A Tiny Winery Takes on the Rabbinate's Kosher Monopoly

By taking on kashrut supervision for a winery near the Ramon Crater, the Masorti Movement is testing its ability to challenge the Orthodox monopoly over a lucrative line of business.

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Last week, when workers at the Rujum winery in Mitzpeh Ramon were busy picking the first ripened grapes of the season and putting them through a crusher, Shoshana Dann was standing by, making sure nobody had pulled out a sandwich or any other snack that might contain non-kosher ingredients.

A few months from now, when the young wine gets transferred from large vats to wooden barrels for further fermentation, she’ll be back to oversee that the commandments of ma’aser and terumah, or tithing, which according to halakha ‏(traditional religious law‏) require giving away a portion of agricultural produce grown in Israel, are properly fulfilled. In accordance with modern practices, in lieu of the offerings given in ancient times at the Temple, some of the wine residue will be spilled down a drain.

Until then, Dann, who lives in Mitzpeh, plans to poke her head into the winery every so often on weekends to see that the laws prohibiting work on Shabbat are not being violated.

Rujum is a tiny boutique winery opened five years ago in this desert town perched on a ridge overlooking the stunning Ramon Crater. It also happens to be the first in the world to produce wine under the supervision of the Masorti Movement, as the Conservative Movement is called in Israel. Dann, who grew up in Denver, Colorado, is not only the first mashgihah, or kashrut supervisor, to be employed by the Masorti Movement in Israel; she is also the first woman in the country to be employed as such.

Make no mistake about it: These wines are not officially kosher. At least not according to the specifications of the Orthodox-run Rabbinate, which is the sole authority recognized by the state on the matter in Israel. Each bottle of wine produced at Rujum bears an English-language label that states the following: “The wine is produced under the supervision of the Rabbinical Assembly and the Masorti Movement in Israel. The supervision is in accordance with the principles of Jewish religious law ‏(halakha‏), as interpreted by the Masorti Movement. The above-mentioned supervision is not a ‘Kosher certificate.’”

Ziv Spector, a partner in the winery, which produces a minuscule 5,000 bottles a year − the 2011 vintage boasts four dry-red blends, whose prices range from NIS 95 to NIS 108 − prefers to use the affirmative term “kosher by trust” to describe their status.

Like many proprietors of local boutique wineries, he decided to forgo kashrut certification by the Orthodox Rabbinate both because of the high costs involved and the hassle. For small operations like his, the expenses can indeed be prohibitive: A one-time fee of some NIS 5000 for the certification label ‏(regardless of how many bottles are produced‏) and salaries for two full-time kashrut supervisors ‏(one whose job consists primarily of holding the key to the facility so that the owners, who are forbidden to be inside on their own if they are not observant, can enter if they need to‏). Since the Rabbinate prohibits not only non-Jews but also nonobservant Jews from coming into contact with kosher wine or being involved in any aspect of its production, in order to obtain certification, non-observant winemakers are forced to relinquish much of their control over the process and to pay other, observant Jews to do the work instead.

“I always wanted to make wine according to halakha,” says Spector, who is not religiously observant, “but the feeling I always got from the Orthodox Rabbinate was that I’m not Jewish enough, and therefore I can’t touch or go near my own wine.”

So he decided to investigate other channels.

For the Masorti Movement, which has 70 congregations in the country, this first supervision agreement with the Rujum winery is a test case of sorts, to see how far the envelope can be pushed. But Rujum was not the first winery to seek its stamp of approval. About five years ago, Masorti Movement leaders were approached by another winery near Beit Shemesh, expressing many of the same grievances that recently brought Spector to their door. For three-and-a-half years, they sat and deliberated.

“We needed to see if what we were proposing to do is actually legal,” recounts Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, “since it’s against the law for us to give certification that a product is kosher. We also needed to find out if it’s legal to put a label on the bottle that says that the Masorti Movement is providing supervision. The most problematic issue, though, was figuring out our position on employing non-Jews in wine production.”

By the time all this was sorted out, the winery near Beit Shemesh had already lost patience. But by then, the movement already had a document in hand stipulating exactly what was required of Israeli winemakers seeking its stamp of approval.

Obviously, all the ingredients used in the wine must be kosher, and most of the commandments specific to produce grown in the Land of Israel, like ma’aser and terumah, must be observed. Where the Masorti certification requirements part ways with the Orthodox is in determining who can be involved. Orthodox law prohibits anyone who is not religiously observant, not to mention not Jewish, from having contact with the wine or any vessel it’s stored in. The new Masorti specifications do not.

Rabbi Barry Leff, an American immigrant who lives in Jerusalem, headed the team that drafted the rules on behalf of the Masorti Movement. His team decided it was fine for non-Jews to participate in the production of kosher wine, explains Leff, because the reasons they were once barred no longer hold.

