Cali Kosher owner Darron Silva (left) looks over his crop with Rabbi Levy Zirkind. (Photo/Courtesy Cali Kosher)
Cali Kosher owner Darron Silva (left) looks over his crop with Rabbi Levy Zirkind. (Photo/Courtesy Cali Kosher)

This Central Valley cannabis brand is stamped kosher all over

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Colloquially, both Jews and non-Jews often use the word “kosher” to mean acceptable, suitable or even, according to Urban Dictionary, “cool or chill.”

Most assume that’s what Darron Silva meant in naming his cannabis company Cali Kosher, which sells marijuana flower, vape cartridges and concentrated extracts to hundreds of retailers across California.

“A lot of people just thought, ‘Hey, everything’s kosher — Cali Kosher,” Silva said, referring to his two-year-old cannabis brand. “Then you see the CCK logo on there. And they realize it’s certified.”

CCK stands for Central California Kosher, a Fresno-based kashrut supervision organization run by Rabbi Levy Zirkind. Though Zirkind’s certification comes with a disclaimer: by Jewish law marijuana is considered a medicine only. “Therefore, those who are not using [pot] with any medical intention — we have an issue,” he told J.

Visitors to the Cali Kosher website are greeted with a snowy, zoomed-in image of a Christmas tree-shaped marijuana nugget behind the words “certified kosher cannabis grown in the heart of California.” Scroll down to read its three main quality standards, emblazoned with a navy blue Star of David.

“Our farm is regularly inspected and certified by a Rabbi,” Cali Kosher advertises. “We comply with a strict policy of kosher laws that include some of the highest standards of purity and quality.”

Silva, a 36-year-old from Stanislaus County who also runs a landscaping company, said he got the idea for a kosher-certified cannabis business from his brother, who helps run a cannabis distribution company with a Jewish man named Mitch Davis. That company, Mission Brands, decided to seek kosher certification, so Silva did, too.

But Silva, who is not Jewish, took it a step further, connecting his brand overtly with the thousands-year-old body of Jewish law that today weighs in on everything from popcorn to bottled water.

At times, the company appears confused about the particulars of kashrut. One Cali Kosher webpage names “alcohol” and “caffeine,” both kosher, as two examples of “non-kosher substances and additives” banned from the premises during manufacturing and processing, in accordance with “standards set forth by the Jewish faith.” (No, a kashrut supervisor is not likely to object to a farmer drinking a cup of coffee).

During a recent interview with J., Silva said he would correct the error.

Business, though, appears to be booming. Since its founding in 2018, Cali Kosher products are already being sold at some 300 retail stores in the state, Silva said, many of them concentrated in the Bay Area. And on Oct. 9, the brand opened its first brick-and-mortar retail shop in Patterson, a small city about 15 miles from Modesto with a population of 22,000 that is primarily known for its annual Apricot Fiesta.

Jews and non-Jews “gravitate toward” the product, Silva said — “they just know it went the extra mile.”

While Cali Kosher may be “one of the only” kosher cannabis farms in the United States, according to the company, kosher certification in the marijuana industry is not exactly new. In the past, it has been granted mainly to companies selling marijuana geared toward medicinal use.

Five years ago, Vireo Health of New York, a subsidiary of a Canadian pharmaceutical conglomerate, became the first cannabis producer to obtain certification from the Orthodox Union, the standard-bearer for kashrut supervision known for its ubiquitous OU symbol.

Vireo’s CEO said in a press release that kosher certification would help the company “serve the dietary needs of the largest Jewish community [New York] in the United States.” Cannabis sales in New York remain legal only for medicinal use. The CEO, Ari Hoffnung, sought to distance Vireo’s offerings — doctor-prescribed pills with varying ratios of THC and CBD — from what he described as “pot culture.”

Vireo’s designation is pareve, meaning it can be “consumed” with either meat or dairy dishes.

Inside the newly opened Cali Kosher storefront. (Photo/Daniel Luna)
Inside the newly opened Cali Kosher storefront. (Photo/Daniel Luna)

“Patients should never feel guilty or ashamed for using a product recommended by their physicians,” Hoffnung said in the 2015 release, which was also distributed by the Orthodox Union.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of OU Kosher, explained at the time why kashering medicinal cannabis was halachic (under the guidance of Jewish law).

“Judaism prioritizes health and encourages the use of medicine designed to improve one’s health or reduce pain,” Genack said. “Using medical cannabis products recommended by a physician should not be regarded as a chet, a sinful act, but rather as a mitzvah, an imperative, a commandment.”

Zirkind agrees. It’s his stamp of approval that graces Cali Kosher’s products (and those of Mission Brands, too). Since 1990, CCK has been supervising food producers in the Central Valley, from almond packaging operations to carrot farms to dairies.

Though he does not use cannabis himself, Zirkind told J. he became convinced of marijuana’s positive medicinal effects after speaking to his nephew, who suffered the loss of a son and developed insomnia.

“He said the few hours that he could get sleep was after he had medical marijuana,” the rabbi said. “That resolved my commitment to continue doing this work.”

Silva told J. that in a cannabis industry awash with various “certification” programs — for everything from regenerative farming practices to fair-labor standards — having a product certified kosher adds another layer of quality assurance.

He also said he “doesn’t agree” with how certain certification programs operate, such as “Clean Green,” a designation similar to organic. “Basically they take your money and you’re certified,” he said. “It meant so much more when a rabbi actually came out and actually researched the products.”

So what makes cannabis kosher?

According to Jewish law, medicines — namely, life-saving ones — do not have to be kosher. But elective medicines like vitamins do. Cannabis usually falls into the latter category.

The process for certifying cannabis is similar to that of any other agricultural crop. First, Zirkind said, he ensures there are no insects or mites in the final product, as insects are considered highly unkosher. Second, he researches any chemicals that might be used during the growing process to make sure they do not produce unhealthy side effects.

“My diligence to the public is that the product is free of harmful additives,” the rabbi said. Throughout the product’s growth and development, he said, he checks for anything that might be added to the basic formula of seed, soil, water and sunlight.

Given that there are millions of retail cannabis customers in California every year, Zirkind believes he has found an important role to play in certifying the product — even if some other rabbis “don’t want to touch” it.

He said he even received a directive from an important rabbi overseas to do so.

“You better certify it,” he told Zirkind. “If it’s legal in California, and going to make people’s lives better, especially cancer patients, you have the responsibility to make it kosher and do it right.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.