Rabbis tell agencies to serve only kosher food

The Northern California Board of Rabbis has sent a letter to 36 local Jewish organizations strongly urging them to offer only kosher food at community-wide events.

"It is not often that rabbis speak in one voice," says the Oct. 23 cover letter. "The attached resolution regarding community Kashrut contains a message that we consider to be of great importance in nurturing a sense of Klal Yisrael [the unity of the Jewish people]."

Rabbi Sheldon Lewis, kashrut committee chair of the board of rabbis and one of the signators of the letter, said that offering an optional kosher meal is not good enough.

"Box meals are for airplanes," he said. "If you are sitting at a table where everyone's eating a good meal, and you're singled out because you keep kosher, that's not right."

Joining him in signing the cover letter were board president Rabbi Stephen Pearce and executive director Rabbi H. David Teitelbaum. The attached resolution was signed by 73 Bay Area rabbis, representing all streams of Judaism, including members of the East Bay Council of Rabbis.

The resolution itself states that at all Jewish community events that serve food, all the food should be kosher, "so that no one among us be marginalized."

Lewis, spiritual leader of the Conservative Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, said that although there are varying standards of kashrut, food served at Jewish events should be acceptable to the Orthodox community.

It's not enough simply to offer a vegetarian option, he added, as it is rare that the utensils and kitchen in which vegetarian food is prepared meet a kosher standard.

Teitelbaum said the goal of the resolution is to promote Jewish unity.

"I think it will bring the community closer together. I don't see how it can do anything other than that."

Currently, a number of Jewish community events do not meet the standard posed by the new resolution. The S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children's Services, for instance, offers an optional kosher meal at its dinners. Jewish Vocational Service, which has a policy of vegetarian-only food for public events, also offers kosher food only on request.

Abby Snay, JVS executive director, said the agency has tried to meet conflicting culinary requests from various Jewish groups. "It's a very sensitive issue for all. The [kashrut standard] is certainly something we'll consider, but it's not one person's decision."

The board of rabbis' appeal is primarily directed at large community functions, not at private meetings or informal occasions.

While many area agencies already have adopted kosher policies for all events, the largest — the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation — has yet to implement such a standard. The federation is working on drafting a similar policy, however.

Now, large federation dinner functions are certified kosher, but no rule has been set for the JCF's smaller events.

For Lewis, "the kashrut standard is long overdue."

The Bay Area, he added, is the only major center of Jewish life in America that does not adhere to such a standard.

Calling kashrut an ancient component of Judaism, Lewis said it's strange that following those laws would exclude Jews from their own community events which weren't kosher.

"I felt it personally, because I can't go to a community event that is not kosher," he said. "You can visually see there is a segment not present" at non-kosher events.

The long-time former head of the board of rabbis, Rabbi Malcolm Sparer, said, "It's something we agreed on many years ago." Sparer, who is Orthodox, added, "It got bogged down, but I'm glad it's getting to see the fresh air of a new day."

The kashrut request is not directed at synagogues.

While most Reform congregations do not adhere to kashrut, Reform rabbis who signed the resolution viewed it as reasonable.

Having a kosher standard "is a good statement on behalf of unity in the community," said Pearce, senior rabbi at Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, who does not keep fully kosher himself.

But Pearce predicted that the kosher standard will not be accepted without a hitch.

He recently attended a kosher dinner on a Saturday night that started much later than anticipated. The mashgiach — who certifies kashrut — could not arrive until after sundown. "There could be more such problems," Pearce said.

He also acknowledged that catering costs will increase. San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel estimated that kosher meals are 20 percent more expensive than non-kosher fare. Part of the increased cost comes from maintaining a separate kosher kitchen and hiring the mashgiach.

The increased cost could hurt organizations such as the American Associates of Ben-Gurion University, whose fund-raising dinners are not kosher.

"We have lavish dinners which are quite costly," said Philip Gomperts, regional director for the agency. "If that was to double, we'd actually lose money."

Gomperts said he would be "happy to accept the kosher standard if my leadership wants me to."

However, it would be much easier to meet the kosher requirement, he said, if the quality of the food was better and if more kosher caterers existed.

Short of volunteering to supply the meals, the board of rabbis is offering some services to help agencies meet the standard.

The board has compiled a list of local kosher caterers that it hopes to put online before the end of the year. The rabbis also will make themselves available to speak to agencies about the kosher standard.

The board of rabbis plans to make follow-up calls in the coming weeks to see how organizations are faring.

The rabbis don't have a way of enforcing the standard. Lewis said he hopes the board will "have a moral voice in the community and will be heeded."