Monday, October 11, 2010

Kosher Certifying Agencies

Back in the 1970s a prominent Hechsher organization had arranged with several local movie theater operators to inspect their popcorn and gave it a Hechsher. That was great news to most Orthodox Jews who occasionally went out to see a movie. But the Hechsher didn’t last long. There was an outcry by the right wing in Chicago. They strongly criticized that organization for giving a Hechsher to the food in an environment they considered Treif. To the disappointment of the vast majority of Orthodox Jewish movie goers - the Hechsher was withdrawn. I recall being very upset by that.

What right did a small group of religious zealots have to interfere with my lifestyle?! They don’t like movies?! Fine they shouldn’t go. There are exceptions of course but I see no problem with movies as a rule. Why I don’t is the subject of another post. The point is religious zealots should not impose their standards and inhibit a Hechsher organization from giving a Hechsher to food in such establishments. The popcorn was Kosher. Those zealots took that away from me.

A feature story in the New York Times raised the question again for me. Should Hechsher organizations be allowed to dictate policies of their clients that are outside of their jurisdiction? Or should their only concern be the actual Kashrus of the food? This time it was a restaurant in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York.

Crown Heights - as many may already know is the section in Brooklyn that is home to Lubavitch Chasdidm. This is where the movement’s charismatic leader, The late Lubavitcher Rebbe - Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn - lived and held court with his many followers.

One of the things the Rebbe insisted on was that his Chasidim stay in the neighborhood even as it was changing and started attracting non Jews who seemed threatening to them. He insisted that his Chasidim not budge! And stay - they did. His word was law to his Chasidim. His wish was - literally and without exaggeration - their command.

But the neighborhood kept changing with a non Jewish poor black demographic eventually settling in one part of that neighborhood while middle class Lubavitcher Chasidim remained in another.

There have never been great relations between the two communities. Tension has always existed and caused flare-ups between them. The most serious of these occurred when a young black boy was accidentally hit and killed by a passing motorcade carrying the Rebbe. This caused a riot where a religious Jewish student was murdered in apparent retaliation.

The long and the short of it is that these two peoples never really got along, although several serious attempts have been made over the years to change that.

Enter Danny Branover, a Lubavitcher entrepreneur with a vision. He took upon himself the task of trying to somehow change that dynamic. He had an idea for a project that he hoped would better relationships between the Lubavitcher and the non Jewish residents of Crown Heights.

He designed and established a restaurant that catered to everyone planting it firmly on the non Jewish side of the ‘dividing line’ between the Lubavitcher Chasidim and their non Jewish neighbors. He obtained a Hechsher from the OK and thus was created the Basil Pizza and Wine Bar.

It was beautifully executed and a successful endeavor. He had good food, a good Hechsher, a Frum Chef, waiters and waitresses of various ethnicities and an ambiance that was not particularly Jewish. This attracted Orthodox Jews as well as their non Jewish neighbors.

As nice as this sounds, the story doesn’t end there. Apparently some of the clientele that frequents the restaurant unknowingly dresses and behaves in ways that are not in accordance with Lubavitch or even Orthodox standards. One of the religious customers who witnessed this type of behavior decided to call and complain about it to Rabbi Don Yoel Levy – head of the OK.

Rabbi Levy came over and insisted upon implementing religious dress codes and standards of behavior - calling the behavior of the non Jewish customers immoral and their attire inappropriate. He also asked for access to the surveillance system from that point forward.

This incident did not sit well with the non Jewish staff. The Catholic hostess, Clara Santos Perez and some of her co-workers were quite upset at what happened. From the article:

He left after perhaps seven minutes. Her agitation lasted longer than that, as she questioned what right and what cause he had to imply that the couples at the bar, who had behaved unremarkably and kept to themselves, were somehow morally wanting.

“What’s godly about that?” she said. “It’s not nice.”

What the OK did was add standards that are irrelevant to Kashrus. Do they have a right to do that?

The owner of the restaurant surely has that right. He can impose any restrictions he chooses – as long as they do not violate anyone’s civil rights. Dress codes surely fall within those parameters. One often sees signs like: ‘No shirt, No shoes - No service’! But does that right extend to the Kashrus certification agency?

I’m not sure I know how to answer that - but I have my doubts. On the one hand - it is perfectly understandable for such an agency to insist on an environment that is consistent with others of its religious standards.

On the other hand where does one draw the line? Should there even be a line?! Let us take a somewhat unlikely example to make the point. Should a Satmar certification agency be entitled to insist its female customers wear seams in their stockings? …or cover their wigs with hats? Is it fair to extend the stricter standards generally observed by the narrower religious community to non members of the community?

In my view the agency should not have that right. They need only insist on generally accepted societal standards of decency – the type that would not elicit any reaction by most people. If the religious customers from that community don’t like it, they don’t have to eat there. By that standard a Hechser organization has the right to refuse certification of the food in a strip joint even if the food there was all Mehadrin Min HaMehadrin. But in a situation where normal societal standards of modesty are observed - like in this restaurant - why should the sensibilities of one customer override the rights of another – when the behavior or dress is unremarkable by the normal standards?

Understandably when the purpose is to foster harmony between people from disparate backgrounds, traditions, and religious values, such excesses tend to undermine that goal. So the bottom line for me is that Rabbi Levy stick primarily to food supervision and insist only on the generally accepted societal standards. I think that the results will be far better than they were here. There is no need to upset good people and undermine a noble goal –as was the case here.