Hashgacha Pratit: An alternative Kosher Supervision model

By founder Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz

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aaron-leibowitz“Hashgacha Pratit” is an alternative Kosher Supervision model for restaurants and businesses. Based on Jewish law, mutual trust and cooperation, the project seeks to put the responsibility for kashrut in the hands of the restaurants and the local community. I established “Hashgacha Pratit” as Head of the “Sulam Yaakov” Talmudic academy in Nachlaot, and a member of the Jerusalem city-council for the Yerushalmim party. We are initiating a new dialogue about the role of religion in city life which is breaking the existing molds and creating unified communal spaces for the diverse spectrum of the Jerusalem population.

What is the problem?
The law in Israel gives an exclusive mandate on kosher food supervision to the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. This monopoly has created poor service, poor standards and many cases of corruption. It also prevents more liberal groups from providing alternative types of supervision for their communities.

The solution.
Since March 2013 Hashgacha Pratit has been using a loophole in the law to pioneer a community based supervision. The law prohibits the use of the word ‘Kosher’ without governmental authority, while this project uses the alternative terms ‘the Jewish law as it pertains to food and its preparation’. The State Attorney is on the record stating this is completely legal. To date the project has more than thirty locations in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Hertzeliah, and Zichron Yaakov.

What is the community model?
The community model is built on the covenant of trust which is signed between the business and the community, in which the business declares that it sees the faith that the community gives it as a ‘socially sacred value’ which will not be broken or abused. The business commits itself to viewing the organization as the representatives of the community of customers, and pledge to cooperate with them in maintaining the restaurant’s kosher status.

How can we rely on the business owner?
There are three potential halachic issues with regard to relying on the business owners: Are they sufficiently familiar with the laws? Is the reliability of the kosher status as important to the business owner as it is to the Kosher customer? Does the owner’s financial involvement create a conflict of interest that calls into question his/her trustworthiness and objectivity? Therefore a ‘Trustee’ who is a trained and paid employee of the project, is present in every business for at least an hour and a half a week, at varying hours. This adds an objective, professional element and provides a solution to these halachic issues, similar to a standard mashgiach (Kosher Supervisor).

How is the “kashrut representative” different from an ordinary mashgiach?
Even though the kashrut representatives do fulfill the role of “mashgiach,” the relationship between them and the business owners is built on trust and not authority. We enlist the will of the business owners to uphold the “covenant of trust” which they have signed, and as such provide a better response to the times when the “kashrut representative” is not present.

Is a Kashrut certificate provided to the restaurant?
The signed “covenant of trust” is displayed in the business. In addition, there is on site documentation which is available to the public detailing the standards of kashrut and the processes in place to ensure compliance.

What is next?
The project goal is to grow to two more regions and to over one hundred locations in 2016. There is also significant work in the public education and opinion arena. There is also significant political lobbying to prevent the ultra-orthodox attempts to make the prohibitions broader and place the project outside the law.

Will Orthodox Israelis’ revolt against the chief rabbinate spur a domino effect?

Snippets from the article by Amanda Borschel-Dan, Times of Israel

[Click for the full TOI article]

amanda-b-d… Today, the new poster child of religious civil disobedience wears a knitted kippa. And faced with a recalcitrant Knesset ever fearful of disturbing the tenuous status quo, the movement is employing a strategic shift away from legislation and toward the use of other big guns, including class action lawsuits.

A new battle begins, and its arena is the court of law.

This year, seeing no prospect of progress through legislation, it has ramped up its efforts to create precedents through the court system, a tactic Liberal Judaism in Israel has employed for decades. And the rabbinate is on the defensive.

[One particular] petition, which was brought by Itim alongside other organizations, is interesting in that there are two landmark issues at stake: The first asks whether those without the legal status of residents of Israel may convert in Israel and subsequently petition for citizenship. Currently, under the Law of Return, they cannot gain citizenship.

The second matter under discussion is whether Orthodox conversions in Israel that are completed through independent conversion courts outside of the state’s Conversion Authority should be recognized by the Interior Ministry. (After a Supreme Court decision in 2002, Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel are recognized by the state, although the converts are not viewed as Jewish by the chief rabbinate so they cannot legally marry, etc.)

It is this second issue, of domestic halachic conversion courts outside the rabbinate, that quickly became relevant in late summer with the establishment of the independent Orthodox-run Giyur Kahalacha.

According to the 2015 Israel Religion and State Index conducted by Israeli NGOHiddush: For Religious Freedom and Equality, some 64% of Israelis support the recognition of all forms of religious conversion, including Reform and Conservative. Among secular Jews, the majority of Israel’s Jewish population, 90% support recognizing all forms of religious conversion (53% would also recognize secular conversion). Interestingly, among immigrants, the support was less, at 82%.

However, the Giyur Kahalacha initiative is, as Farber puts it, “the first frontal challenge to the rabbinate on conversion from the Orthodox community.”

“We Israelis understand that the American model of separation of church and state is not relevant to a Jewish state. But we see no reason why religious bodies should be part of the legislative or judicial branches… It’s fine if the government chooses to support religious bodies, but it should support all streams and communities.”

Kariv and others believe that if the critical grassroots mass of those seeking independent avenues for marriage, conversion and kashrut continues, increased official recognition and government support for all streams of Judaism is inevitable.

Taking it one step further, in August, Dr. Shuki Friedman from the Israel Democracy Institute wrote in an op-ed published in Haaretz that “the trend towards privatization of religious services heralds not only the death of the rabbinate – it creates a de-facto separation between religion and the state. The less relevant the rabbinate and the official and established religious services it provides, the more significant the separation between religion and the state. And if that is the actual situation, in the end the legislators will have no choice but to recognize it by means of legislation as well.”

