Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Jews going beyond ‘kosher’

Food producers would win seal for business ethics

by Ed Stannard
New Haven Register Metro Editor
Sat, Apr 19, 2008

As Jews worldwide prepared for this evening’s Passover Seder, they were careful to buy kosher meat and other foodstuffs, prepared according to ancient law and custom.

For a number of Jews, however, the rituals of kashrut do not go far enough. The working conditions at the kosher slaughterhouses and other food-processing plants are also important, they say.

Concerned about labor issues, corporate responsibility and environmentalism, Hekhsher Tzedek, a project born in Conservative Judaism, plans to certify companies that fulfill ethical standards. The name translates as “justice certification.”

“The Hekhsher Tzedek project is still relatively new and it’s not completely defined,” said Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen of Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel in New Haven, who plans to publicize it in his congregation.

Keeping kosher requires observant Jews to avoid “unclean” foods, such as pork and shellfish, to separate meat and dairy and to use only foods that have been prepared according to rituals of purity. Many Jews have separate dishware for meat and dairy meals, and two additional special sets for Passover.

The Hekhsher Tzedek Commission has been meeting with companies and labor organizations and plans to release a list of products that meet the ethical standards, though using the Hekhsher Tzedek seal will be voluntary. Rabbi Morris Allen of Mendota Heights, Minn., director of the project, said the list will be released later this year.

Hekhsher Tzedek expands the ethics of eating beyond kosher rituals to include other Jewish laws dealing with treating people fairly and dealing honestly in the commercial sphere.

“Traditionally, people have looked at these Jewish texts as silos — one in this field, the other in that area,” said Allen.

The Hekhsher Tzedek seal will be given to foods produced according to standards of fair wages and benefits, worker training, ethical corporate behavior and environmental impact, according to a policy statement issued by the commission.

Some Jews believe certification should be limited to the kosher laws, that other issues are addressed by state and federal laws and regulations.

Tilsen disagrees. “The idea is that there are a number of laws, particularly labor laws and environmental law, that are part of Jewish law, just as much as the law of kashrut, kosher law,” he said.

While voluntary, “It’s kind of like a Good Housekeeping seal for labor practices and environmental practices,” Tilsen said.

It would help Jews, as well as non-Jews, who are concerned about how their food is prepared to know what products to buy. “It really is the law already, but we really have no way to know whether we’re complying with it,” Tilsen said. “This will give people a way to comply with this area of Jewish law.”

Tilsen said the connection to Passover is easy to see. “Part of the message of Passover has to do with the dignity of labor, the meaning of labor. There’s nothing wrong with working, but it’s a question of working traditions and who you’re working for.”

Another concern is, “At Passover time, many Jewish families invest a great deal of attention into the details of food — ‘kosher for Passover’ — and it’s easy to lose the greater picture.”

Allen said, “What Hekhsher Tzedek really represents is an attempt to demonstrate that Judaism at its core wants us to be concerned with ritual as well as ethics and vice versa. Both ritual and ethics need to be present at all times.”

Rabbi Lina Zerbarini of Yale University Hillel said she is not involved with Hekhsher Tzedek but sympathizes with the project’s intent. Even as a vegetarian, she must deal with the complexities of the supermarket, she said.

Zerbarini said she buys eggs from cage-free chickens rather than from commercially farmed chickens confined to small cages. “One of the downsides of cage-free eggs is (the hens) are running around with the roosters, which means half of them are fertilized, so they’re not kosher,” she said. It’s a difficult choice to toss out fertilized eggs versus buying the commercial brands, she said.

Admitting that “I’m not where I’d like to be in my personal observance of these issues,” Zerbarini said everyone should grapple with them, though many do not.

“I think some of it is how much we’re willing to know. It’s very easy not to think about where our food is coming from. It just shows up in the supermarket. But how we spend our money is important.”

Ed Stannard can be reached at estannard@nhregister.com or 789-5743.