Leaders of the Conservative movementâ€™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.
â€œWe are moving this forward in the American Jewish community in a very powerful yet sensitive fashion,â€ said Rabbi Morris Allen of Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, Minn., Hekhsher Tzedekâ€™s project director.
“Doors have opened,â€ 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. â€œPeople want to talk to us more.â€
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.
â€œThereâ€™s been a very positive response,â€ Siegel said. â€œRabbis have been looking for a way to get more involved.â€
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 â€œa lot of outreachâ€ about Hekhsher Tzedek within his congregation, Starr said he would â€œmentionâ€ it during the holidays, but it â€œwill not be the sole theme of my sermon.â€
â€œMany of my people are already not buying products from Agriprocessors,â€ 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 Tzedekâ€™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.
â€œWeâ€™ve come out publicly in support of the concept and for the need for ethical treatment of workers in factories,â€ he said. But, he added, â€œItâ€™s important not to rush to judgment when accusing any particular company.â€
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 workersâ€™ 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 â€œpeople inside the kosher industry,â€ including rabbis from Orthodox certification agencies and kosher food companies that might be the first candidates for the Hekhsher Tzedek seal. The sealâ€™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.
â€œPeople are really talking about Judaism and dietary habits and the importance of finding kosher food theyâ€™re comfortable buying,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s a very powerful thing that is happening.â€
Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, Calif., was pleased to receive last weekâ€™s e-mail.
â€œI was relieved to see that the talk has translated into action,â€ he said.
Saying he is â€œcuriousâ€ 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.
â€œThis,” he said, “may be a mirror moment for the Conservative movement.”