Jerusalem cafe Kava House. Staff explain the kashrut policy.
Jerusalem cafe Kava House. Staff explain the kashrut policy. Photo by Emil Salman
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Emil Salman
Yechiel Spira, a kashrut inspector, at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market. Photo by Emil Salman

The last straw for Topolino, an Italian restaurant in Jerusalem, was the lettuce. The Jerusalem Rabbinate requires restaurants that want a kashrut certificate to use only hydroponic produce, commonly known as "Gush Katif," because it's bug-free.

"You can't work with this lettuce," said restaurant owner Shai Gini. "It's not tasty, and you need three or four Gush Katif lettuces for every ordinary head of lettuce I'd buy in the [open-air] market." So Gini decided that Topolino would make do without a kashrut certificate.

For Yoni Vadai of the Carousela cafe, it was the rabbinate's kashrut inspectors. And for Levana Cohen of the Adon Cohen restaurant, it was her conviction that she "could teach the inspector about kashrut."

All are part of a small but growing trend in Jerusalem: restaurants - at least seven so far - that keep kosher and serve a religious clientele, but aren't certified by either the rabbinate or the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox ) kashrut organization, Badatz.

People familiar with the phenomenon say it is part of a more general trend: Israelis who care about observing Jewish law, including kashrut, but want nothing to do with the official rabbinate. Other aspects of this trend include weddings, funerals and even conversions in which the rabbinate is uninvolved.

In Jerusalem, a group of young people that includes two rabbis, is now trying to set up a private kashrut certification organization, and several restaurants have voiced interest in working with it. By law, only the rabbinate or those it authorizes, like the Badatz, can legally provide kashrut certification. But the new group would offer customers informal assurances that the restaurant keeps kosher.

Meanwhile, restaurants like Topolino serve religious and traditional customers who are prepared to trust the owner's assurance that he keeps kosher. And they have thereby challenged the accepted wisdom that for a Jerusalem eatery, losing one's kashrut certificate is a death warrant. The seven restaurants say their revenues have fallen, but they are nevertheless surviving, and even thriving.

While the specific complaints vary, the common theme among all the owners of these eateries is that they simply lost patience with the rabbinate's ever more stringent demands and poor service.

Carousela's Vadai, who is Haredi, said he was disgusted that he was paying for supervision, but "no one ever came to check" his cafe. Many restaurant owners have said the same for years: A kashrut certificate is no guarantee that the restaurant is actually kosher, since at best, inspectors usually make only brief daily visits. Just last week, the Makor Rishon newspaper published a report detailing numerous cases in which the rabbinate declined to take away a restaurant's kashrut certificate - which, after all, provides it with income - even after blatantly nonkosher food was found.

The downside of lacking certification is that the owner must give detailed explanations of his kashrut practices to every religious customer who walks in. Some are convinced; others walk out.

"Before there were certificates, kashrut was based on trust," said Topolino's Gini. "But the [rabbinate] system, like any bureaucratic system, always needs to invent more and more rules to strengthen its control over its community. There's a competition over who is stricter, and the customers lose."

But Rafi Yohai, who heads the rabbinate's department for preventing kashrut fraud, takes a dim view of the new trend. "There are many business owners who don't have an official kashrut certificate who mistakenly think the business they run is kosher, when in fact, from the standpoint of Jewish law, the opposite is true," he said. "As a result, the public is misled."