Kosher Ethics Push, Round Two
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Kosher Ethics Push, Round Two

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

Correcting abuses within the kashrut industry should not be the work of investigative reporters, said Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder of Uri L’Tzedek, the Orthodox social justice movement.

“Why should the Jewish community have to wait for headlines about scandals to make changes?” he said, referring to a recent Jewish Week story about leading New York kosher restaurateur Joey Allaham of Prime Grill fame and his legal fights with Lincoln Square Synagogue and some employees. “Public shaming should be a last resort, not a part of the process,” Rabbi Yanklowitz told the paper in a telephone interview from Phoenix, where he is the president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash, an adult education and leadership development program.

In the latest attempt to reform the multimillion-dollar kashrut certifying industry, Rabbi Yanklowitz, long active in the fight for food justice, began circulating a petition this week urging large kosher certifying agencies, including the Orthodox Union, Star-K, and Triangle K, to include transparent ethics in their kosher certification standards. Some high-profile rabbis have signed on.

“Laws relating to ethical matters, such as the just treatment of workers, the compassionate treatment of animals, and dealing in business with integrity, while distinct from the laws of kashrut, are mandated by halacha and consequential to all God-fearing Jews,” the petition reads.

“We’re not telling agencies what their standards should be — we’re just asking for each kosher certification agency to put together an ethics policy, so consumers know what behaviors cross the line,” said Rabbi Yanklowitz.

He cited the much-publicized case of Sholom Rubashkin, former CEO of Agriprocessors, the now-bankrupt kosher slaughterhouse and meat packing plant in Postville, Iowa, charged in 2008 with thousands of counts of child labor violations.

The petition, posted on Monday and already signed by more than 200 supporters, including Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Union for Reform Judaism and Rabbi Avi Weiss of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, follows previous efforts to reform the kashrut industry — which yielded tepid results. Conservative movement Rabbi Morris Allen made waves in 2011 a few years back when he introduced Magen Tzedek, a food certification seal intended to assure consumers that food was produced “with exemplary Jewish ethics in the area of labor concerns, animal welfare, environmental impact, consumer issues and corporate integrity.” To date, no company has sought out the Magen Tzedek certification.

“The kosher certifying community assiduously avoids marks that determine anything related to production, besides being strictly kosher,” said Rabbi Allen. He described one incident in which he entered a particular production site and the shochtim (halachic slaughterers) walked off the floor in protest.

Despite harsh pushback, Rabbi Allen feels that Magen Tzedek “changed the conversation” about standards for kosher certification. “The next step is to show the kosher consumer why it matters.”

Rabbi Yanklowitz had more success with Tav HaYosher, a seal given to restaurants, caterers and supermarkets that treat employees ethically, ensuring fair pay and safe working conditions. Uri L'Tzedek certified 150 businesses, though some have since lost the seal, according to Rabbi Yanklowitz.

In 2010, shortly after the Rubashkin raid, the Rabbinical Council of American (RCA) created a task force, which included the head of the OU’s kashrut division, Rabbi Menachem Genack, to urge kashrut agencies to adopt transparent policies for withdrawing approval from companies “engaged in significant wrongdoing.” So far, no further progress has been made on this initiative, said Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the RCA.

“We see an industry that has chosen to prioritize business profits over the biblical prophets,” said Rabbi Yanklowitz, who said he receives emails daily from frustrated consumers asking how to choose between ethics and kashrut. “The brand is being tarnished. It’s time we reclaim the word ‘kosher.’”

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