J-REC and RRFEI By Rabbi Prof. Michael Chernick

Michael-Chernick-mediumRecently a coalition called J-REC, which RRFEI members may not be familiar with, made its first mission trip to Israel.

The J-REC or Jewish Religious Equality Coalition is the brain child of Dov Zakheim, less known as an Orthodox rabbi than as an adviser to the American Defense Department and a neo-con. As a strategist and a lover of Israel Dov has concluded that the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over marriage and presently over conversion represents a danger to the security of Israel. The connection between one issue and the other is not necessarily immediately obvious, but here is how they are connected:

Non-Orthodox rabbis are thought leaders in their communities. Further, committed and dedicated members of the American Conservative and Reform Jewish communities are frequently the most dedicated supporters of Israel. The more non-Orthodox rabbis are insulted and delegitimized by the Chief Rabbinate, the more ambivalent if not negative they become about the State that supports and extends the purview of that Rabbinate. This ambivalence often spills over into messages delivered to congregations, which leaves those congregations less inclined to take up Israel’s cause with American politicians whose support is crucial for Israel’s security.

Further, comments like that made by the Minister of Religious Affairs several months ago, “Reform Jews are not Jews,” and the positioning of Orthodoxy as the only recognized Judaism of the State of Israel creates severe difficulties for Reform and Conservative supporters of Israel. These supporters often find the work of convincing fellow Jews to support Israel more difficult when the response often is, “If I care about Israel, will Israel care about me?”

It is these factors that led Zakheim to invite a wide spectrum of the Jewish community to join with the American Jewish Committee in order to wrest control over marriage from the Chief Rabbinate, at least as a first step. J-REC/AJC includes supporters of Israel who are Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox and secular. They have come to see how the progressively more Haredi and non-Zionist Chief Rabbinate is wreaking havoc on Israel-Diaspora relations with potentially disastrous outcomes.

The mission unlike other organizational missions to Israel was not about meeting as many Knesset members as possible to convince them to bring down the Chief Rabbinate. Rather it was a fact finding mission that would help J-REC figure out how to reach its goal, and whether the goal it has set for itself is the right one. Here’s what we found out:

  1. Surveys have shown that the majority of Israelis would like to have alternatives to the Chief Rabbinate in life cycle events and agree that religious pluralism would be a boon to Israel. However, this issue, so prominent for American supporters of Israel, is practically at the bottom of the list of Israeli concerns. The reason is obvious: Israelis are far more concerned about their security, just as we would be if we were in their place.
  2. Social change in Israel does not come about “top down.” Coalition politics are not the best catalyst for change. This has been proved over and over again by non-Orthodox missions to Knesset members who promised to put religious pluralism on the agenda and never did. Even during the last Knesset, which had no Haredi party to contend with in the coalition, religious pluralism never saw the light of day as an issue.
  3. Social change in Israel presently comes from the “bottom up.” There are all sorts of grassroots organizations pushing for changes in the status quo. The biggest demonstration of this kind of activity was the tent cities that grew up throughout the country trying to get a better deal for the middle class.

Some of these grassroots activities in the area of religious activities are best exemplified by organizations like “Hashgahah Peratit,” an organization that (illegally, for the time being) grants kashrut certification. Various food producers and restaurants opted for this supervision rather than the Rabbinate’s because its operation is transparent and not corrupt. The hashgahah obviously employs Orthodox rabbis, but they are responsible to the community who constitute the members of Hashgahah Peratit. That community is made up of Orthodox, Masorti, Reform, and hiloni Jews.

The creation of alternative, private conversion courts by Orthodox rabbis like Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and Rabbi Benny Ish-Shalom with support from the Russian and Orthodox Zionist community is also indicative of this tendency. These courts have come into existence due to the Chief Rabbinate’s unwillingness to take seriously the full integration of the Russian community in Israel by granting its members clear Jewish status. The support of the Orthodox Zionist community comes from its awareness that the private courts support the interests of Israel and Zionism rather than the interests of men who seem to enjoy wielding power rather than helping people.

By dialoguing with a wide swath of Israeli society including Haredi and religious nationalist elements supportive of the Chief Rabbinate as well as young couples whose experience with that institution was tragic, J-REC came away with some important take-aways for the future.

The most important for the RRFEI are the following:

  1. RRFEI should have representation in J-REC. I believe that the Coalition would not only be open but welcoming of Rabbis who share the Coalition’s interests and goals. This can be arranged by contacting Steve Bayme of the AJC and expressing willingness to be involved.
  2. RRFEI members should make it their business to set up meetings with Israeli embassy officials in their locales. RRFEI should share concerns about how Orthodoxy’s position as the only legitimate form of Judaism in Israel makes it more difficult for supporters of Israel connected with American Jewish religious streams to garner support for Israel within their movements. American Jews’ two most significant critiques of Israel relate to lack of religious pluralism and settlement policy.
  3. Through its connections with Hiddush, RRFEI should try to find out more about organizations and individuals who today may not see a connection between religious pluralism and healthy Israel-American Jewish relations. We need to take our case to known personalities like Ruth Calderon and interesting people like Micah Goodman, founder of an intra-communal (Orthodox-Secular) dialogue called Ayn Perat. Hiddush may be the resource and catalyst for creating these relationships.

RRFEI is a potentially important agent for change in regard to religious pluralism in Israel. It should use every means available to further that agenda. As an organization we also need to think about practical strategies that will achieve our goals, which may be the hardest part of our mission.