JCCSF says goodbye to Vaad but not to kosher meal program

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The Jewish Community Center of San Francisco has ended its two-year relationship with Vaad Hakashrus of Northern California, the kosher certifying body that oversaw its kitchen facilities and food production.

Rabbi Zac Kamenetz

Vaad’s supervision ceased as of Jan. 1, but the JCCSF’s popular Kosher Lunch Program — offering subsidized hot meals mainly to older adults six days a week — will continue under “our own supervision,” according to Rabbi Zac Kamenetz, senior educator at the JCCSF.

“Aside from fresh produce that doesn’t need kosher certification, we will be using all ingredients with certified kosher identification,” Kamenetz said.

The JCCSF will continue to operate its facilities in a kosher manner, including not mixing milk and meat, not serving shellfish or pork and following special restrictions on Passover, Kamenetz noted. Community Table, the JCCSF café, will continue to offer kosher items for sale, along with its larger menu of nonkosher offerings.

While the Vaad’s leadership said the break was amicable, it will be difficult for followers of kashrut to rely upon the JCCSF’s food as strictly kosher, said Rabbi Ben-Tzion Welton, the Vaad’s chief executive officer.

Rabbi Ben-Tzion Welton

“The loss of certification, in my opinion, means an end to the Kosher Lunch Program at the JCC in San Francisco,” Welton wrote in an email. “Although we were told it still will use kosher ingredients, the lack of [Vaad] supervision prohibits any truly kosher observant person from participating in this program.”

Kamenetz countered by saying the JCCSF will be following kosher standards that are “essentially the same as those that would be followed in any home where people keep kosher. We use only kosher ingredients, we follow kosher recipes, we do not mix meat and milk, and so on.”

All products and meat the JCCSF buys will carry kosher seals that are “accepted in most Orthodox communities today,” he added. “In my capacity as senior educator, I hold these community standards, and help train staff and ensure that we are meeting our standards.”

To maintain certification under the Vaad, the JCCSF paid for an on-site mashgiach (kashrut supervisor) and incurred other expenses even though, according to a 2013 article in J., a vast majority of the lunch attendees are non-Jews, including many Asian Americans, who presumably don’t keep kosher.

Kamenetz said the decision puts the JCC back to where it was two years ago, curating and supervising its own kosher production of food.

Eating lunch at the JCC in 2013 photo/jccsf-sasha gulish

“The food is in no way different,” he said. “The menu doesn’t change. Having Vaad Hakashrus supervision is an added bonus, a communally recognized level of supervision … but it doesn’t mean the food is changing.”

Kamenetz said the program serves between 30 and 70 people every day, except Saturdays. People 60 and over can dine for a suggested donation of $2; those under 60 pay $8.

Welton said providing Vaad-certified kosher meals in the Bay Area helps meet a need. “Although the kosher-observant population is now relatively small, it is growing in size in the Bay Area, and all Jewish organizations will only benefit from displaying that consciousness and providing that accommodation as a sign that they are inclusive of the entire Jewish community,” he wrote in an email.

A similar parting of the ways occurred in December 2014, when the Vaad announced it was no longer certifying S.F.-based caterer L’Chaim Sushi, now called L’Chaim Foods. The operation is now under the kosher supervision of Rabbi Joel Landau of Adath Israel Congregation, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in San Francisco.

The JCCSF doesn’t expect to have any pushback from its community over this decision, Kamenetz said.

The JCCSF is the only kosher meal provider in the Congregate Meals Program, funded by the Human Services Agency of San Francisco. Kamenetz said seniors come to eat, interact with their friends, and be entertained and educated by JCC staff. “This is an excellent example of our commitment to the Jewish community and the San Francisco community at large,” he said, “to have people come and be fed physically and spiritually.”

JCCSF Chief Jewish Officer Rachel Brodie added that the center is “satisfied that we are doing so in a way that fully meets the needs of the Kosher Lunch Program’s clients and our agreements with the city and county of San Francisco.”

Welton said the Vaad enjoyed working with the JCCSF and would be open to doing so again.

“Although we always feel sad when food establishments go non-kosher in this limited Bay Area environment, we appreciated working with them,” he wrote.

Shoshana Hebshi
Shoshana Hebshi

Shoshana Hebshi is a freelance writer and former J. copy editor living in the North Bay.