Jerusalem restaurants sue over rabbis' kosher certification rules

JERUSALEM (RNS) Five Jerusalem restaurant owners have filed suit against the city’s Chief Rabbinate, saying the rules for kosher certification are expensive, onerous and inconsistent.

The lawsuit represents the latest legal challenge against what many Israelis say is an increasingly coercive ultra-Orthodox religious establishment.

The restaurants are among almost a dozen establishments that recently severed their ties with the Rabbinate’s kosher supervisors, who are charged with ensuring that the food being prepared meets strict Jewish dietary laws.

The Rabbinate is funded by the Israeli government and has sole authority over marriage, divorce and just about everything else related to the practice of Judaism.  

“The restaurant owners are definitely on the front line," Jerusalem City Council member Rachel Azaria told the Times of Israel, "and as pioneers in this battle they are exposed to the risks.”

The restaurateurs decided to go to court after the Rabbinate issued fines of between $270 and $525 for marketing themselves as kosher without the rabbis' approval. Some restaurant owners have hired private kosher inspectors.

To be considered kosher, an Israeli restaurant must prominently display its certification. The restaurants, not the Rabbinate, pay the supervisors for their services.

In their suit, which is being funded by a social action organization, the owners say the Rabbinate operates as a monopoly. A Rabbinate spokesman did not respond to phone calls.

The restaurant owners said they discontinued the supervisors’ services for a variety of reasons. “The problem is, the supervisor was almost never here,” said Yehonatan Vadai, owner of the Carousela restaurant, who was fined $270 for lacking the official kosher certification.

Modern-Orthodox Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, who is spearheading a training program for volunteer kosher supervisors, said the Rabbinate’s oversight of its supervisors is inconsistent. 

“Owners complain (the supervisors) come very seldom," he said. "Some complain they show up only for their paycheck.”

Restaurateurs also complained that supervisors demand unreasonably high kosher standards. 

To ensure that fresh produce contains no insects, which would render it non-kosher, “they require us to purchase lettuce and other vegetables from specific vendors who use strong pesticides,” Vadai said. “It’s just not necessary. I can’t wash off the pesticide and I won’t serve them to my customers.”

The supervisors appear to be acting on their own, Vadai said, since Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar recently announced that “insects can be removed by washing, the way it has been done for generations.”