The first group of Conservative rabbis in the New York area to provide kosher supervision for an area restaurant has been formed in Suffolk County after the eatery’s owner said the Orthodox supervision he had was so costly he couldn’t make a profit.
“We’re doing it as a community service” at no charge, explained Rabbi Howard Buechler, spiritual leader of the Dix Hills Jewish Center. He and three other Conservative rabbis from neighboring synagogues hired a mashgiach or kosher supervisor in August for Bagel Boss/Deli Boss on Jericho Turnpike in East Northport.
“We got involved when it became known that he could not afford the hashgacha [kosher supervision] he had, and the local Jewish community wanted to ensure that a quality kosher establishment remained under reputable hashgacha.” It is only one of three kosher restaurants in Suffolk County — all of which are under Conservative supervision.
Although there are Conservative rabbis in other parts of the country who form a vaad hakashrut or group that provides kosher supervision, Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said this is a first in the New York area. And he said he welcomed the move.
“For those who keep kosher, having access to kosher products is very important,” he said. “Where are they supposed to go if they don’t have it?”
“I think it’s very important that my colleagues maintain a level of kashrut that is acceptable to the community,” Rabbi Meyers added. “The fact that there are differences in approach to supervision will always be present. … The goal is to make keeping kosher easier and not harder for people. For us, kashrut is a very important mitzvah and we want to encourage people to observe it.”
Another kosher eatery, this one in Nassau County, has also recently dropped its Orthodox kosher supervision in favor of supervision by the area’s Conservative rabbi. That owner too said his decision was driven by cost.
“I couldn’t afford the mashgiach,” said the storeowner, who asked that his store not be mentioned for fear of “chasing away” his Orthodox customers. “People know [of the change] but the rabbis are not telling people not to come here,” he said. “It’s a shame I can’t afford the mashgiach.”
He said he continues to buy from the same glatt kosher vendor and to “do everything” he did when he was under Orthodox supervision. But even though he sells only one meat item, he said it cost him $70,000 a year for the mashgiach and the supervisory agency.
“I would have to have sales of at least $250,000 to pay for them,” he said.
“I have a small place. How much volume would I need to cover that expense?” He added that he was paying the Conservative rabbi “a fraction” of the cost of what he had paid the Orthodox supervisors. He declined to say how much.
Rabbi Buechler said that unlike kosher supervisory agencies that charge between $20,000 and $50,000 a year on top of the cost of the mashgiach, the Conservative rabbis in Suffolk are not paid for their role as overall kosher supervisors who conduct unannounced spot checks.
“There’s a huge amount of money in kashrut, but it has to be balanced with the ability of the local businessman to pay,” he said.
Rabbi Yaakov Luban, executive rabbinic coordinator of the kashruth division of the Orthodox Union, said the salary of an Orthodox Union mashgiach at a restaurant depends upon such things as the number of hours he works and his experience. He said he earns generally between $15 and $20 an hour and that a mashgiach working a 40-hour week could make as much as $40,000 a year.
“The supervision of a restaurant is extremely labor intensive, more so than supervising a factory because there are always new things happening at a restaurant — new ingredients coming in and dishes the restaurant wants to experiment with that requires more hands-on supervision,” he said. Although the restaurants pay the mashgiach directly, the mashgiach is answerable only to the OU and cannot be fired by the restaurant, Rabbi Luban noted.
In addition, he said the restaurant pays the OU a “certification fee” that he declined to reveal but said is “very reasonable.”
Despite this change to Conservative kosher supervision by two Long Island eateries, Rabbi Chaim Schwartz, executive vice president of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, said he doesn’t foresee a trend. “In highly populated Orthodox areas, it definitely will not be a concern,” he said.
The growing role of Conservative rabbis in the field of kosher supervision is relatively new, according to Rabbi Paul Plotkin, chairman of the kashrut subcommittee of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.
“Historically the Conservative movement ceded over the supervision to Orthodox rabbis,” he said. “But with the expansion of the Jewish community to communities all over the place, we could not assume there would be trained Orthodox rabbis around.”
As a result, he said, the Rabbinical Assembly has held weeklong kosher supervision training programs for rabbis.
Rabbi Plotkin, who is spiritual leader of a Conservative synagogue in Margate, Fla., pointed out that the National Hockey League Florida Panthers will be adding a kosher kiosk to its stadium in Sunrise, Fla., beginning Jan. 9. “The one pushing for this was not the Orthodox rabbinate,” he said. “I was the person doing the nudging for the past four years.”
Jeff Grossfeld, the owner of Bagel Boss/Deli Boss, said he expanded his kosher dairy restaurant earlier this year to include a kosher meat section when the store next to him closed and he was able to lease the space and build a separate meat kitchen.
“I started with glatt meat and I needed a mashgiach here from the time I opened until I closed,” he said. “My goal has always been quality kosher food handled in the way it should be handled.”
But he said he soon realized that the cost of the mashgiach and the supervisory agency, along with the extra cost of the glatt kosher meat when compared to non-glatt kosher meat, would cost him $100,000 a year.
Glatt is Yiddish for smooth and it means that the lungs of the properly slaughtered animal (not fowl) were smooth — free of any adhesions that could potentially render the animal non-kosher.
“My gross sales were up, but I was losing money because my expenses were even higher,” Grossfeld said.
So after speaking with Rabbi Buechler, Grossfeld not only changed kosher supervisors but meat suppliers — switching from glatt kosher meat to Hebrew National products, which are kosher under national and Orthodox rabbinic supervision but not glatt kosher.
The new mashgiach works Sunday through Thursday, and the four rabbis conduct spot checks on Friday and throughout the week. The meat kitchen is closed on Saturdays, but the restaurant is open and sells previously made meat items, as well as dairy products.
Rabbi Plotkin said that until three years ago Hebrew National’s kosher supervision was unacceptable to the Conservative movement. But he said that changed when the company changed its supervision to the Triangle K and invited him and two colleagues to meet with Rabbi J. Howard Ralbag, the supervising rabbi of the Triangle K. Together they spent three days inspecting the ritual slaughter and food preparation at the company’s plants in Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa.
“We were satisfied that it was a kosher product and acceptable,” Rabbi Plotkin said, adding that mainstream Orthodox kosher agencies will generally provide supervision only for establishments that handle glatt kosher meat.
Grossfeld said he has noticed fewer Orthodox customers in his store, but that only about one-third of his clientele is Jewish. During the lunch hour one day last week, a customer at the dairy counter asked for bologna and cheese on a bagel. Told that it was not permissible because it was a kosher establishment, the customer asked for and received the cheese on a different plate.