Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Beyond Basic Kashrut: Tifereth Israel project part of growing eco-kosher movement

by Eric Fingerhut

Staff Writer

At this time last year, Julie Bolton didn't know anything about Jewish dietary laws. But as an organic farmer who raised a total of six cattle this past year, she says "the one thing we can do is cater to special needs."

So when she was asked if her Groff's Content farm in Rocky Ridge, Md., could raise some grass-fed, free-range kosher beef, she said yes.

"It wasn't real complicated [and] I sure did learn a lot," she said. Plus, she said, it was "really wonderful" to be able to provide grass-fed meat to kashrut-observant Jews who normally would not be able to enjoy it.

Bolton raised the meat for the District's Tifereth Israel Congregation, whose environmental committee chair, Devora Kimelman-Block, worked for the past 10 months to recruit a farmer, shochet and butcher. The first delivery to the synagogue was last week.

"We were looking for these elements," said Tifereth Israel executive director David Zinner, and "we were lucky to get them it all fell into place."

The project is a local example of the increasingly popular eco-kosher movement, in which kashrut-observing Jews are combining the traditional dietary laws with other biblical commandments such as animal welfare and treating workers properly.

Nationally, Conservative Judaism's Rabbinical Assembly is working on implementing a Hechsher Tzedek, which is described as a "Good Housekeeping Seal" that will indicate a product has been prepared ethically.

While Silver Spring's Kimelman-Block said that kosher, grass-fed beef is sold by some companies over the Internet, "being local was a priority for me."

That made the process "very transparent," because she could visit Bolton's farm near Thurmont, as well as the shochet, ritual slaughterer, and the butcher, to see for herself how they ran their businesses instead of relying on reports from others.

It allowed her to "know my cows," she said. And while she said that she felt "a little responsible for the death of three cows," she also knows that they led a well-treated, "cow-like life."

Kimelman-Block had been keeping a kosher vegetarian household, but has always enjoyed meat. She just didn't like the way the commercial meat industry produced it for instance, serving cattle corn and grain instead of their natural food of grass, which, said Bolton, decreases the health benefits of the meat.

So while Bolton learned about kashrut during the past year, Kimelman-Block received an education in grass-fed cattle.

"Meat is seasonal," Kimelman-Block said. She originally hoped to have the meat available by Passover, but Bolton explained that with grass hard to come by in the winter, the meat wouldn't be as tasty as it would be in the summer.

Its looks and tastes differ from the kosher meat to which many are accustomed.

"It's leaner meat," said Shlomo Moinzadeh of Shlomo's Kosher Meat and Fish Market in Baltimore, the butcher for the T.I. project, who said it reminded him more of bison meat than the kind of meat that he usually sees from a cow.

Bolton who doesn't use any growth hormones or low level doses of antibiotics, as some commercial farms do also said that the bones of grass-fed cows "look funny" because they have a yellowish color due to the meat's much higher beta carotene content.

As for the taste, it was "so good" and "multidimensional," making other meat taste "bland," said Kimelman-Block after grilling some hamburgers and ribs last week.

The 50-pound boxes of beef cost $425, or $8.50 per pound, and included a variety of cuts of meats various steaks, ribs, ground beef, beef cubes for soup and even a soup bone or two.

Tifereth Israel member Adam Diamond of Takoma Park, who bought half a box, also praised the taste of the steak and hamburgers he has cooked since getting his meat last week.

Both Diamond and Kimelman-Block said they liked the idea of a Hechsher Tzedek, with Diamond pointing out that it is one way of "adopting Jewish practice to the modern world."

The driving force behind the Hechsher Tzedek effort is Rabbi Morris Allen of Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, Minn., who said that "it is not our intention to replace pre-existing hashgachot," certifying agents, but design a supplemental hechsher, kosher symbol, to go beside the traditional hechsher from groups such as the Orthodox Union or Star-K.

"Most people don't want food produced on the backs of others," Allen said.

The Hechsher Tzedek would cover six areas: worker wages and benefits, health and safety, training, corporate transparency, animal welfare (where appropriate) and environmental impact.

"We're in the process of defining how to measure those areas in an objective" way, Allen said.

National kosher certification authorities have been skeptical of the effort. Rabbi Menachem Genack, rabbinic administrator and CEO of the kosher division of the Orthodox Union, said treatment of workers and the environment are important issues, but believes that they are better left to government agencies such as OSHA and the FDA to enforce.

"We believe that they have the expertise," he said. As for the efforts to set up a Hechsher Tzedek, Genack believes that determining what is appropriate in such areas can be "very amorphous."

For example, he said he gets calls from consumers asking him why the O.U. certifies what some characterize as "junk food," such as potato chips or chocolate, and wonders where one draws the line.

Allen said that the Hechsher Tzedek will be based on "clear ... objective and verifiable" standards rooted in Jewish law, adding that "we're not into social engineering."

"It's hard to believe the smoothness of the cow's lung" is more important than the hand of the "worker producing it," said Allen, citing the standard for certifying a cow as glatt kosher.

Locally, Rabbi Binyamin Sanders, director of field operations for the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Washington, the Hechsher Tzedek concept a "wonderful idea," pointing out that Jewish law requires the proper treatment of animals and obligates a business to "treat your employees correctly."

The Vaad does correct the business practices of local kosher establishments if alerted to a possible problem by staff mashgichim, kosher supervisors, or by consumers.

Meanwhile, this month's sale of beef was only the beginning for Tifereth Israel. Kimelman-Block, 36, said that organizers are planning for a sale of pasture-raised poultry in the fall from the Brandywine farm of Mike Klein with whom the synagogue already has a CSA (consumer supported agriculture) agreement providing organic vegetables, berries and eggs.

She also said that T.I. plans to work with Bolton again later this year on a sale of organic, free-range lamb.

Kimelman-Block admits she has an abundance of meat in her freezer, but it shouldn't be too difficult to finish it up considering the rave reviews. Her 7 1/2-year-old daughter, Esther, gave the hamburger she ate the highest compliment possible she said it tasted better than her favorite food, macaroni and cheese.