Orthodox Groups to Offer Ethical Seals for Businesses

Not to be outdone by their Conservative colleagues, Orthodox groups on both coasts will soon be vetting the ethical standards of businesses serving the Jewish communities.

In New York, Uri L’Tzedek, a social justice group founded last year by rabbinical students at the liberal Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, is set to launch its Tav HaYosher, or ethical seal. The seal will be awarded to kosher restaurants in New York City that treat their workers fairly. “Yosher” is a Hebrew word meaning honesty or straightness.

On the other side of the country, in Los Angeles, three Orthodox rabbis are putting the final touches on Peulat Sachir, or the Ethical Labor Initiative. The term comes from a verse in Leviticus 19 demanding that workers be paid the same day they complete their work.

Like the Tav HaYosher, the Los Angeles program involves a seal certifying that an establishment is treating its workers fairly and humanely. Unlike the New York initiative, the West Coast operation will offer its seal not just to kosher restaurants but any local business serving the Jewish community, including synagogues, bookstores, even attorneys’ and physicians’ offices.

Both initiatives emerged in response to mounting scandals at Agriprocessors, formerly the nation’s largest kosher meatpacking plant that has virtually closed down under a slew of financial difficulties and alleged labor law violations. Founders of the initiatives declare that as Orthodox Jews, they feel compelled to respond to a situation that cast aspersions on their communal values.

“As Orthodox Jews, we have a very strict commitment to the laws of kashrut,” said Chovevei Torah student Shmuly Yanklowitz, the co-director of Uri L’Tzedek. “We see them as separate from but equally as important as how much you pay somebody.”

The New York and Los Angeles efforts are modeled closely after the Tav Chevrati, or social seal, a similar initiative run by the 4-year-old Israeli nonprofit Bema’aglei Tzedek, or Circles of Justice. The Bema’aglei Tzedek seal is granted free to restaurants that are seen as respecting workers’ rights and being accessible to those with disabilities. More than 300 restaurants in Israel, including 130 in Jerusalem, display the seal in their windows.

The Agriprocessors scandals engendered widespread public discussion this summer and fall within the American Jewish community about the ethics of kosher food production. The latest was a Dec. 9 forum at Yeshiva University on the ethics of kashrut, where for the first time the heads of three major Orthodox groups debated the role of ethics in kosher certification.

Some in the wider community argue that social justice and kashrut are important but separate concerns. Others hold that they are inextricably entwined, that kosher food produced in an unethical manner is not “fit to eat,” one translation of the Hebrew word “kosher.”

The Conservative movement’s response to the issue was the Hekhsher Tzedek, or Social Justice Seal, based on the opinion that the two spheres cannot be separated. The seal, which has been endorsed by the Reform movement, will be awarded to kosher food manufacturers that meet a broad range of ethical standards regarding treatment of workers, environmental concerns, health and safety, and financial transparency.

The details of the seal are still being worked out, with a launch date expected next year. It will be awarded only to food products already certified as kosher.

While much of the Orthodox community has criticized the Hekhsher Tzedek as unwieldy at best and, at worst, an attack on the Orthodox-controlled kosher certification system — it is not, its organizers insist — the founders of the two new Orthodox seals believe that as Orthodox Jews, they bear a special responsibility for the actions of businesses that cater to their community. If Jews are to take Torah seriously, the founders of these two initiatives say, they should ensure that businesses serving their needs adhere to Jewish ethical values.

For Uri L’Tzedek, that means the kosher food industry. The group had been holding study sessions on the ethical imperatives of kashrut and kosher food production for more than a year, says Yanklowitz. The May 12 immigration raid at the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, moved them to take concrete action, first by calling for a boycott of Agriprocessors products, then by developing the Tav HaYosher.

“We have an extra ethical imperative on issues of kashrut,” said Yanklowitz, speaking of Orthodox Jews, who comprise the majority of those who patronize kosher restaurants. “First, it’s our system, one we think has a certain level of sanctity, so we have a certain responsibility for it. And not only is it something we care about, but being that it’s our dollars and cents that keep it going, it’s an industry where we can have the greatest impact.”

The Tav HaYosher seal will be given free to kosher restaurants in New York City that guarantee three basic rights to their workers: fair pay; regular time off; and a safe and healthy work environment. Restaurants that opt into the system will be vetted by a team of volunteers and then display a certificate showing their adherence to these standards.

Uri L’Tzedek held its first volunteer training in early December and has quietly collected a handful of Manhattan restaurants interested in the project. The group expects to award its first seals in late January.

Public service worker Gaby Schoenfeld is among the volunteers. She helped rally public support for the Tav Chevrati during the two years she lived in Israel, and has been talking to owners of kosher restaurants in New York about signing on to the Tav HaYosher.

“I explain it in a positive way,” she said. “I tell them we assume you’re upholding the labor laws, and we want you to celebrate the fact that you are treating your workers well.”

Schoenfeld says she has received “cautiously positive” reactions.

“They say let me know which other restaurants sign up,” she reported.

Her hope is that the Tav HaYosher “will become as mainstream” in New York’s kosher restaurant world as the Tav Chevrati has become in Israel, where Schoenfeld says new restaurants now ask to be vetted even before they open.

“It will take time to get to that place,” she acknowledged. “You need a few restaurants to stand up and be bold, to say, yes, we’re doing this.”

The Los Angeles intiative is not as far along as Uri L’Tzedek’s project.

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, the spiritual leader of Kehillat Yavneh in the city’s Hancock Park neighborhood, says he and the two others behind the Peulat Sachir — Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City and Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation — conceive of it as a covenant that a business owner will sign, pledging to treat his or her workers fairly.

The group is still working out the details with its attorneys, but Korobkin says the standards will be commensurate with California labor law: minimum wage, overtime, rest and meal breaks, workers compensation, fair leave policies and anti-discrimination protection.

“If a synagogue has a janitorial staff, for instance, we want to make sure that staff is being treated well,” he said.

Like the New York Orthodox initiative, the L.A. seal is not meant to be punitive.

“We want it to be educational, to empower the employer and employee who might not know their rights and obligations,” Korobkin said.

But it also goes beyond the voluntary ethical guidelines proposed by the Rabbinical Council of America for Jewish businesses, he says. Businesses carrying the seal in their window will be reviewed periodically, and owners will be expected to attend regular training sessions.

Korobkin says the first Peulat Sachir seals should go up in a couple of months.

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