The decision by the 92nd Street Y to use a non-kosher caterer for its annual gala Monday night sparked a small protest and ignited a broader debate about the propriety of Jewish institutions in the city serving non-kosher food.
And it generated more than a little confusion about what “kosher” means to different constituencies.
“People have been writing and calling,” said Zev Brenner, whose Talkline radio program reaches a heavy concentration of Orthodox listeners. His Saturday night show discussed the Y’s decision.
“People — even those who are not religious — are saying it is a shonda [shameful],” Brenner said.
One woman, Doris, sent Brenner an e-mail saying, “Everyone can eat kosher. Not everyone can eat treif! Why exclude some of our population?”
Asked for comment, Carrie Oman, the Y’s director of publicity, said simply: “We are not commenting for this story.”
In the gala invitation, the Y stated that the event would be “kosher style.” Its website also noted, “No meat will be served at the gala — only fish and dairy — and as is our tradition, no treif will be served.”
Someone close to the situation said “the entire event was kosher,” citing the above description of the menu.
But one rabbi, Sholtiel Lebovic, founder and director of Go Kosher, an organization that kashers (or, makes kosher) homes and commercial businesses, placed a full-page ad in The Jewish Week (May 12) headlined “Shame on the 92nd Street” and started an online protest page that garnered more than 700 signatures and almost as many comments.
He maintained that since the food was not prepared or supervised as kosher, it was not a kosher event.
“There were more online protestors than there were attendees,” he told The Jewish Week, adding that about a half-dozen people joined him in picketing the event, carrying such signs as, “Something is not kosher about the 92Y.”
Rabbi Lebovic said he did not understand why the 92Y chose to have a non-kosher caterer, given the abundance of kosher caterers in the city and the large number of Jews here who keep kosher.
“Maybe if this was Nebraska or Kansas” I’d understand, he said.
But some 92Y officials felt the rabbi may have been drumming up business for himself, offering his services in the days leading up to the gala.
In the end, about a dozen kosher dinners were ordered from a kosher restaurant and served to those who requested it. Several hundred people attended the event.
The incident and surrounding public attention set off a discussion about the etiquette and sensitivities of making public events in the Jewish community kosher, and to what degree of observance.
One of those who signed the online protest, identifying himself as Leonard, wrote, “What is the point of calling yourself a Jewish organization if at public events the major trappings of Judaism are being abandoned?”
Suzanne Goldberg, who said she has been a longtime member of the Y, told The Jewish Week in an interview that she would not attend the gala because it was not kosher.
“They have an obligation to make everyone feel comfortable,” she said, adding that she called the Y before Passover to ask about the gala and was told it would be “biblical kosher.”
“I never heard that term before and I was told it meant that milk and meat would not be served together,” Goldberg said. “I guess that means they would serve non-kosher chicken but not chicken parmesan.”
She said also that she was told the decision to use a non-kosher caterer was one of economics.
“The cost is prohibitive — are you aware of the cost of kosher food and supervision — and 99 percent of the people do not care,” Goldberg quoted the Y official as saying.
The dinner’s cost per ticket ranged from $200 to $10,000.
“All institutions and synagogues will be doing this except the Orthodox,” the official reportedly continued. “This is the wave of the future.”
Goldberg asked about the Conservative movement and was told, “I’m not sure what direction it is going.”
Rabbi Philip Scheim, president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, told The Jewish Week in an email that the Y’s decision to bring in a non-kosher caterer “is a disappointing development.”
He said that both his organization and the Conservative movement “do not recognize ‘kosher style’ as an acceptable standard of kashrut, nor is there even the slightest intent of our movement to head in that direction. We believe strongly that Jewish authenticity leads to a future heavily influenced by values and practices of the past, with kashrut high atop that list.”
Rabbi Steven Wernick, chief executive officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm, expressed similar “disappointment” with the Y’s decision.
“Organizations that purport to serve the broad Jewish community should have kosher affairs,” he told The Jewish Week. “Not having them is exclusionary. There is a responsibility of communal organizations to act in such a way that is inclusive of the Jewish community. … I hope it does not happen again, for the unity of the Jewish people.”
Rabbi Wernick added that “all Conservative synagogues are kosher – that is a value of Conservative Judaism.”
Rabbi Steven Moss, spiritual leader of B’nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale, L.I., said he has “always believed that we need to be inclusive both in my synagogue and in communal life. That means to be respectful of those who are more observant. … Excluding those who are more observant is not a Jewish thing.”
Thus, he said, his synagogue’s caterers are all kosher. Other Reform temples accommodate individuals who keep kosher by ordering kosher meals for them at public events but do not otherwise observe kashrut.
A check by The Jewish Week with several other Jewish cultural institutions in the city found that all use kosher caterers for their dinners, among them: the AJC, the Jewish Museum, the Center for Jewish History, the JCC of Manhattan, the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Council for Jewish Émigré Community.
Steven Bayme, national director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department at the AJC, said that in recent years the move has been “towards greater involvement of kashrut under supervision because that is the most inclusive policy.”
Bayme said if the kosher dietary laws cannot be observed, serving dairy or fish is an option, along with providing a kosher meal for those who request it.
“But that makes the odd person stand out,” he said.
“Kosher style or biblical kosher means that the meal is not prepared in accordance with contemporary standards of kashrut,” Bayme said. “Given the changing demographics in which the Orthodox are playing a strong role in communal Jewish public and communal life, the trajectory is towards the most inclusive standards of kashrut.”
But Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, director of Rabbis Without Borders at CLAL (The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership) said she foresees just the opposite happening.
“I think there is a shift going on in that most of the people who come to [Jewish communal] events don’t keep kosher themselves and don’t consider kashrut a high priority,” she said.
Rabbi Sirbu said that although it has been a practice for unaffiliated Jewish institutions to hold strictly kosher events, “I think it is changing because it’s a greatly added expense.”