Conservatives’ Kosher Initiative Launches High Holidays Drive

Leaders of the Conservative movement’s ethical kashrut certification program are taking their campaign to the next level.

They are inviting Conservative rabbis to sign onto the Hekhsher Tzedek initiative, meeting with at least one Orthodox kosher certification agency and making initial overtures to selected kosher food producers that might seek the new certification.

“We are moving this forward in the American Jewish community in a very powerful yet sensitive fashion,” said Rabbi Morris Allen of Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, Minn., Hekhsher Tzedek’s project director.

“Doors have opened,” he said, since the Hekhsher Tzedek guidelines were released July 31, outlining five areas of ethical and environmental standards against which kosher food producers are to be measured. “People want to talk to us more.”

E-mails were sent the week of Aug. 25 to the 1,600 members of the Rabbinical Assembly, the professional association of Conservative rabbis, inviting them to partner with Hekhsher Tzedek in a High Holidays drive.

The e-mail asked rabbis to address Hekhsher Tzedek in their High Holidays sermons, and includes a model sermon and teaching materials. It also commits those who sign on to buy products carrying the Hekhsher Tzedek seal once it is applied, a process that could begin as early as January, according to project co-chair Rabbi Michael Siegel of Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago.

“There’s been a very positive response,” Siegel said. “Rabbis have been looking for a way to get more involved.”

The materials are being made available to rabbis from other denominations, although the e-mail was sent only to Conservative rabbis.

Rabbi Barry Starr of Temple Israel in Sharon, Mass., received the appeal Aug. 29. Noting that he has already done “a lot of outreach” about Hekhsher Tzedek within his congregation, Starr said he would “mention” it during the holidays, but it “will not be the sole theme of my sermon.”

“Many of my people are already not buying products from Agriprocessors,” he said, referring to the kosher meat company whose plant in Postville, Iowa, was the target of a massive immigration raid in May.

Rabbi David Glickman of Congregation Shearith Israel in Dallas told JTA that while he supports Hekhsher Tzedek’s focus on the ethical dimensions of kosher food production, he does not know what his 1,200-member congregation will decide to do about the partnership invitation.

“We’ve come out publicly in support of the concept and for the need for ethical treatment of workers in factories,” he said. But, he added, “It’s important not to rush to judgment when accusing any particular company.”

The Hekhsher Tzedek guidelines are the result of two years of work by a Conservative-sponsored commission that came together after a 2006 investigation of workers’ complaints at Agriprocessors.

Since the guidelines were made public, Allen said project leaders and colleagues from Jewish Community Action, a social justice group based in St. Paul, Minn., have been talking to “people inside the kosher industry,” including rabbis from Orthodox certification agencies and kosher food companies that might be the first candidates for the Hekhsher Tzedek seal. The seal’s design will be released soon, he said.

The commission is testing the metrics developed by KLD Research and Analytics, Inc., an independent investment research firm, to measure how companies behave in five categories: wages and benefits, employee health and safety, product development and animal welfare, corporate transparency and environmental impact. They are test-marketing the standards with one kosher food producer.

An unintended result of the Agriprocessors raid, Allen said, was that it opened a national dialogue about what kosher means, and brought the politics and ethics of Jewish dietary laws to the front pages of secular newspapers across the country.

“People are really talking about Judaism and dietary habits and the importance of finding kosher food they’re comfortable buying,” he said. “It’s a very powerful thing that is happening.”

Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, Calif., was pleased to receive last week’s e-mail.

“I was relieved to see that the talk has translated into action,” he said.

Saying he is “curious” to see how Conservative rabbis will respond, Creditor wonders what the movement-wide effect will be if large numbers of synagogues refuse to join the effort.

“This,” he said, “may be a mirror moment for the Conservative movement.”

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