The Everthing in Jerusalem is Kosher Myth

July 29, 2008
“THE EVERYTHING IN JERUSALEM IS KOSHER MYTH” PART I
Fortunately, although very late in coming according to many, Jerusalemites and others are beginning to realize that the famous “everything is kosher” axiom regarding restaurants and eateries in Jerusalem is not a valid statement, not now and not ever.

We are all aware that products lacking the seal of a credible kosher certifying agency are not a threat since these are the items we will not readily purchase. But what of the kosher certifying agencies – which may or may not be trusted?

We will focus our attention on restaurants and eateries, referring to the kiosks, falafel booths and the like, rather than on supermarket shelves and grocery stores where we would buy our raw materials to prepare foods at home. These areas will follow in subsequent articles G-d willing.

THE KASHRUS PROBLEM IS WIDESPREAD IN THE CAPITAL & ELSEWHERE
The problem being addressed is not unique to Jerusalem, although in the Holy Capital, it appears to have become rampant, infesting The downtown Triangle area (Ben-Yehuda, Jaffa and King George Streets), as well as the Malcha Mall, Jerusalem’s pride-and-joy indoor shopping maul, and even the city’s central bus station, perhaps the most modern in the nation. Nevertheless, as we clean away the confetti of the nation’s 60th birthday celebrations, and we place the party hats of Jerusalem’s 40th liberation anniversary on the shelves, we are compelled to face the harsh realities of the day-to-day deterioration in kosher standards in the Jewish Capital.

Some blame the fact that for the past number of years the city has not had a chief rabbi, while others prefer to blame the lack of support from the civil judicial system and Israel Police, paving a clear road permitting kashrus violators an all-but-clear-path to financial success on the backs of concerned kosher consumers. There are also those who understand the complexity of the relationship between the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the local religious councils, aware the Chief Rabbinate is virtually powerless to enforce a national standard of kashrut.

THE RABBANUT IS NOT THE EQUIVALENT OF THE OU IN N. AMERICA
For North Americans is it clear, or so we believed [and hope]  – that a store exhibiting a valid kashrus certificate from the Jerusalem Rabbinate is not the equivalent of a NYC restaurant with an OU certification or one of the well-known East coast Vaad HaRabbonim organizations.

For one thing, as is quoted in the July 24, 2008 weekly edition of the B’Sheva newspaper. Rabbi Yitzchak Ilovitzky, who is the Acting Head of the Kashrut Department in Jerusalem rejects many of the accusations in the Kosharot report, adding anyone who relies “on this level of kashrut” may indeed trust the basic Rabbinate certificate, but he goes on to add this only complies with the rulings of the Rama regarding non-Jews cooking, and therefore, a Sephardic Jew who holds by the rulings of the Beit Yosef, may not trust the basic Jerusalem Rabbinate kashrut since non-Jews do indeed cook, rendering the food unsuitable for them. The Kaf HaChayim is also strict here, not providing any way out for Sephardim regarding the matter of “bishul akum”.

Rav Ilovitzky explained that any city the size of Jerusalem cannot possibly hold by the stringencies of the Beit Yosef regarding ‘bishul akum,’ adding he spoke with Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who told him when he served as the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, he too was lenient regarding the matter, seemingly due to the difficulties involved with enforcement, despite the fact the Chief Rabbinate of Israel demands that the regular basic kosher certificate also comply with the Beit Yosef’s stringencies of bishul akum.

When asked how it is that in Tzfat (Safed) and Bat Yam for example they do comply with the bishul akum stringency, Rav Ilovitzky explained that this is not so in the capital, adding, “The Jerusalem Rabbinate never advertised complying with the ruling of the Beit Yosef in this matter…”

According to Kosharot inspectors visiting Jerusalem restaurants during recent months, stores with a basic Jerusalem Rabbinate kosher certificate do not necessarily check rice and legumes for bugs, do not sift flour, and there may be other problems too regarding non-mevushal wine handled by non-Jews, trumot, ma’asrot, orla, Chadash, and other issues. The items mentioned are not chumrot (stringencies) but strict halacha concerning basic kosher requirements in Eretz Yisrael.  There is the problem a restaurant with a basic supervision may use the same skewers or screen to cook raw livers over the fire as they will for other meats later on, rendering them unsuitable for the Ashkenazi clients.

