Jewish leaders are paying particularly close attention to developments in Jerusalem following this week’s announcement that Israel's Religious Services Ministry is actively working to end the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on kosher certification.
No major community's leaders have officially weighed in on the contentious issue so far, and several who spoke to Haaretz said that they were waiting to see how the proposed plan would affect their communities’ access to kosher food. But particularly in many smaller Diaspora markets, imports from Israel make up an important part of the food that Jews consume.
Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana announced plans on Tuesday to privatize the system of certification of kosher food in the country, sparking outrage at the Chief Rabbinate and among ultra-Orthodox politicians. The dramatic move would create competition among private companies to manage the certification system, while the Rabbinate’s supervisory body would continue inspecting businesses to make sure they meet halakhic standards of kashrut. Today, businesses may only call themselves kosher if they are certified by the religious councils, the executive branch of the Chief Rabbinate.
Calling the current system “sick,” Kahana said the new arrangement would drive down the cost of living because business owners would display a single kashrut certificate from a private company rather than the current two – one from the Chief Rabbinate and another from a private inspector.
Rabbi David Stav's Tzohar organization currently provides kosher certification services outside of the Rabbinate, but its certificates cannot legally use the term "kosher." As Stav sees it, the competition envisioned in the new plan would not only help strengthen the level of kashrut in Israel but also drive down the cost of food, particularly of imports into Israel of kosher products certified abroad. With the exception of meat, under the plan, kosher food would be able to be imported for sale in Israel by private agencies.
The plan could potentially also lead to lower prices for Israeli goods sold abroad. Kosher stores in Europe, North America and Australia all sell Israeli products, which are especially crucial in smaller markets. Rabbi Moché Lewin, the vice president of the Conference of European Rabbis and an adviser to French Chief Rabbi Haïm Korsia, declined to comment on the kashrut plan itself but told Haaretz that changes in kashrut in Israel “affect all the Jewish people all over the world.”
“We need to be patient,” he cautioned.
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“It’s a huge issue for us,” agreed Aron Verstandig, the head of the Council of Swedish Jewish Communities. “Our rabbi and people handling kosher imports are following the situation. For us, it’s important that there is a big supply of kosher supply of products from Israel and other European countries,” he explained. “It’s very important for us and other medium-sized communities in the Diaspora.”
One community whose leaders appear keen on the reform is that of Hungary. Speaking with Haaretz by phone from Budapest, Rabbi Peter Deutsch —who works on issues of kashrut on behalf of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities (Mazsihisz)— predicted an uptick in exports of kosher food to Israel should Kahana succeed.
"Many companies in Hungary are interested in preparing kosher food and exporting to Israel but it’s expensive to work with the rabbinate," he explained, noting that the religious bureaucracy refuses to accept the kashrut of food certified in his country due to a denominational split.
The Mazsihisz is affiliated with the Neolog movement, an independent denomination unique to Hungary, which falls somewhere between Conservative Judaism and Modern Orthodoxy.
"They don't come to check us because they say we're Neolog so we don't know the halakha," he said, using the Hebrew word for Jewish religious law. "We [observe] the same level of kashrut as the Rabbinate. We [observe] the Shulhan Arukh [a foundational Jewish legal code]."
"I hope this law will change a lot of things," he added.
According to a 2016 draft Finance Ministry report, about 2.8 billion shekels ($850 million) a year is spent on kashrut supervision fees in Israel. A State Comptroller’s report issued the following year lambasted the current system as corrupt and marked by conflicts of interest due to the fact that restaurants, among others, pay the salaries of government inspectors. But some Jewish community leaders have expressed concern over the possibility that a proliferation of kashrut certification agencies could cause confusion and weaken standards.
“I only wonder what the ultimate goal is,” Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Yaakov Bleich told Haaretz. “If it will strengthen kashrut standards, then it is a great idea. However, from what I understand, it will weaken standards of kashrut and remove oversight. When someone goes to a store and sees rabbanut [Rabbinate], they immediately know the standards of kashrut. With individuals, there can be many corners cut,” he warned.
“The rabbanut is not a for-profit business. I don’t think that they are charging too much money [but] that is what is causing this move. I think that there are people who are trying to weaken the Rabbinate, and this is one of their means of doing it,” Bleich said.
For his part, Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich said he doesn’t know how the proposed plan would affect consumers in his country. While acknowledging that it appears logical that prices would go down, he said he is “far more concerned about lowering the standard of kashrut.” When it comes to the relationship between Israel's Chief Rabbinate and European rabbis who provide local kashrut certification services, Schudrich said he doubts much would change.
“For those rabbis who already have a working relationship with the Chief Rabbinate, I don’t see that on a practical level changing very much, if at all,” he said. “I have a long-term close working relationship with the Rabbinate going back almost 20 years, and when I write a report, it’s accepted and so I don’t see any reason why I should do it differently.”
In a statement, the London-based Federation of Synagogues told Haaretz that it “was concerned that the proposed changes could lead to a decline in the standard of kosher supervision and make the provision of products for communities in the U.K. and Europe more challenging.”
“We hope that standards will be maintained so the kosher consumer can continue to have confidence in the products coming from Israel,” the group said.
If the costs of Israeli products go down, it will make it easier for Jews abroad to consume and support Israeli businesses, said Dani Klein, the author of the kosher food blog Yeah That’s Kosher. "Hopefully that’ll translate into a visible uptick in Israeli exports," he said.
American Jews are already confused about the existing kashrut system, but changing the status quo won’t make it any less confusing, Klein predicted. He urged that a concise guide to the new system in a number of languages be produced.
For his part, Menachem Lubinsky, who founded the annual Kosherfest trade fair for the kosher food industry in the United States, said most of the Israeli products that are sold in the United States are also certified kosher by an American certification organization. The Israeli Chief Rabbinate's certification, he said, has always been confusing for American consumers of kosher products, he said, and predicted that the new plan would have no no effect on the American or Canadian kosher markets.
JTA and Reuters contributed to this report.