Opinion

How Does a Kashrut Inspector Work 27 Hours a Day?

It’s easy if you belong to an organization dedicated first and foremost to feather bedding and only secondarily to making sure food is kosher

During a shmitta year, supervising kashrut of produce grown by Arab farmers in the village of Baka al-Gharbiyye (2008)
Itzik Ben-Malki

So, you think you spend too much time at the office? Well, meet “A.,” one of Israel’s nearly 4,000 government kashrut inspectors (mashgihim).

According to the official hours he submitted to the local religious council who employs him, he monitors kashrut at no fewer than 18 places where food is sold or served, and puts in a 27-hour day. On top of that, A. also is responsible for kashrut at a hotel on Shabbats.

A. says the official reports are faulty. He told Israel’s state comptroller, whose investigators interviewed him as part of a report released this week on kashrut supervision, that he only supervises 17 businesses and that works out to a mere 24 hours a day.

Even if we assume A. is downing a lot of Red Bull to keep up with his demanding schedule, even the more modest version he offers of his workweek is humanly impossible. We have to assume he is cooking the books, and he’s not alone in that.

In Jerusalem, the state comptroller found, 10% of the mashgihim claimed to work more than 16 hours a day, and good number of those were claiming workdays of 20-24 hours.

Unkosher system

Israel’s system of kashrut inspection is badly in need of a cleanup. A government monopoly, it’s notoriously inefficient, corrupt and costly.

One estimate puts the cost of supervision at 2.8 billion shekels ($780 million) a year. It’s riddled with conflicts of interest because the businesses that are supervised pay the mashgihim directly. The mashgihim themselves are more often than not unqualified (only a third nationwide have a professional certificate) and there is a lot of evidence that that actual supervision is poor, because mashgihim don’t put in enough time or effort in their jobs.

All this requires big changes and the Chief Rabbinate, which more or less has authority over this mess, earlier this month proposed a package of reforms, including ending the practice of mashgihim being paid by the people they’re supposed to be supervising.

The sign with blue letters on the picture's left is the sought-after certificate of kashrut.
Eyal Toueg

Jobs for the guys

But the bigger issue is Haredi featherbedding. Reading between the lines of the state comptroller’s report what emerges is that the kashrut establishment isn’t about ensuring that food is sources and prepared according to halakha, so much as its about creating employment for ultra-Orthodox men.

And it’s not just kashrut. Rabbinical courts, local religious councils, institutional and army rabbis, and burial services all employ Haredi Jews to serve the secular or less-religious majority. Education is another place where artificial employment is common.

In 1979, 13.8% of Haredi men were employed in ultra-Orthodox schools; by 2011, the figure had ballooned to 21.5%.

That's more than five times the percentage of secular men working in secular schools. 

This job market is perfectly legal, but it's funded by taxpayers. from budgets obtained by blackmailing the government. The result is a near monopoly for ultra-Orthodox men, who are the only ones with the qualifications to fill these jobs.

Like the kashrut establishment, these employers operate with little or no transparency or management systems, enabling them to engage is massive featherbedding, nepotism and self-dealing. Many of the jobs are nothing less than disguised unemployment.

The gravy train for women

Haredi women don’t have much access to this world of make-work, which is ironic because they are more often than not the family breadwinner to enable their husbands to live a life of religious study. There are only 12 female kashrut inspectors and they were hired only when the issue was brought to court.

However, women have their own gravy train. They can work in education, which is state-funded but not very much state-supervised. There the Haredi community has created jobs aplenty: The number of teachers employed in ultra-Orthodox schools nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010 while the number of students increased just 65%. 

The gap was particularly pronounced at the preschool level, where professional qualifications are looser, making it easier for institutions to create jobs.

No doubt the ultra-Orthodox community looks at this system as another way of keeping their society of learners, in which a life of religious study for adult men is idealized in place of work, afloat financially. Child allowances and stipends for yeshiva students can only go so far. The option of working at a real job is both loathsome and impractical, since few ultra-Orthodox men have enough secular education to get one. The next best thing is to create needless jobs and staff them with needy Haredim.

For the rest of Israel, however, this is an intolerable state of affairs.

The corruption and waste it entails is like a tax on consumers that artificially raises the price of food or getting your loved ones buried. It gives ultra-Orthodox males another way to avoid acquiring the skills needed to work in the real job market and contribute to the economy and society.

The conventional wisdom is that financial pressures are finally driving Haredi men into the workforce. Government allowances have been cut back and there are fewer and fewer people in the community capable of earning enough money to support the rest who don’t.

But a lot of this growth in Haredi employment is fictitious, like A.’s 27-hour days. The Haredim are only taking real jobs kicking and screaming, and the minute the government puts down the stick, as it has since the last government was formed, they are quick to drop out of the workforce.

The 8% to 10% of the population that constitutes the society of learners is already a drag on the economy, that we increasingly can’t afford. If population trends stay as they are, Haredim will be a quarter or more of Israel in a few decades. At that point how many mashgihim can we have on the payroll?