During my inspections conducted in restaurants in the capital a number of months ago, my findings concurred with the Kosharot report.

STATE KOSHER LAWS LACK LEGAL BITE
First of all, it must be understood that in accordance to the 1983 state kosher laws, and the subsequent amendments in 1988, the laws defining kosher in Israel are in essence more of a type of consumer protection law rather than laws designed to allay our kashrus concerns. Under the law, any ingredient that has a kosher supervision by some agency/rabbi from somewhere may be accepted, no matter how controversial the ingredient may be. The basic Jerusalem Rabbinate [or almost any basic city rabbinate] kosher certificate relies on the most minimal standards of kashrus at times, and rarely does such a certificate guarantee anything more than the fact that all the ingredients used in the store have a kosher supervision of one level or another.

There are a growing number of documented articles from reliable sources that attest to the fact that these restaurants and eateries do not necessarily wash the bug-free lettuce and greens as instructed by the rabbinical supervisor, or comply with other necessary steps to ensure an acceptable kosher standard. There are other issues as well, perhaps headed by the fact a meat restaurant with a basic certificate does not have a mashgiach present at all times, even when non-Shomer Shabbos Jews or non-Jews are cooking in the kitchen. In a ‘regular’ Rabbanut store, the mashgiach is only required to maintain a presence for a number of hours a day and then the kitchen remains unsupervised.

IN COMES “KOSHAROT”
In comes a non-profit organization which began four years ago, Kosharot, and slowly there may be hope to bring about change, perhaps a kosher revolution. What makes the organization unique is the fact that it is spearheaded by a prominent rabbinical authority affiliated with the Dati Leumi (National Religious) camp, and not the chareidi-Orthodox as is usually the case. More commonly, the chareidi camp is associated with the battle to achieve higher standards in kosher observance. Rav Levanon is the first to point out that to date, the Dati Leumi camp leads in many areas, settling the land, army service and other areas, but has lagged behind regarding kashrut issues.

Well, in this case, the Dati Leumi Kosharot is seeking to set a new bar for kashrus observance, hoping to reach out and educate the many Jews who view themselves members of this growing population of Israel, as well as Jews identifying with other ‘camps’ but seek a high level of kashrut. The organization was founded by Rav Elyakim Levanon, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Birchat Yosef and rav of the Shomron community of Elon Moreh. Rav Levanon decided to do something about the situation, launching his organization as a non-profit venture. He does however one day hope to convert it into a kosher supervising agency in Israel that will be synonymous with a high level of kashrus. His extremely well-trained team provides an invaluable service for those wishing to hire them, kashering catering halls prior to weddings and other festive events, raising the standard of kashrut to one not otherwise attained in many cases.

Perhaps a recent request by Rabbi Binyamin Zimmerman of Yeshivat Shalavim may be credited with the widespread publicity being given to Kosharot as well as the accompanying political storm that he resulted in the ‘black list’ publicized, citing those kosher supervising agencies and restaurants and eateries in Yerushalayim that may not be trusted.

It is crucial to point out that the list circulating, addressed to Rabbi Zimmerman, was (1) intended for internal use to assist the rabbi in directing his overseas students to reliable restaurants, (2) intended for professionals in the trade who are learned enough and wise enough regarding both halacha and the workings of the kashrut system in Israel, (3) was a draft copy that admittedly has errors and inaccuracies, and was therefore not intended for publication. (Rabbi Moshe Katz, the day-to-day halachic authority of Kosharot told me when we met that the organization is now doing its utmost to expedite a ‘final’ list since the draft has unfortunately begun making its rounds, apparently circulating around the world).

Having spoken with Rabbi Moshe Katz, a student of Rabbi Levanon for over 20 years, I learned that Rabbi Zimmerman was simply seeking to benefit from Kosharot’s growing database. As a rabbi for 2nd-year post-high school American yeshiva students, Rabbi Zimmerman requested a list of reliable kashrut certifications in order to make his students aware, a response to the growing number of inquiries from them as they attempted to navigate the complicated highway of Jerusalem kosher certifications  – instructing them as to where they may and may not eat during their study in Eretz Yisrael. Meeting with Rabbi Zimmerman in Jerusalem, he also told me he feels that “Americans believe in making change” and he hopes to educate his students to begin turning things around for the better, implementing change in the complicated Israeli kashrut system.

