Saturday, June 9, 2007

Hechsher Tzedek: A Congregant's View

I’ve been thinking back on what it is about Hechsher Tzedek that caught my attention and made me want to be involved with this initiative. Now the justice side was natural. The kids and I marched for immigrant rights, we went to the Darfur rally last year, we volunteered at a local school to help immigrant kids learn to read in English. Ethical treatment of workers? I’m right there. On the other side, however, my family and I were sort of hit and miss with kashrut. Did it really matter to us if kosher products were available or not? Kashrut just wasn’t something we took very seriously other than not obviously eating pork or shellfish.

Our idea of following kashrut was that we ate vegetarian at home but outside our home the kids could eat chicken and turkey, with me joining them sometimes. Hey, we were at least thinking about what we ate and were on that ladder, even if we were drifting up and down quite often on those lower rungs. I looked at it as, keeping kosher is expensive and we’re not used to having any rules about what we eat. We’re doing well enough; I thought this would just be the way we lived our Jewish lives. Surely to expect more was out of the question.

But, then Rabbi Allen started working with a local store in order to insure that there would be a supply of not-so-expensive kosher meat available for his congregants. He doesn’t even eat meat but he considers kashrut so important that he didn’t want people to be tempted to slide a bit because of economics. The more he talked about what was going on with this issue, the more I started to re-think kashrut. Maybe it was possible for my family to do more in this area. Maybe I’d been selling us short. I started reading about the laws of kashrut, I started thinking more about why Jews keep kosher.

As a result of Rabbi Allen’s work with a local store, this store began stocking more and more hechshered items. The more they stocked, the more I began paying attention to hechshers. It was just a natural thing. I wanted to support this store as they stepped out into new territory. I talked with different people at the store and they were so interested in this foreign world of kashrut. Grocery shopping became a very Jewish thing for me; it was elevated to a new level. It really mattered what I purchased and I found I kind of liked that. This wasn’t so hard now was it?

And then the allegations were published about the mistreatment of workers in a kosher meat plant and that threw me off a bit. Perhaps it wasn’t such a good thing I was doing; perhaps I was using my money to support things I should not be supporting. Yet, I couldn’t go back. There were also many immigrant workers in the store where I shopped; this store had really made an effort to accommodate the needs of their Jewish customers. To stop supporting their efforts seemed to me like a slap in their face. And that was just one level. The other level was that I’d come to view kashrut in a whole new way. There was no going back to how we’d been before. The thing is, I just didn’t feel so good about it all anymore.

When Rabbi Allen began talking about Hechsher Tzedek, this idea of us as consumers being able to know that the kosher food we purchase is produced by workers who are treated fairly, I had to get on board with this initiative. It speaks exactly to what was bothering me. I want to know that I can follow kashrut without someone else paying the price. I need justice to be tied in to my ritual observances. Do I think Hechsher Tzedek will be easily implemented? No, but that doesn’t mean I’m not required to try my best to bring it into reality.

BTW, as far as kashrut goes, we are no longer vegetarian at home. The kids were eating meat anyway; I wanted them to eat kosher meat. We’re getting used to all the rules that go along with this; all the thinking and planning that is required with keeping meat and dairy separate. It’s going well and I’m much happier knowing I’ve given them a Jewish response to their desire to eat meat. (And without any plagues!)

To some this might seem like a strange time to add kosher meat to our diet, but I look at it differently in that I see it as the perfect time. In order to bring about change, we have to be active participants in the process. The perception so often is that Conservative Jews have no clout in the market when it comes to kosher products. We have to show that we are indeed a market force which must be taken into consideration as companies make decisions for or against incorporating Hechsher Tzedek into their way of doing business. If I remove myself totally from the scene, who will listen to my concerns about justice? I will have rendered myself totally ineffective. Hechsher Tzedek is the right thing to do, on many levels, and that’s why I’m here.