Kosher problems hit Central Europe

BUDAPEST, April 16 (JTA) — Central European Jews are facing a shortage of rabbinical supervisors to certify a growing need for kosher products.

“Our capacity is not enough to fulfill all the demands, which are coming not only from Hungary, but also from other countries, like Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland,” said Hermann Fixler, president of Hungary’s Orthodox Jewish community.

“In the last 15 years, we imported a supervisor from Israel,” Hungarian-born Rabbi Aron Hofmann, who “cannot fulfill this job alone,” Fixler said.

But he added that there should be enough Passover matzah, as they have certified more than 22,000 pounds of matzah that was baked in the community’s own bakery in what used to be an Orthodox Jewish enclave in downtown Budapest before World War II.

With approximately 100,000 Jews, the Hungarian community is the largest in Central Europe.

Part of the kosher certification problem stems from the fact that Hungary’s official Jewish community doesn’t want to yield its monopoly over the process.

The Orthodox Union, one of the major certifier of kosher products in the United States, is willing to come into Hungary — and their service will be cheaper, said Peter Tordai, the president of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities.

Indeed, Hungarian producers are sending some honey samples to the New York offices of the O.U.

But that possibility doesn’t seem to be materializing.

“The O.U. cannot do anything without us; it’d be against the law,” said Fixler.

In Prague, the situation is different.

Only about 40 people out of an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 Jews strictly observe the laws of kashrut.

But up to 1,200 kosher meals a week are served at the city’s official Jewish institutions — which include a school, a kindergarten and a retirement home — to ensure that virtually everyone in the community can eat what’s placed on the tables.

It’s simply not enough to generate a healthy home market because many products have to be imported from abroad. That poses a headache for the country’s chief rabbi, Karol Sidon, who ensures that kosher rules are kept in the community.

“The assortment of kosher food available in the Czech Republic is very small,” said Sidon. “Our main problem is with the production of dairy products. You can’t force some dairy factory to produce something kosher when there is no demand in the market. It is just not worth it for the supplier.”

Prague’s kashrut supervisor, Jakub Svab, who searches for food that could be potentially stamped as kosher and supervises the import of food from abroad, agreed.

“Everybody sometimes has a problem getting kosher food here,” he said. “Basic foods are more or less available, whether it is by production or import. But dealing with food with a shorter shelf life is difficult because often deliveries are not possible for economic reasons.”

Even producing kosher meat at home is not a cheap option for Prague’s Jewish community, who have to bring in a shochet, or ritual slaughterer, from Vienna or Budapest several times a year.

“We would like to have meat the whole year,” said Svab. “It costs more to bring someone from abroad, but at least it is only a few times a year.”

There’s a double sting for Czech Jews who opt to import kosher food. Prague’s low cost of living means that even something as straightforward as a packet of soft cheese brought from Austria can cost two or three times as much as its Czech nonkosher equivalent.

To add insult to injury, a further 5 to 15 percent is added on in import duties.

Czech Jewish leaders have already approached the Czech Customs Office in an effort to have taxes reduced on kosher imports, and they remain hopeful that special waivers may be introduced that will cut overall costs.

But the real problem remains — how to supply local supermarkets with standard kosher food? Although some products such as milk, butter and white yogurt are available on the regular market, many items can’t be eaten by the Jewish community because ingredients are either unsuitable or labels fail to specify what the food contains.

“The problem is the search for kosher foods,” said Svab. “Czech labeling rules, for example, allow vegetable fats to be declared as “vegetable” when they can contain 22% lard. It is necessary to treat information on products with caution.”

Finding kosher food is far from easy.

“For example, in Brooklyn or Israel you can get kosher food anywhere, and the only problem is looking at the stamp of kashrut,” said Prague businessman Jan Gunsberger,.

“When parents are out with their children and they want ice cream or sweets, they can have whatever they want. Here you can’t go to a regular shop and just buy kosher food.

“I can’t even produce things like chocolates or soy sauce because to do so you have to have enough customers.”

Gunsberger, who serves about 3,000 meals a month in his strictly kosher restaurant King Solomon’s in Prague’s Jewish Quarter, believes a radical change in approach is necessary to draw greater numbers of Jews to the community.

“At the moment, the Jewish community here uses only standard kosher food. The only way to attract more Jewish people to Prague is to create a modern Jewish ghetto with fancy and traditional shops and to provide a higher standard of kosher food.

“It is more expensive to produce, but if there were 3,000 people eating the highest level of kosher food regularly there would be no problem as prices would come down, perhaps to the level of standard kosher,” he added.

At the same time, the Hungarian kosher market faces the possibility of expansion, both at home and abroad.

“There are dozens of wine producers in Hungary who want to join the kosher market,” said Tordai, whose own company is involved in selling kosher wine to large chains in Hungary.

One of the best examples of the growing interest for Hungarian kosher products is the Zwack Unicum liquor company’s plum brandy.

“There is a growing need now not only from the Jewish, but also from the non-Jewish population for our kosher brandy, as we sell them to big chains and a number of hotels and restaurants as well,” said Eva Schleicher, the company’s deputy general director.

Hungarian kosher meat producers are also trying to enter the American kosher market, said an official with Hungary’s Agricultural Ministry.

The ministry recently set up a special department to aid kosher production and export from Hungary.

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