A Slice of Pluralism: The Pizza Place That Took on Israel's Rabbinate

More restaurateurs are getting the guts to fight the corruption behind kashrut supervisors’ salaries

A kashrut certificate on display.
Emil Salman

If restauranteurs and owners of food establishments until now had accepted Chief Rabbinate orders as holy, it seems they no longer fear waging war on the institution and challenging its decisions.

In certain instances, like the case of the Yaar Hacacao chocolate boutique, the business keeps its kashrut certificate after discussions with the supervisor. In other cases, like that of the Halita’tea teahouse, the business loses its certificate after refusing to surrender to the rabbinate’s conditions. In the case of Bertolucci, an Italian restaurant and pizzeria in Zichron Yaakov, the owner fought a flour-filled war against the local religious council.

Bertolucci, a pizzeria with an Italian stone oven, was opened over a year ago in the center of town, abutting its pedestrian mall. The owner, Berto Sa’adayev, who dedicates a significant amount of his time to the community, describes himself as “Haredi secular.” He says he feels connected to the entire Zichron Ya’akov community, including its traditional, religious and Haredi residents. When he decided to open his restaurant at the beginning of this year, it would no doubt be kosher in every respect.

“Even though the business is located in the town center right next to the pedestrian mall, I still decided not to open it on Shabbat,” says Sa’adayev. “My acquaintances said I would be crazy not to open on Shabbat because I am ‘losing’ all the tourists visiting Zichron on the weekend, but I saw myself opening a local restaurant, open to the locals. I’m not losing out on tourists.”

Sa’adayev says he decided to open an Italian place that would be slightly different from regular pizzerias and Italian restaurants. “I was looking to open a place that would really look like home,” he says.

Berto Sa’adayev.
Gil Eliahu

Zichron has a lot of traditional restaurants and a small number of Haredi Jews. “Although the Haredi population here is economically negligible, and won’t decide the place’s fate, I still decided to make it strictly kosher so it’d be open to all,” he says. “I even brought special ice cream from Jaffa, which is under strict supervision although it is owned by an Arab Christian (Victory ice cream),” notes Sa’adayev, who included an ice cream parlor section in the back of his restaurant. Sa’adayev points out none of the other Zichron ice cream shops are certified kosher because they are open on Shabbat. “Haredim who are strict about Jewish law won’t step into an ice cream shop that is open on Shabbat on any day of the week,” he says.

Sa’adayev says he hoped to find a solution that would suit everyone in a pizzeria and ice cream parlor that would appeal to both secular and Haredi Jews. Then along came the rabbinate.

“In March, a month before the place opened, I turned to the Zichron Yaakov religious council to arrange the kashrut,” recalls Sa’adayev. “I met with a young guy responsible for the kashrut supervisors, and he gave me documents with all the laws and conditions that need to be kept for the business to be strictly kosher,” he says, using the term “Mehadrin” for “strictly kosher.”

“It’s enough with regular kashrut for the supervisor to show up once a month and go,” he says. “Mehadrin is more stringent, not only in the more frequent supervisor visits but also in the basic products they use, like vegetables, lettuce, flour and other raw materials, without exception.”

'Nothing under the table'

Sa’adayev recalls asking how much it would cost to comply with all the requirements, and when the young man said he’d have to pay an annual fee as well as for the supervisor, he got suspicious when the representative answered by insisting that “nothing was done under the table.” He then learned he had to pay the supervisor 37 shekels per hour plus benefits, as if he were an employee. Although the supervisor would come 3-4 times a week, maybe 20 minutes each time, which he calculated would cost about 120 shekels a month, the religious council told him two months later he would have to pay 800 shekels a month. When he asked why, the council answered that is the standard fee for pizzerias.

Saadayev says he tried to check around if his case was exceptional, but meanwhile the council started pressuring him to start paying the supervisor’s salary. Eventually, the council informed him while he was abroad that if he didn’t pay up by July 31, it would rescind his kashrut certificate on August 1, which is what happened. He says he turned to the chairman of the religious council after he returned in mid-August and explained the situation, but the chairman simply confirmed that the fee was standard for pizzerias. The rabbinate later informed him that the decision was final and they would not give him a new kashrut certificate under any circumstances. He adds that that was the point, when not paying the rabbinate anything became a principle for him.

Last Thursday, the rabbinate published an announcement in the local paper that he had lost his kashrut certification. Sa’adayev retaliated by cutting off all contact with the local council and posting the announcement on his Facebook page alongside pictures of the kashrut certification of his ingredients.

Saadayev says he has held onto 99 percent of his clientele.

His next move is to obtain an alternative kashrut certificate, and after he does he plans to turn to other local businesses with rabbinate certification to lobby them to switch, too.

“Many people know me because of my activities but also because I’m not afraid to say what I think,” he says. “It’s only the end of the first chapter. The story isn’t over.”

Yosef Peretz, secretary of the Zichron Yaakov religious council, commented: “He is trying to give us a bad name, and we have no intention of adorning the news pages (with a response). We (the rabbinate) continue to provide service according to the law to anyone interested.”