The owner of a Jerusalem teahouse says the municipality’s religious body nearly doubled his bill for kashrut certification after the establishment moved to larger quarters a month ago.
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Halita’tea has attracted a heterogeneous clientele since it first opened four years ago, near the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. Ultra-Orthodox Jews in traditional garb, miniskirted art students and others came to drink tea and to eat salads, sandwiches and shakshuka.
Around a month ago, in the face of massive renovations to the building as well as a desire to expand the business, Halita’tea relocated to a larger space across the street.
“And then it all really began,” says Gabriel Piamenta, the owner of the teahouse. After the move, he says, the Jerusalem Religious Council doubled his bill for the kashrut supervision and certification needed to attract customers who strictly observe Jewish dietary law. Piamenta says the body acted without just cause, in the best case, and out of racism or bigotry in the worst.
“For four years we had a kashrut certificate, no one threatened it from the Chief Rabbinate,” Piamenta says, referring to the national religious body to which the local religious councils report.
“We passed every inspection, from the supervisor to the inspector, and then over time what happened is that the [kashrut] supervisor would come and because the place is really simple, saw there was nothing to do,” says Piamenta. “Then he began coming less, and when he did come, the visit was shortened from an hour to half an hour, and very quickly they came once a month to collect the check, and that’s all.”
“In the end, the situation was that the supervisor came and didn’t even enter the kitchen,” he added.
As a joke, Piamenta says he posted on his Facebook page a “missing persons” announcement for the kashrut supervisor, facetiously asking for help from concerned citizens to locate the man.
When Halita’tea moved across the street, to 5 Hillel St. from number 6, the kashrut inspector returned, and asked if the new teahouse would also be kosher. Piamenta said “definitely,” and showed him around. “It was all identical to the previous place, just a bit larger,” Piamenta says.
“We agreed on the same price, but he explained that we needed to renew the kashrut certificate because of the new location,” Piamenta relates. “Later a new supervisor came who said the certificate with the new address would arrive within a week. Two weeks passed, I saw the certificate had not come and at the same time I couldn’t get hold of the inspector on the phone, so I asked the supervisor, who advised me to talk to the inspector because there was a problem,” says Piamenta.
According to Piamenta, he never had trouble with the kashrut certificate in the past, and the problem seems to have started when the new supervisor saw his business partner, Leon Schwartz, and noticed male employees who were not wearing kippot.
Later, the supervisor told Piamenta over the telephone that he needed to raise the price: “I met your Russian partner, he doesn’t look right to me. You’re a good guy and we know you, but we don’t know your Russian partner Leon, and that’s a problem,”said the supervisor, according to Piamenta.
Piamenta says the supervisor next mentioned the restaurant’s dishwasher, saying that the man was Ethiopian and not Jewish and referring to him with a derogatory term. Piamenta says that when he tried to explain that the dishwasher does not deal with food, the supervisor told him there was a problem because a supervisor could not always be present to monitor the situation.
In addition, Piamenta says, the supervisor noted that the restaurant was now larger and made more money. “It’s no secret that the nonreligious pay more for the same kashrut certificate,” Piamenta says the supervisor told him.
Piamenta says that at this point, his conversation with the supervisor became a negotiation over the price. When Piamenta asked for a final number, he says the supervisor told him “we would start to raise the price gradually until we reached an amount that was acceptable to us.”
According to Piamenta, he understood then that the rabbinate was just trying to see how much money it could make and was doing whatever it felt like.
As to whether he should have needed to pay more because the restaurant was bigger, Piamenta says a larger place pays higher property taxes, of course, but size has nothing to do with the kashrut certificate. It was just greed, not any more work, nothing had changed, he says. And now he is losing money because without a kashrut certificate, many of his customers will no longer eat there.
Piamenta says he and his partner are looking for alternative kashrut supervision, and are seriously considering switching to Hashgacha Pratit, a well-known private kashrut supervision service. This would not be any cheaper, and he would lose some customers who insisted on certification from the rabbinate, but it is a matter of principle, Piamenta says.
The Jerusalem Religious Council did not respond to requests to comment on this report.