“Originally, it was feared that non-Jews, who were idol-worshipers, would use the wine in idolatry rituals, so that’s why they were kept away,” he says. “That’s obviously no longer an issue. The other reason for banning non-Jews was to prevent intermarriage,” by which he presumably means that the rule was intended to avoid the possibility of Jews and Gentiles ever drinking together. “We know that’s not an issue here either.”

The same goes for keeping non-observant Jews away from the winemaking process. “The assumption in the past was that an observant Jew was a trustworthy person,” says Leff. “Today we know there are many observant Jews sitting in jail and many trustworthy Jews who are not observant.”

Although the Masorti rules may be more lax in these areas, they’re far more stringent in others. The new requirements hold that wineries under the movement’s supervision must behave ethically: They must pay their workers a living wage, pay taxes and other fees to the government as required and refrain from unnecessarily polluting the environment and wasting valuable resources, although specific guidelines have not been laid down for the last two points. “For us, there’s more that goes into making something kosher than just the ingredients,” notes Leff. “You have to look at the spirit of the law as well as the letter.”

The new rules, he adds, draw their inspiration from the “Magen Tzedek” certification initiated by the Conservative Movement in the United States two years ago, following disclosures of worker and animal abuse at what was then the country’s largest kosher slaughterhouse, Agriprocessors, in Iowa. This ethical certification, meant to complement the Orthodox kosher certification, has drawn the ire of the Orthodox establishment, which objects to Conservative intervention in matters of kashrut. As of several months ago, no products in the United States carried the Magen Tzedek certification.

Unlike Orthodox kashrut supervisors, their Masorti equivalents in Israel ‏(to date, there’s just Shoshana Dann‏) are not required to take any courses or undergo any certification. The 59-year-old, who lives with her family in Mitzpeh Ramon, where she has been active for years in the local Masorti havura ‏(prayer group‏), was the first person Spector approached when he decided to explore other possibilities for having his wine recognized as kosher, at least in spirit.

Dann, whose main source of income is her work as an administrative assistant at the National Solar Energy Center at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Sde Boker campus, put him in touch with Yizhar Hess, executive director of the Masorti Movement in Israel. “Suddenly I get a call from Yizhar and he asks me, ‘How’d you like to be the first female mashgihah in the country and the first in the Masorti Movement?’” she recalls.

For the Masorti Movement, says Hess, this latest challenge to the Orthodox monopoly on local religious life is not only about who gets to put a label on a food product and what that label should say.

“Wine serves an extremely important function in Jewish religious life,” he notes, “but its production is also subject to the most stringent of Jewish dietary laws, some of which are quite exclusionary, at least according to Orthodox interpretations.”

But is there really a market for wines that will pass muster with the Masorti Movement but not with the Orthodox? Sacks believes so. “What we’ve been hearing from the rabbis we speak with in the U.S. is that they’d love to sell such wine in their synagogue gift shops and make it available to congregants for Passover,” he says. “It’s a great way of promoting the movement and what these guys here are doing. So I have little doubt that there will be demand abroad.”

To date, Rujum sells almost all its production in Israel, but Spector says he’s recently been in contact with U.S. Conservative Movement leaders who have volunteered to help promote his wines in various communities: “Eventually, we plan to expand production to 25,000-30,000 bottles a year, and I definitely see the bulk of that being sold overseas.”

As Leff notes, the potential is not insignificant. “Certainly a greater percentage of the Orthodox [Jews] keep kosher,” he notes, "but in sheer numbers, there are more Conservative Jews in America who keep kosher than there are Orthodox," simply because the total population of Conservative Jews is larger. 

Israel’s Masorti Movement leaders say this is just a first step. They hope to start including other local wineries under their supervision and are already holding discussions with some. The fees they charge for their supervisory services, says Sacks, are nominal − “Truly nominal,” he adds.

The eventual plan is to expand such supervision to local restaurants that would like to be considered kosher and want to be able to demonstrate this to diners, but for whatever reason, are not interested in kosher certification from the Orthodox Rabbinate. “It’s a matter of time before we will be able to do significant expansion,” says Sacks, “but in principle, the decision has been made.”

In response to a query from Haaretz about the Masorti Movement’s decision to undertake its own supervision of wineries, the Chief Rabbinate issued the following statement: “The Chief Rabbinate is authorized by the laws of the State of Israel to determine standards of kashrut and to fine those who attempt to commit fraud in this regard. If it emerges that these products are sold in a way that deceives the public into thinking they are kosher, the Rabbinate is authorized to take action against the producer − from publishing notices aimed at alerting the public to criminal procedures.”

A scene of harvest time at Rujum. Shoshana Dann, above, the first female mashgihah in the country, with Ziv Spector, a partner at the winery.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

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