Your average mashgiach (kosher overseer) makes sure a dollop of sour cream gets nowhere near a plate of brisket. But Chaya Gusfield and Rabbi Debora Kohn are not your average mashgichot.

Rather than keeping the milchik away from the fleishik, these women are more concerned with separating cans from bottles and keeping paper-plate usage to a bare minimum.

The two Bay Area women, plus Howie Schneider of Santa Cruz, were recently certified according to the principles of “eco-kashrut.”

“You think bigger than just straight kashrut,” said Gusfield. “You take the principles of kashrut and include ecological concerns.”

Gusfield, an Oakland resident who is in the Aleph rabbinical program of the Renewal movement, is a rabbinical assistant at Congregation Beth Chaim in Danville. Earlier this year, she and Kohn of Berkeley, also a Renewal rabbi, went through a certification process with Rabbi Dennis Beck-Berman, a Renewal rabbi based in Virginia.

Though the eco-kosher movement has been around for several decades, this was the first time the Jewish Renewal movement offered certification in the practice. Beck-Berman developed the curriculum, after Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi suggested such a course be taught.

The term eco-kashrut was coined in the 1970s by Shachter-Shalomi, universally known as Reb Zalman, the founder of Jewish Renewal.

Beck-Berman offered another certification course as part of the Kallah, the biennial gathering of the Jewish Renewal movement this summer.

Eco-kashrut practices are based not only on taking care of the environment, but shmirat hagoof (taking care of the body). Eating a vegetarian diet is one way to lessen one’s impact on the planet, and buying organic and pesticide-free produce and avoiding genetically-modified food are further examples of following an eco-kashrut lifestyle. Ensuring that farm workers are compensated with fair wages and purchasing fair trade products is another. Furthermore, buying foods in bulk, to reduce packaging that is often not recyclable, is also a key principle.

“Eighty percent of the teachings are on issues of consumables, the foods and beverages that we eat and drink and how you choose what is more eco-kosher,” said Beck-Berman. “We also discuss how you ‘kosher’ a home as opposed to a facility, meaning finding vendors and suppliers you feel comfortable with. We could spend more time with the topic of slaughtering animals, but a vegetarian diet is much more eco-kosher, so kosher slaughter is not our main focus.”

And unlike traditional mashgichim, who are trained in the ritual slaughter of animals, no killing is required.

Guided by these principles, Gusfield, who is also a lay leader at Kehilla Community Synagogue, helped prepare the kitchen at Kehilla’s new Piedmont facility. Keeping kosher in the traditional sense is often not environmentally sound, she pointed out.

“A lot of kosher food is triple-wrapped,” she said. “And by keeping kosher, you end up using more paper plates.”

Kohn, who serves as spiritual leader at the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living in Danville, said she practices the principles of eco-kashrut more at home than in her professional life, since the residents of Reutlinger are mostly entrenched carnivores.

But they are open to the idea of eco-kashrut, “in terms of taking care of our planet and the community,” Kohn said.

Before Kohn got there, the center didn’t recycle anything.

“My role here is strictly educational,” she said. “The older generation is not used to recycling plastic and cans and paper. We’re doing one thing at a time, but we’ll get there.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."