The response sent to Rabbi Zimmerman on 15 Sivan (18 June) of this year somehow made its way around and is being emailed around the world. Both rabbis, Katz and Zimmerman are not exactly certain how this came about, but now that the ‘cat is out of the bag,’ they are hopeful the consumer public will heed the warning and begin exhibiting vigilance regarding eating out.

Nonetheless, the document has had an impact, and as a result, there is an increased awareness of kashrut or the lack of it in Jerusalem, and there is a buzz over reports of fictitious ‘badatz” certifying agencies, agencies posing as pristine examples of kashrut and kosher supervision.

Truth be said, to date, there are some authorities and prominent rabbis who have become aware of these illegal agencies, agencies that do not enjoy the approval of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, but they fear lawsuits or strong-arm tactics, preferring to remain silent. One such rabbi told me that at the end of the day, why get too worked up, explaining that those who eat in regular [non-mehadrin] Rabbanut restaurants are not the population who wishes to hear criticism, as if the kosher stumbling blocks placed in their spiritual path are less severe than attempting to dup the “orthodox” patrons.

JKN reported a number of months ago, posting the original Hebrew article on the website, quoting the rosh yeshiva of the Har Bracha hesder yeshiva, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, another prominent Torah personality who boldly came out mentioning names, citing the illegal agencies, advising concerned kosher consumers to beware.

Rav Levanon is committed to breaking the image of the Dati Leumi community, boldly coming out in the open, in newspapers and in public statements, calling it as he and his staff see it, based on in-depth investigation into the Jerusalem eating-out scene – learning the picture is not a pretty one.

END OF PART I

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August 3, 2008
“THE EVERYTHING IN JERUSALEM IS KOSHER MYTH” PART II

“ONE CANNOT RELY ON A NON-MEHADRIN HECHSHER”
Rabbi Levanon and Rabbi Katz of Kosharot, and Rabbi Eliezer Melamed [in his article appearing in the weekly B’Sheva newspaper], along with others explain that with current realities being what they are, one must at the very least seek out a reliable kosher supervision, one that is indeed from a trustworthy mehadrin agency. The basic Rabbanut just does not deliver the goods.

Some examples as per Kosharot include; restaurants with a basic Rabbanut certification that were inspected in Jerusalem do not check rice and legumes for bug infestation, do not sift flour, and do not wash greens prior to use. These are kashrus basics in Israel, not stringencies.

There is also the matter of separating challah as is required from dough which Kosharot explains does not appear to be done reliably [if at all] in the stores bearing a basic Jerusalem Rabbinate certificate or one of the illegal badatz certifying agencies.

Other grave violations cited is the fact that stores use the grates and skewers for non-koshered livers for other food items as well, when it is a well known fact in every Torah observant [Ashkenazi] home that the grate used to kasher livers is not used for other meat items.

The issue becomes increasingly complicated for Ashkenazim, who follow the halachic rulings of the Rama, as opposed to the Sephardim, who follow the rulings of the Beit Yosef.

For Sephardim, the issue of food being prepared by Jews only, not bishul akum, is not a mere praiseworthy stringency, but a cardinal component of their food preparation and kashrus standard. While Ashkenazim may suffice with food cooked with non-Jewish intervention, as long as the gas was lit by a Jew, Sephardim are prohibited from eating food that was prepared in any way by non-Jews, including stirring a pot on the stove.

Kosharot has learned that a basic Jerusalem Rabbanut supervision usually does not guarantee compliance with the stricter dictates of the Beit Yosef, rendering the cooked foods in all these establishments unfit for Sephardim. I have also found that a number of Rabbanut Mehadrin restaurants that I inspected do not comply with the requirements of Sephardim. When asked, the mashgichim were quite forward and open, telling me “Sephardim should not eat here if they are careful regarding bishul akum”. This is due primarily because of the large number of non-Jews employed as cooks throughout the capital. Ironically, the manual spelling out the directives for kashrus supervision under the Chief Rabbinate does insist on only Jews cooking, but unfortunately, the reality in the street presents a different picture for the kosher consumer.

