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Conservative Movement Serving Up Kosher Fare with Side of Social Justice

The Jewish community’s increased concern for social justice may soon be translated to the food Conservative Jews put on their tables. A joint commission of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly is working to create a tzedek hechsher, a certification for food produced in a socially just way, particularly with regard to safe, fair working conditions.

The label would be used in addition to traditional kosher certification.

If the label is approved at the Rabbinical Assembly’s April convention in Cambridge, Mass., it would represent the first such national attempt by any Jewish stream. The commission’s initial reports have been unanimously approved by the assembly’s executive committee and United Synagogue’s national board.

“As Jews, we need to understand our responsibility to the people who produce the food we eat,” said commission head Rabbi Morris Allen of Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, Minn.

The new label isn’t intended to replace existing kosher certification, which is under Orthodox supervision, but it constitutes a broader definition of kosher food that incorporates ideas of social justice from the Torah and Talmud.

Allen said that includes paying attention not only to what kinds of food are consumed and how the food is prepared — including minimizing the pain caused to an animal during slaughtering — but also how those who produce the food are treated: Are they paid appropriately? Are their working conditions safe? Is their dignity as human beings respected?

“I believe most Jews who are serious about kashrut as a means for sanctifying the world in which we live are concerned that both the product and the means by which it is produced” are in keeping with Jewish values, Allen said.

Allen’s five-member commission was created this summer in response to an article in the Forward detailing unsafe and unfair labor practices at the AgriProcessors kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa. The plant employs nearly 800 workers, most of them Hispanic migrants.

The commission visited the AgriProcessors plant in August and September, found violations of health and safety standards and shared those findings with the plant’s owners.

Allen said there has been “some progress” in addressing those problems, but “more needs to be made.”

Earlier in the year, Allen had asked AgriProcessors owner Sholom Rubashkin to produce more non-glatt kosher meat for his Conservative constituents. That relationship helped the two discuss labor conditions, Allen said.

“We believe engagement between one Jew and another can lead to a positive impact on the lives of the people who produce the food we are eating,” he said.

The tzedek hechsher initiative is not the first time Jewish groups have broached the idea of incorporating Jewish ethics into notions of kashrut.

The 20-year-old eco-kashrut movement popularized by Rabbi Arthur Waskow and other Jewish Renewal leaders, known as kosher vegetarianism, and Reform support for Caesar Chavez’s boycott of non-union grapes and lettuce three decades ago came from a similar impetus.

A number of Reform rabbis, emboldened by their movement’s 1999 platform that opened the door to greater ritual observance, are working on new ideas of “Reform kashrut” that would include respect for workers’ rights along with sustainable agriculture and other elements of social justice.

But the Reform movement is “not nearly as far along” as the Conservative movement in terms of translating discussion into action, said Rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman, director of the department of worship, music and religious living at the Union for Reform Judaism.

“Probably in the next year or two you’ll see something, but I’m not sure we’re headed in the direction of creating our own hechsher,” or kosher certification, she said.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of kashrut for the Orthodox Union, said that concern for worker’s rights and animal welfare “are worthy goals,” but trying to create certification for such things within the context of kosher food production “is a little bit subjective.”

“There’s not always an absolute standard of what’s the right thing to do,” he said.

If the Conservative movement is able to develop such certification, “that would be fine,” Genack said, “but if it’s going to be accepted by people, it has to be clearly defined.”

Rabbi Joel Meyers, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, acknowledged the difficulty of setting and monitoring such standards, but said that shouldn’t stand in the way of trying to do so. He said he has received “very good feedback” about the idea from Conservative lay leaders.

“They want to know the kosher food they’re buying is produced in an ethical way,” Meyers said.

Kosher food producers have been receptive to the idea as well, he noted.

“No one has said, ‘we don’t care,’ ” Meyers said. “The question has always been how to do it, the costs involved.”

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