a Zionist Orthodox rabbinical organization that was founded with the intention of minimizing the tensions between religious and secular Jews in Israel, identified the Rabbinate’s kashrut supervision mechanism as a central source of resentment within the general public.

The system had “a very negative image in Israeli society,” Yehuda Zidermen, CEO of Tzohar Kashrut, the organization’s inspection division, told The Media Line. “It is connected with nepotism, with bullying and with corruption.” Zidermen explains that over time, the Rabbinate’s monopoly had caused its inspection service to deteriorate.

Additionally, Zidermen says, “the Rabbinate is controlled by the ultra-Orthodox nowadays,” who are a minority in Israel. He says that because of this, the Rabbinate demands adherence to religious rules that go above and beyond “basic kashrut.” For example, the Rabbinate demands that some kinds of dairy pastries be in specific shapes to make sure that consumers do not mistake them. Tzohar is fully committed to Orthodox kashrut rules – but not beyond that, he says.

Keren Kadosh, owner of Café Kadosh, explains that her frustration with the Rabbinate’s system developed over time because of long absences of the inspector, as well as demands that were not connected to the actual materials of their products. For example, they were asked to remove a product called “brioche challah,” because it was feared that these would be thought to be nondairy, as challah bread is normally. Their protests that everything they sold was dairy, and that the only thing connecting their product to the bread traditionally eaten during the Sabbath was the name, fell on deaf ears.

The final straw, Kadosh told The Media Line, was when “the inspector came and screamed at the employees when he saw buns being taken out of the oven.” An argument that ensued after the inspector started to put stickers reading “dairy” on the café’s products ended with the inspector storming out, taking the place’s kashrut certificate with him.

“For a long period of time, we had been hearing from our colleagues about Tzohar’s professional and honest conduct, and we decided to transfer to them immediately,” she says. Since they had made the change, the pastry chef says that they had received endless support from their customers throughout the country. Revenue, she adds, “has risen by 25-28%.”

The Rabbinate’s conduct has even pushed some to forsake kashrut supervision and its accompanying certificate altogether. Ido Emanuel recently opened a coffee shop, Sybaris, in Jerusalem. Despite the large number of religious residents in the city, Emanuel opened without outside supervision.

“I chose to not get a [Rabbinate] kashrut certificate because I’ve worked in many restaurants that had one and seen that there is no actual supervision,” he told The Media Line. “The inspectors simply didn’t come in.”

Kadosh also complains that the Rabbinate’s inspector would disappear for weeks on end.

Emanuel feels very few people avoid drinking at his café because he does not have a certificate, and this includes Orthodox customers.

Tzuf Oiknine, a student living in Jerusalem and a customer of Café Kadosh, told The Media Line, “I am not indifferent to the fact that they changed to an alternative kosher supervisor, rather, I’m happy. The Rabbinate’s kashrut demands are irrational and can go as far as hurting the business. … We have basically gotten to the point where something as basic as kosher supervision has played into the hands of this body, and they are using their power like a mafia.”

Oiknine hopes that if more businesses like Kadosh, established and not insignificant in size, choose to leave the Rabbinate’s system, people will realize “that the system doesn’t work.”

This may be exactly what is happening. Café Kadosh is not alone in making the change recently. Zeidermen says that “in the two months since the market reopened [after Covid lockdowns], we have had an explosive rise in the number of [businesses] contacting us.” He attributes this rise to an increased awareness of the Israeli public of Tzohar that coincides with a growing consciousness of the fact that there are alternatives to the Rabbinate. “The bitterness that was below the surface for so long without an outlet,” he says, found a path forward, to change.

Tzohar’s greater presence in public debate has also contributed to more people knowing and acknowledging that the organization is fully Orthodox, and therefore compatible with the beliefs of Israel’s religious Jews. Indeed, standing with a kippah on his head in Pasta Basta, a restaurant with a large Tzohar sign in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, Ronen, a forty-something religious Jew, was waiting to order when he told The Media Line, “Tzohar suits me and the Rabbinate suits me.”

While the growing number of Tzohar restaurants is not big, Zidermen explains that their intention is not to overtake as much of the market as possible. “Our goal is legislative change,” he says. Their intent is to pass a law that will make the Rabbinate a regulatory body, while at the same time deprive it of its powers as a monopoly. Zidermen believes this kind of historic change may be right around the corner.

A Rabbinate official who asked not to be named declined to respond to the wider claims against the state organ, its dominance by ultra-Orthodox dictates and the effect this may have on the relationships between the different sectors in Israel, as well as between Israelis and religion.

However, speaking about the issues raised surrounding kosher supervision, such as the demand that pastries be shaped differently if they are dairy, he explained that these are set in place to avoid mistakes by customers and restaurateurs. “The Chief Rabbinate prohibits … to prevent this obstacle,” he told The Media Line. This practice, of creating tighter boundaries to avoid error, he says, is based not only on significant experience but also on Jewish religious law.

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