In Yerushalayim there are many, many restaurants with non-Jewish kitchen personnel and cooks, and one may not make assumptions regarding bishul akum or other kosher concerns. One is compelled to ask to learn what is really going on.

I interviewed a number of mashgichim in Jerusalem hotels and they were quite frank, explaining a Torah observant Jew must seek a minimum standard of a reliable mehadrin supervision in the capital, and then question the mashgiach to ascertain if he is ‘in touch’ with the goings on of the particular restaurant. One veteran mashgiach who is well-known and respected in the Jerusalem kashrus community told me that if there is no mashgiach present in a meat restaurant, one simply cannot eat there. There is more room for leniency regarding dairy restaurants but there too, there are concerns.

In addition to the many problems listed, this year is increasingly difficult due to the complexities of shmitah, and here too, there are various opinions, which I will not delve into, since the issue of shmitah observance it too complex and lengthy for this forum.

END OF PART II

August 5, 2008
“THE EVERYTHING IN JERUSALEM IS KOSHER MYTH” PART III

LACKING A NATIONAL STANDARD
In reality, there is no national standard and kashrus varies from city to city based on criteria set forth by each local religious council. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel should yearn for creating such a standard, which would significantly allay kosher concerns for residents and visitors alike. In truth, the Chief Rabbinate is not to blame, for the system is such that the national religious body has no say regarding the kashrus standard in each city around the country. This is one of the major flaws in the system as it was created. There is an impressive book of rules that does exist, and if it was adhered to, the level of kashrus around the country would be significantly higher than it is today. Unfortunately, due to an array of reasons, the enforcement of the rule book is another matter.

WHICH KOSHER CERTIFICATIONS ARE RELIABLE & WHICH AREN’T?
While everyone must set his/her kosher standard, there are agencies in Israel that are viewed by all as the leaders in the industry, perhaps setting the standard. Many view the ‘top three’ as being the Jerusalem-based Eida Chareidit, along with the mehudar supervision of Rabbis Avraham Rubin and Simcha HaCohen Kook and the third is Rabbi Yehuda Leib Landau, the chief rabbi of Bnei Brak. While this is not intended as an endorsement, the plain facts cannot be ignored and the standard of kashrut maintained by the above-mentioned agencies is impeccable.

Not wishing to enter into the political controversy, “illegal” kosher supervising agencies in Yerushalayim include;
•    Nezer HaHidur,
•    Keter Kashrut,
•    Nachlat Yitzchak,

One common “illegal” kosher certifying agency in Tel Aviv is “Shemen HaMishcha”. It is prominent in the city’s central bus station.

The term “illegal” as defined by the national agency empowered to make such a statement, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

The Chief Rabbinate in numerous kashrut alert bulletins published by Rabbi Rafi Yochai have mentioned these organizations as being “illegal”, warning those who are stringent in their observance of kashrut take note and beware.

Over time, a relatively short period as a matter of fact, the Holy City of Yerushalayim has literally been inundated with non-authorized kosher agencies which have severely compromised the standard of kashrus in the holiest city in the world.

It is our hope that readers, particularly those visiting and living in Israel will become increasingly vigilant and avoid the kashrus pitfalls. I am using this forum to call on pulpit rabbis in North American and Europe, as well as kashrus agencies in particular, to please study the material, to make the necessary inquiries, and then pass the data onto your congregants. People deserve to know what is going on and then each visitor to Israel can make up his/her own mind based on the facts, not the false assumption that every kashrut certificate is valid.

Perhaps even contacting leading kosher supervising agencies in your home city, state, and country, asking them to begin applying pressure on the Chief Rabbinate of Israel to shut down the unauthorized agencies in the hope of once again establish a kosher standard befitting the Jewish Capital. Visitors to Jerusalem are also encouraged to enter stores displaying the unauthorized certificates of kosher supervision and telling them you will not eat there due to the unsatisfactory standard. This will perhaps alert store owners to the reality that they may wish to change to one of the acceptable, established and approved kosher agencies.

END OF PART III

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