Ethical eating: Kosher initiative gains a local following

Leaders of the Conservative movement’s ethical kashrut certification program are taking their campaign to the next level, and a number of Bay Area rabbis are joining the cause.

Conservative rabbis around the country have been encouraged to support an initiative that would create another kosher certification — one that promises consumers their food is produced in an ethical and eco-friendly way by fairly paid workers.

Rabbi George Schlesinger of Santa Rosa’s Congregation Beth Ami said he was excited to receive an e-mail last month asking him to use the High Holy Days as a platform to talk about Hekhsher Tzedek, or justice certification. He plans to dedicate his Rosh Hashanah sermon to the interconnectivity of ethics and ritual.

“Kashrut should not be devoid of ethics,” he said. “If we’re concerned about animals but not about people, to me that’s a disconnect that doesn’t work.”

Hekhsher Tzedek would complement a traditional kashrut stamp. Companies that seek the symbol would be evaluated by a commission to determine if they meet the standards and would be periodically re-evaluated. The standards address five areas: health, safety and training; wages and benefits; environmental impact; corporate transparency; and product development.

Rabbi Morris Allen, a Conservative rabbi in Minneapolis, has led the movement to implement the Hekhsher Tzedek seal. Last week, the Reform movement formally announced support for the certification.

Since the guidelines were made public, Allen said, project leaders and colleagues have been talking to “people inside the kosher industry,” including rabbis from Orthodox certification agencies and kosher food companies that might be the first candidates for the Hekhsher Tzedek seal. The seal’s design will be released soon, he said.

Standards of the seal are the result of a Conservative movement-sponsored commission that came together after a 2006 investigation of workers’ complaints at Agriprocessors. The company’s main plant in Postville, Iowa, was raided by immigration authorities this May, uncovering a host of immigration and labor law violations, as well as a number of questionable kosher slaughter practices.

An unintended result of the Agriprocessors raid, Allen said, was that it opened a national dialogue about what kosher means, and brought the politics and ethics of Jewish dietary laws to the front pages of secular newspapers across the country.

Disturbed by the news of unfair labor practices at Agriprocessors, Rabbi David Booth of Palo Alto decided he would no longer buy their meat. Soon after, his congregation, Kol Emeth, voted to follow suit — meaning that no meat purchased for synagogue affairs can come from Agriprocessors.

Nonetheless, Booth has mixed feelings about the certification. He said the proposed Hekhsher Tzedek guidelines are too broad for him to endorse at this time.

He’s also concerned about the certification raising the cost of food. “If it drives up prices, I think that would be a shame, because it’s already expensive enough to keep kosher,” he said.

Many Orthodox rabbis and kosher certifying agencies are also troubled by the certification. They say that fair labor practices or eco-friendly production is outside of the kashrut domain.

“We’re all for ethical treatment, but why the emphasis on only kosher food?” asked Avrom Pollak, president of Star-K, an international kosher certification agency. “Why should we be under scrutiny when our [nonkosher] competitors are not?”

Rabbi Michelle Fisher of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek said she will mention the initiative during a High Holy Day sermon, and will note that Hekhsher Tzedek does not undermine the importance of kashrut laws and practice, but simply complements them.

“On a technical level, you could say that this has nothing to do with the laws of kashrut. But it has everything to do with Judaism,” she said. Supporting ethical labor and food practices “are equally a part of what it means to live a religious life.”

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