Yuri Logvinenko was hired as a cook at the Rehovot branch of the Yochananof supermarket chain in early January. A few days after starting his new job, the Russian-speaking immigrant was approached by a kashrut supervisor on the premises who asked whether he was Jewish. Logvinenko responded that he was.
The kashrut supervisor asked to see some official documentation, and Logvinenko replied that although he had none on hand, he could bring in his papers the following day. According to Logvinenko, the supervisor proceeded into the kitchen and informed the staff: “This Russian isn’t going to work here any longer.”
He also told them that he was convinced Logvinenko was “just pretending” to be Jewish.
Logvinenko was subsequently instructed by management to sit in his car until the issue could be “clarified.” He waited there for several hours before receiving permission to go home, where he was told to stay put until further notice.
In the meantime, on his own initiative, Logvinenko sent the kashrut supervisor a copy of his mother’s birth certificate, which proved he was halakhically Jewish – that is, the child of a Jewish mother.
Logvinenko, 44, might have continued waiting around in vain for a call from his employers had Israel Hofsheet (“Be Free Israel”) not gotten wind of his case and taken action. After a few phone calls on Lovginenko’s behalf by the organization, which is dedicated to promoting religious freedom, the cook was notified by his employers that he could return to work – but not to the same job.
He was advised that until the kashrut supervisor issued a final ruling on his Jewishness, Logvinenko would not be allowed to light the stove or the oven in the supermarket kitchen, since, according to the laws of kashrut, non-Jews are forbidden from heating food. Instead, Logvinenko would be demoted to the role of vegetable cutter.
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A few months passed and Logvinenko was slowly allowed to take on other tasks. Assuming it would no longer be a problem, given that he had already provided official documentation of his Jewishness, he began lighting the stove and oven again. “Everyone saw, and everyone knew,” he says. “Even the kashrut supervisor, who didn’t say a word.”
Until he did. Sometime in late March, the kashrut supervisor approached Logvinenko and asked whether he had just lit the oven. Logvinenko responded that he had. “The kashrut supervisor then had a major fit and began shouting, and then the managers came and they also started shouting,” he recounts.
A few weeks later, right after Passover, Logvinenko was fired.
More than 2,100 Israelis have since signed a petition initiated by Israel Hofsheet, expressing their solidarity with Logvinenko and their outrage at Yochananof for cooperating with what the organization terms the “racism” of the Chief Rabbinate – the institution in charge of kashrut supervision in Israel.
Logvinenko has become an unlikely poster child for the religious discrimination long experienced by Russian speakers in Israel.
Guilty as charged
“The only reason Yuri’s Jewishness was called into question was because of his name and his accent,” says Uri Keidar, executive director of the organization, which is a key advocate for the rights of Russian speakers in Israel.
“What’s amazing is that a business just decides that if a kashrut supervisor tells them someone isn’t Jewish, that they’re not going to stand behind their employee. In other words, he’s guilty until proven otherwise.”
Nearly 430,000 Israeli citizens, or almost 5 percent of the total population, fall under the rather bizarre demographic category known as “other” or “no religion” – as defined by the Central Bureau of Statistics and the Population Registry. Almost all of them are immigrants or children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Although they are eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return, either because they are married to a Jew or had a Jewish grandparent, they are not accepted as Jewish by the country’s religious authorities. As a result, they are denied certain basic rights. First and foremost, they cannot legally marry in Israel because all marriages are handled by the relevant religious authorities and the Rabbinate, which authorizes marriages among Jews, does not recognize them as Jewish.
Logvinenko, however, was not an “other” but rather bona fide Jewish, according to the halakhic definition, and had the documentation to prove it. In fact, he had previously worked as a cook in various yeshiva cafeterias, and had even been employed as a cook at the Jerusalem branch of Yochananof before being transferred, at his own request, to Rehovot. His Jewish or his professional credentials were never questioned at any of these places, he says. But that didn’t help him either.
His case first came to public attention in a news story broadcast on Israel’s Channel 12 back in March. This was after Logvinenko had been demoted to vegetable cutter but before he had been sacked. Yochananof – a publicly traded company with 27 branches and a market capitalization of 1.8 billion shekels ($520 million) – was not happy with the publicity, to put it mildly. It responded with a 572,000-shekel libel suit against Israel Hofsheet and its chief executive, Keidar.
Asked for comment, supermarket spokeswoman Naama Zellner said that Logvinenko was fired “for professional reasons alone.”
She added: “Our suit against Israel Hofsheet was filed in mid-March after a nasty campaign on social media sparked by the Channel 12 report” – a reference to the petition as well as statements and press releases published by the organization in Logvinenko’s defense. “The campaign launched by Israel Hofsheet was meant to damage our reputation and is libelous,” she said.
Anyone “with eyes in their head,” Zellner said, could see that Yochananof was an equal opportunity employer, contrary to allegations published by Israel Hofsheet.
Logvinenko is being represented pro bono by S. Horowitz, one of Israel’s top law firms. “This is not the first case in which a worker in Israel is being told he can’t light a fire in a kosher facility because he isn’t Jewish,” says Ran Feldman, one of the firm’s lawyer who volunteered to take on the case. “But in this case, Yuri provided proof that he was Jewish, and the whole interrogation he underwent was done very publicly, in violation of his right to privacy.”
Asked why he had offered to represent Logvinenko on a pro bono basis, Feldman explained: “We choose our battles, and we believe this battle justifies it.”
Typically, kashrut supervisors are employed by local religious councils. But when asked to comment on Logvinenko’s case, the head of the religious council in Rehovot said his city was an exception, thereby insinuating that it bore no responsibility for the cook’s dismissal.
“The person who questioned this man about his Jewishness was not an official kashrut supervisor [“mashgiach”], but rather a ‘kashrut trustee’ subcontracted by Yochananof from a manpower company,” said Eldad Gadasi, chairman of the Rehovot religious council. “He did not have the authority to ask the questions that he did of this worker.”
Gadasi added that the religious council had never demanded that Logvinenko be fired.
Yochananof spokeswoman Zellner confirmed that the kashrut supervisor who had questioned Logvinenko did indeed come from a manpower company, but that he was someone “the Rabbinate told us to hire.”
Born in Ukraine, Logvinenko moved to Israel in 1998, where he was professionally trained as an institutional cook. He lives with his partner in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Rehovot. Unemployed since he was fired by Yochananof in April, he says he is struggling to find a new job.
“I’ve applied to a few places, but the kashrut supervisors already know who I am and give me funny looks, and potential employers think I’ll be a troublemaker,” he says. “I probably won’t have a choice but to switch professions if I want to continue working.”