Thursday, September 6, 2007

Certifiably Ethical

The Jewish Week

Social action group offers seal of approval to hundreds of establishments with kosher business practices.

Michele Chabin - Israel Correspondent

Jerusalem — When Anat Bibi, co-owner of the Anna Ticho House restaurant, recently remodeled her eatery’s spacious, serene garden, she made sure to include gently sloping ramps to accommodate strollers and patrons in wheelchairs.

“People are more aware of the need for accessibility and ask for it,” Bibi said, pointing to the garden’s multi-level deck, reachable by ramps. “Accommodating people’s needs is good business, but it’s also the right and ethical thing to do.

”Ethical kashrut, an idea that socially minded Jews in Israel and the U.S. have been advocating — with varying degrees of success — for decades, is finally catching on in Israel, largely thanks to a program run by the social-action organization Bema’aglei Tzedek (Circles of Justice).

Launched in late 2004, the “Social Seal” initiative encourages restaurants and wedding halls to adopt a conscience in two specific areas: accessibility to the disabled and workers’ rights. Those that meet the program’s criteria are awarded a certificate, which the owners display prominently next to their kashrut certification.

More than 300 establishments in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Beersheva, Maaleh Adumim, Kfar Saba and smaller locales have been awarded the seal, which minimally requires owners to deal fairly with their workers and to install wheelchair ramps and print menus in Braille.

“There’s a gigantic difference between the laws passed by the Knesset and what’s happening in reality,” says Gideon Rosenberg, director of the Social Seal Program, explaining why his organization exists. “There are only 19 people in the entire country enforcing labor law and 90 percent of public buildings aren’t accessible to the disabled.

”Bema’aglei Tzedek launched the seal program at the urging of Rabbi Avi Gisser, the spiritual leader of Ofra, an settlement in the West Bank.

“Rabbi Gisser was participating at a wedding,” Rosenberg recalls, “and one of the waiters told him he wasn’t being paid a legal wage. He felt that just as there is kashrut certification, there should also be certification based on values. So we convened a group of social activists, legal people and rabbis and worked out the criteria.”

To meet the criteria, participating restaurants must make every effort to treat both employees and disabled patrons with respect. Workers must receive the wages, number of breaks and vacation time mandated by law, and should not be forced to work past midnight, when public transportation is virtually non-existent. Physically and mentally challenged diners must be able to enter and navigate through a restaurant and have their needs met in a timely, respectful manner.

While Rosenberg says that many restaurants and halls have been eager to join the program, many others aren’t prepared to invest the time and money necessary to implement change.

That’s where social action comes into play.

“One well-known Jerusalem restaurant owner told us quite plainly he wasn’t prepared to pay his Arab workers the same wage he pays his Jewish workers,” Rosenberg relates. “A year later he changed his mind after several of his customers told him they were upset by the wage discrepancy, and he began to pay more.

”Patrons can learn whether their favorite establishment has received a “tav” (seal) from the organization’s Web site ( If it’s not on the list, they may feel compelled to quiz the restaurateur.

The group's efforts are similar to an initiative in the United States. Rabbi Morris Allen, of Beth Jacob Congregation in Mendota Heights, Minn., who is spearheading the Hechsher Tzedek program of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly, said, “We’re in the process of developing guidelines by which we will evaluate whether already heckshered food is deserving of a hechsher tzedek.”

Rabbi Allen said that his organization has been in touch with Bema’aglei Tzedek, mainly by e-mail, but that the two groups have not yet begun to collaborate on projects.

“We’re very much aware of their work,” he said. “I think it’s significant that in both America and Israel Jews are addressing the multifaceted nature of what it means to keep kosher in the 21st century. Increasingly for Jews it is not enough to be concerned about ritual aspects of keeping kosher; it is also an ethical demand incumbent upon us as Jews.”

Chana Zora, manager of Kav LaOved, a worker’s hotline that assists both Israeli and foreign workers to assert their rights, says that Bema’aglei Tzedek has done a great deal to raise awareness.

“The fact that they educate both workers and students, who will themselves one day become workers, is very important” Zora says, referring to the hundreds of workshops Bema’aglei Tzedek conducts annually with employees, high school students and members of youth groups.

While Kav LaOved appreciates the organization’s educational outreach, it is less enthralled with the Social Seal Program.

“I don’t think that someone who treats his workers well deserves a prize,” Zora says flatly. “They’re only doing what the law and morality require.”

A spokesman for Access Israel, an advocacy group for the disabled, questioned the Social Seal Program’s effectiveness.“There’s no doubt that Bema’aglei Tzedek is helping the community at large but it’s been less helpful for the disabled community,” the spokesman says. “They lack the legal knowledge and expertise needed to bring about the change we’re seeking. It’s not enough to ask that a ramp be built if the ramp doesn’t meet the proper specifications.”

In response, Rosenberg said, “Access Israel is concerned solely with the rights of disabled people and they’re right not to make compromises. However, as a social justice organization, we’re also involved in educating the public and we’ve realized that in order to precipitate change you have to make some compromises. To expect a restaurant that previously had no awareness of the disabled community’s needs suddenly spend NIS 30,000 [$7,000] isn’t realistic. If we limited the Social Seal only to restaurants that had wheelchair-accessible bathrooms, maybe five Jerusalem restaurants would be eligible.

”The Ticho House, whose garden and indoor dining room are accessible, earned a Social Seal despite the fact that diners must walk up four steps to the bathroom, whose main door and stalls are too narrow to accommodate a wheelchair.

“We’re housed in a 100-year-old protected-heritage building and aren’t allowed to make any changes,” Anat Bibi, the owner, said apologetically. “We’ve asked for a permit to install an accessible bathroom but so far, nothing.”

Bibi is nonetheless proud of her restaurant’s inclusion in the Social Seal Program.

“We cared about our workers and disabled people long before the Seal Program, but now the public knows it, too. We know that certain customers come here because they consider us socially conscious, and that pleases us.”