Ethical Kosher Seal Nearing Marketplace for Conservative Jews


With the trials of Sholom Rubashkin, the former CEO of the Agriprocessors kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, still looming large over the kosher food industry, the Conservative movement is ready to make its mark on a field that is dominated by Orthodox companies.

After years of discussion and planning, the “Magen Tzedek” — which the Conservative movement calls the world’s first Jewish ethical certification seal — will complete beta testing with two food companies by the end of 2010.

“Our expectation is, a year from now, to have 15 companies that will be promoting the Magen Tzedek,” said Rabbi Morris Allen, project director of Hekhsher Tzedek, the commission that has developed the seal.

Rabbi Allen, 55, spoke to The Jewish Week before participating in a session at this year’s Rabbinical Assembly convention, on “Moving Magen Tzedek in the Marketplace: How the Conservative Movement is Seating Itself at the Kosher Table.”

Conservative rabbis from all over the United States and Canada crowded into the chapel of the Upper West Side’s Congregation Ansche Chesed Monday night to get an update on the initiative, which began in 2006 — two years before federal agents raided the Agriprocessors plant.

Meanwhile, Tav HaYosher, a more modest initiative launched by the Orthodox social justice organization Uri L’Tzedek one year after the Rubashkin raid, has just marked its one-year anniversary — with 40 participating establishments in five states.

Rabbi Michael Siegel, national co-chair of the Hekhsher Tzedek Commission, acknowledged some people’s frustration with the slow pace of his project.

“People in your congregations are saying ‘Nu? Hurry up,’” he said.

Rabbi Siegel, who is senior rabbi of Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago, asked every congregation to appoint an ambassador who will sign on for a one-year commitment, promoting the Magen Tzedek mission throughout the Conservative movement.

“It won’t simply be the rabbis pounding on the bima,” he said.

The Magen Tzedek is not intended to replace kashrut certifications, such as the Orthodox Union’s seal of approval. That’s why Professor Joe Regenstein, who drew up the guidelines for the Hekhsher Tzedek Commission, refuses to actually use the term “hekhsher tzedek.”

“That caused confusion and unnecessary concern,” he told The Jewish Week.

Regenstein, head of the Cornell Kosher and Halal Food Initiative, told the audience at Ansche Chesed that besides fruits and vegetables, which don’t need a heksher, any Magen Tzedek-certified product would also need to have kosher certification.

“Pork sausage is not going to qualify, no matter how good [the plant is] at social justice,” he said.

Hekhsher Tzedek will consider five issues in awarding its seal of approval: labor (wages and benefits, and health and safety); animal welfare; consumer issues; corporate integrity; and environmental impact.

A social auditing firm, Social Accountability Accreditation Services has been hired to help develop and implement the standards. Rabbi Siegel said he plans to work with ROI Ventures, a strategy firm, to look into the economic sustainability of Magen Tzedek.

Whereas Tav HaYosher lists only three criteria on its website, all of them issues that already fall under existing U.S. labor laws — the right to fair pay, the right to fair time (one day off per week, compensation for overtime, breaks etc.) and the right to a safe work environment — the Magen Tzedek standards go well beyond legal requirements. A summary version is available on the Magen Tzedek website.

After opening the set of standards to public comment last fall, Regenstein prepared a response for every single one.

“It’s got to be something that’s objective, auditable, fair,” said Regenstein, a professor of food science at Cornell. “The process needs to be transparent.”

And while Uri L’Tzedek works only with restaurants and grocery stores, Regenstein has bigger plans for the Magen Tzedek, which he hopes to promote internationally.

“It would be a jam processor in North Dakota who is already kosher-certified, to a Kraft, to a Unilever,” he told The Jewish Week.

Rabbi Siegel went even further, telling the assembled rabbis that there have been discussions about giving Magen Tzedek to synagogues — ensuring that fair labor practices are enforced in houses of worship, not just in restaurants and factories. An article in the Forward newspaper this fall noted that the labor standards Magen Tzedek calls for in the food industry are met in few Conservative synagogues and other movement institutions, many of which, according to that article, do not pay a “living wage” or health benefits to custodial and other part-time staff.

Like the Magen Tzedek project, Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, is hoping to keep growing.

After receiving Orthodox rabbinical ordination from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the 28-year-old will move to Los Angeles next month to launch his organization on the West Coast.

Yanklowitz says in the past year, 60 compliance workers have been trained to help enforce the standards of the Tav HaYosher, and that the movement now has “thousands of constituents.”

“I think that the community momentum is immense right now,” he said. “Our constituents are really demanding rapid response. I think there’s not patience for long, drawn-out processes.

“We’re at a crucial stage for the development of the ethical kashrut narrative and for the identity of the concerned Jewish, socially conscious consumer.”

Asked about expanding the Tav HaYosher to other areas besides food, Yanklowitz said that conversation is premature, and that there is a “danger of overextending.”

“We really need a serious victory on creating social change in kashrut first,” he said.

The measure of that victory? When “those that are not complying will need to comply in order to stay afloat.” Already, he said, “multiple owners have told me they’ve gotten thousands of dollars more business because of the Tav.”

Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union’s Kashrut Division, is skeptical over Magen Tzedek’s potential impact on the kosher food industry.

“I don’t see many companies willing to sign on to a standard that’s different than what’s in place, in terms of government regulations,” he said.

While Rabbi Genack said he’s willing to sanction the Magen Tzedek symbol appearing next to the OU’s, he also said the government should be the ones to handle labor issues — even as he slammed the government over its handling of the Rubashkin case.

“Everything it did was an overreaction,” Rabbi Genack said. “It destroyed a company. It destroyed the economy of the region. … Asking for a life sentence was an absolute outrage.

“I think the one that should be in the dock is the U.S. Attorney. That’s where I think there’s an ethical outrage. The justice that was done is more reminiscent of Soviet jurisprudence.”

Sholom Rubashkin is currently being tried by the state of Iowa on child labor charges. He faces 83 counts of child labor violations. Federal sentencing has been postponed until June 22, after Rubashkin was convicted last November of 86 counts of bank fraud.

After initially pushing for a life sentence, prosecutors have asked for a 25-year sentence, which Rabbi Genack says is “essentially still a life sentence” for the 51-year-old Rubashkin.

Unlike Rabbi Genack, Magen Tzedek’s Rabbi Allen said relying solely on government inspectors to enforce labor laws might not be the best course of action.

“The mine disaster in West Virginia and the oil spill off the coast of Louisiana have demonstrated that oftentimes the government is unable, or becomes too involved, to be able to stop certain kinds of industry practices,” said Rabbi Allen, spiritual leader of Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, Minn.

“We wouldn’t trust New York law when it came to ritual law. We shouldn’t necessarily simply trust American law when it comes to upholding Jewish ethical norms, either.”

JTA contributed to this report.

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