Conservatives go for ethical hechsher

Rabbi Ethan Seidel of Tiferet Israel, a Conservative congregation in Washington D.C. herds turkeys on an organic farm. ()

Rabbi Ethan Seidel of Tiferet Israel, a Conservative congregation in Washington D.C. herds turkeys on an organic farm. ()

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) – The Conservative movement is poised to take a major step toward establishing a system for using ethical standards to certify the practices of kosher food production.

This weekend, delegates to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s biennial conference in Orlando, Fla., will consider a resolution supporting a “hekhsher tzedek,” or certificate of social justice, to be given to food produced in a manner that meets certain environmental and labor standards, including worker safety and fair wages. The resolution is expected to pass easily.

The proposed certificate will appear alongside already existing kosher certification rather than replace it, say members of the Hekhsher Tzedek Committee, a joint commission of the United Synagogue and the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative movement’s rabbinical arm. It will be an additional way for Jewish consumers to evaluate the food they buy.

The initiative, under development for a year, is the latest illustration of growing Jewish interest in social justice issues. It is the first concrete effort of any major stream to expand the definition of what makes food “fit to eat,” the literal meaning of the word kosher.

A second goal of the initiative is to make kashrut appealing to Jews interested in social justice concerns by demonstrating that the Conservative movement takes both values seriously.

It makes sense that the Conservative movement has taken the lead on the issue, said the director of the project, Rabbi Morris Allen of Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, Minn.

“Conservative Judaism is uniquely positioned,” he said. “We are committed to kashrut, which some other movements might not be, and also committed to social justice. The hekhsher tzedek is that point where halachic intensity meets ethical imperative.”

A similar initiative within the Reform movement to develop Reform standards for ethical food production lost impetus this year, according to Reform sources, while the general attitude within Orthodox circles is that existing, conventional kashrut standards are sufficient.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of the Orthodox Union’s kashrut division, noted that concern for the environment, workers’ rights and animal welfare are all part of biblical and rabbinic law, and it is correct for Jews to be concerned about them. But, he added, it’s not something the religious movements should regulate.

“We believe these issues are more properly and effectively handled by existing federal and state agencies,” he said. “They have the resources, the legal mandate and the expertise to handle it.”

Nigel Savage, executive director of Hazon, a nonprofit dedicated to Jewish environmentalism and social justice issues involving food, applauded the hekhsher tzedek initiative, which he said is a beautiful example of taking existing Jewish law to a higher level.

“In our generation, a growing number of Jews keep kosher and care about ethics, about treating workers fairly, about respecting the land,” he said.

Richard Lederman, the professional at the United Synagogue who is working on the hekhsher tzedek project, said the initiative came about in reaction to last year’s controversy over Agriprocessors, the nation’s largest kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa.

Critics have accused the slaughterhouse of mistreating workers and animals, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cited the plant for safety and sanitary violations. A commission of inquiry established by the Conservative movement visited the plant, and developed a set of environmental and labor standards by which to judge kosher food producers.

Lederman hopes the hekhsher tzedek initiative will spur other movements to launch similar efforts.

“We’re obviously looking for allies,” he said.

Lederman also views it as a way for the Conservative movement to find a new sense of mission.

“We have focused for years on halacha, on ritual and mitzvot. That’s important to our constituents,” he said. “But Conservative Jews are really looking for this social justice lens. This is where the Conservative movement needs to be.”

The hekhsher tzedek will consider issues of workers’ rights and safety, and issues of animal welfare, including how animals are raised and slaughtered. Organic food issues are not yet part of the effort, Lederman said.

The first trial for the new certificate is a yearlong pilot program in Minneapolis-St. Paul. A $50,000 grant from the Nathan Cummings Foundation will be used for outreach in the Conservative community and among kosher food manufacturers in the Midwest, said Lederman. The goal is to get three of those manufacturers certified by the end of 2008.

“We want to be fair, not punish anyone,” he said, adding that the commission is seeking input from workers, consumers and the manufacturers as it develops the certification process. “It won’t be black and white, ‘you fail, you don’t get a hekhsher tzedek.’ ”

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