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Dietary Changes Afoot, but Are They Kosher? That Depends What It Means

October 30, 2006
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Reform rabbis are talking about their own board of kashrut. Alternative minyans are offering vegetarian or kosher-approved vegetarian meal options. Synagogues are contracting with organic farms in the name of Jewish values. Something is going on in the world of Jewish dietary practice. But is it kosher?

That depends on what you mean by the word. In addition to following more kosher laws, many Jews are expanding their notion of what constitutes food that is “fit to eat.”

Even as the kosher food industry continues its explosive growth — it’s now a $10 billion market, showing 15 percent growth over last year, according to Lubicom Marketing, which runs Manhattan’s annual Kosherfest — some individuals and groups are exploring creative approaches to kashrut in the name of pluralism, holiness and social justice.

Eco-kashrut, which includes notions of sustainable agriculture, fair labor practices and ethical treatment of animals in its definition of what is kosher, or fit to eat, has been a staple of Jewish Renewal since Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi began promoting the term decades ago.

As environmentalism itself entered the American mainstream, eco-kashrut gained currency in more Jewish circles.

Tu B’Shevat, which marks the new growing season, is commonly observed by such activities as tree plantings, beach or park clean-ups and recycling projects. Jewish schools and camps promote recycling in the dining hall as a Jewish value.

The “green synagogue” movement, which encourages congregations to build and maintain their shuls according to sound ecological practices, is based on the same notion, that Jews can find support for contemporary sensibilities within Jewish tradition.

Now a handful of Jewish groups are poised to take eco-kashrut to the next step, creating a symbiotic food-production chain whereby synagogues and other Jewish institutions buy their food from local organic farms.

Hazon, a New York-based nonprofit, pioneered the idea two summers ago with its Tuv Ha’aretz program. This growing season, five synagogues and Jewish community centers in New York, New Jersey, Washington and Texas contracted with local farmers for all or a significant part of their harvest, giving the farmers financial support while encouraging their own members to eat locally grown, organic produce. Five more cities will be added to the program next year.

“We want to reframe the question of kashrut, not to abandon it, but to ask what it means to keep kosher in the 21st century,” project coordinator Leah Koenig says. “Is it kosher to eat food sprayed with chemicals? Is it kosher to eat eggs from chickens kept in tiny, cramped cages?”

The project is the perhaps first Jewish entree into the world of CSA, or community-sustained agriculture. Synagogue or JCC members pay in advance for produce boxes, which they pick up at the institution on a weekly basis.

“It’s pretty radical,” Koenig says. “The synagogue becomes not just a place to pray or drop off your children, but where you pick up your organic produce. It gives people the opportunity to see the synagogue in a new way.”

Next spring, a new organic farm just outside Baltimore will begin growing produce for a conference center owned by the Baltimore Jewish federation.

The 1.5-acre Pearlstone Farm is projected as “a model for small family farms trying to stay in business,” says director Yaqir Manela, 24.

The greenhouse will go up in November and the first crops will be planted in early February, for Tu B’Shevat. Manela hopes to expand the farm to seven or eight acres, and eventually partner with different Jewish institutions.

There has been “a groundswell of energy” these past two years in the field of eco-kashrut, Manela says.

“People realize it’s a way of supporting Israel and ourselves, to not be energy-dependent. The halachah is right there: Don’t reap the corners of your field, share your harvest. In Judaism you create social justice by the way you take care of the earth. This is kashrut in a big way.”

Not everyone is buying in, however.

“The Orthodox Union has had this discussion, in terms of animal welfare and healthful foods,” but ultimately decided that its mandate is simply to provide certification of what’s kosher according to halachah, not decide what’s “healthy” or “ethical” food, says Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of the organization’s kashrut division.

Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, agrees.

“As a Jew who believes kashrut is part of the discipline of Judaism, kashrut is kashrut. Eco-kashrut is something different,” Wertheimer says. “Not that I’m opposed to eco-kashrut, but it’s something else.”

Still, America’s obsession with food and global cuisine, combined with growing pride in ethnic differences, has given rise to increased sensitivity toward people who restrict their diets for religious, ethical or health-related reasons. It’s acceptable when dining out, or in another’s home, to say, “I can’t eat meat,” “I’m vegan” or “I’m kosher.”

Jewish events have been offering a fish or vegetarian meal option for years. But as increasing numbers of young, politically active Jews, in particular, subscribe to one or more of these eating restrictions, some Jewish groups are going further: It’s not enough, they say, to offer only kosher food or only vegetarian food, because that disenfranchises people who don’t follow those dietary practices.

Several of the new alternative minyans, including Manhattan’s Kol Zimrah and Tikkun Leil Shabbat in Washington, use what they call the “two-table” system at communal meals: one for vegetarian food and one for vegetarian food with a hechsher, or kosher certification.

Margie Klein, director of Moishe House Boston: Kavod Jewish Social Justice House, a subsidized house for young, social justice-minded Jews, explains they’re careful not to call one table “kosher” and the other “nonkosher,” because that may put a value judgement on the food choices guests make.

Some Jews, for example, consider anything vegetarian to be kosher, or “kosher enough.”

“Different people have different methods of deciding what’s kosher, and we respect people’s choices at both tables,” she says.

“I’ve been to events that automatically go to the frummest common denominator,” she says, using the Yiddish word for religiously observant.

And while serving only kosher food permits kosher-observant Jews to eat, it makes those guests who do not have kosher homes unable to contribute to meals that are, in these younger circles, usually potluck.

“Kashrut has kept our community together” through the years of dispersal, Klein points out. “How ironic it would be if it becomes a divisive force that makes people feel unwelcome or unworthy.”

Among the first to use the two-table system was the Van Ness Minyan in 1999. The minyan was made up of mostly single Jews in their 20s and 30s who met in Washington’s Van Ness neighborhood.

Eric Gurevitz, who has since emigrated to Israel, says he and Jonathan Levine brought the system to the minyan “after we realized that we were excluding some members of the community from either eating with us or cooking for our potlucks.”

Like Kavod House, he says, “we chose the vegetarian label as it was positive, rather than something like ‘not kosher.’ It was not our goal to redefine kashrut or to imply that vegetarian food/cooking is kosher.”

A new generation of rabbis is easing its way into this “separate but equal” eating world. At Hebrew College, a transdenominational rabbinical seminary in Boston, the cafeteria serves only kosher-certified food, the study hall permits only vegetarian food, the staff lounge has kosher and nonkosher microwaves and all foods are permitted in the student lounge.

“We are a kosher institution, but we don’t require that our students and staff maintain a particular level of kashrut,” says Susan Megerman, assistant to the college’s president.

Maintaining eco-kosher standards, a two-table system, or any other way of preparing or serving food that respects more than one approach to kashrut takes a lot of work.

Kavod House maintains three separate sets of dishes and cooking utensils — one strictly vegetarian, one hechshered vegetarian and one for people who eat nonkosher meat.

It’s not easy, Klein admits, but it’s the only way Jews with different dietary practices can coexist. And that, she says, should take precedence.

“When we own the idea that bringing people together is a priority, it becomes obvious that it’s worth it to have a complicated kashrut system.”

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