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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The battle over kosher Jerusalem

Five Jerusalem restaurants are taking the city’s chief rabbinate to court after being fined between NIS 1,000 and NIS 2,000 for calling themselves kosher without formal certification from the rabbinate.

“This is harassment and revenge of the rabbinate against us without any reason or legal basis,” said Shai Gini, a co-owner of the Italian dairy restaurant Topolino in Mahane Yehuda, which was fined NIS 2,000, but does not call itself kosher in any of its materials or in the restaurant itself.

The five restaurants — Topolino, Rehavia’s Carousela cafe, HaSalon Shabazi in Nachlaot, Indian restaurant Ichikidana and the recently opened Adon Cohen in Talpiot — are being represented by attorney Aviad HaCohen, a lawyer for The Jerusalemite Movement social action organization, which is footing the bill for the lawsuit. The organization has been fighting the rabbinate with events called “Mash(g)iah Lo Ba,” (The kosher supervisor isn’t coming) in its effort to find a practical alternative to the rabbinate’s monopoly over kosher certification.

The rabbinate did not respond to calls, but according to Omri Sheinfeld, spokesman for The Jerusalemite Movement, the rabbinate was basing its fines on the references made to the restaurants’ kosher status on the Internet.

“The restaurants have a strong case because the law is written very simplistically, which makes it very open,” explained Sheinfeld. “The very first paragraph of the law states that if the restaurant doesn’t have a sign calling itself kosher, that’s okay. That simplifies the argument to be made in court.”

According to Sheinfeld, the organization had been waiting to see how the rabbinate would respond after their Friday protest several weeks earlier. It was a risky move for the rabbinate to slap fines on the restaurants, mused Sheinfeld, because if the rabbinate loses the case, it could change the entire face of the kosher certification industry.   “The rabbinate is very biased about how it decides to enforce the law,” said Sheinfeld. “In the haredi neighbohroods, there are quite a few restaurants that don’t have Jerusalem rabbinate certification. They have more stringent certifications, but they’re supposed to have Jerusalem rabbinate in addition to all the rest. It’s a double standard.”

The Chief Rabbinate’s office did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, but Yechiel Spira, an Orthodox Jerusalemite who writes the Jerusalem Kosher News blog in an effort to warn locals and visitors about various nonkosher foods and restaurants masquerading as kosher, said just because certain restaurants don’t hang up their Jerusalem rabbinate certification doesn’t mean they don’t have it. In certain neighborhoods, the clientele seeks particular kinds of higher kosher certification, whether Badatz, Mehadrin, or that of a community rabbi.

“Hanging out the Jerusalem rabbinate certification won’t add to their business,” said Spira. “They may have it and be operating legally or may not, and then they will fall prey to the same issues.”

There are problems with the current rabbinate certification system, acknowledged Spira. The system that worked when it was first set up during the establishment of the state doesn’t work now, he said.

“Israel is a much different place today and the rabbinate system has failed to maintain itself as an organ of supervision,” said Spira, referring to the rabbinate’s mashgihim, or kosher supervisors. “People are getting paid and not doing what they’re paid to do, but you can’t destroy the entire system.”
The rabbinate, said Sheinfeld, believes the case has to do with their kosher supervisors, who aren’t seen as sympathetic characters. For the Jerusalemites organization, however, the decision has been to declare war and ultimately change the law.

“The ones paying the price are these restaurants, they’re the pioneers,” said Sheinfeld. “But it will become a national issue and will continue to be. Our lawyer says it will go all the way to the Supreme Court because each side has a legitimate side to appeal.”

No court date has been set yet.

“This is happening now because people are not doing what they’re getting paid to do,” said Spira, referring to the kosher inspectors. “I don’t think this is going away.”

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