Wednesday, July 1, 2009

For Some Local Jews, Kosher Isn't Enough

Ethics of food production is key part of 'ethical kashrut.'
By Joshunda Sanders
Sunday, June 28, 2009

Malka Dubrawsky and her husband, Robert Trent, decided to go vegetarian after she heard a radio show about mad cow disease, she said.

By keeping a vegetarian diet, she and her husband are also keeping kosher, a Jewish dietary law spelled out in the Torah that prohibits mixing meat with dairy and requires that birds and mammals be slaughtered in a way that ensures they do not suffer.

"Eating that way makes you more mindful," Dubrawsky, a freelance textile designer, said. "Just like in Judaism, what you say to and about people is very important; it's really bad to deride people or insult them. What you put in your mouth is as important as what comes out of it."

Dubrawsky and Trent, both 42, are part of a trend among Jews to combine their religious views with the goal of consuming local, organic food. Called ethical kashrut, it's the idea that adherence to Jewish dietary laws is as important as the ethics and social justice involved in the creation and processing of food.

In the past, "the idea of how you would slaughter an animal was connected to the idea of appreciating that the animal was God's creation, and you're lucky enough to have the sustenance from eating it, but you are required to kill it as humanely as possible," Dubrawsky said. "It's an old idea that fits into the new idea" of ethical kashrut, she said.

A major catalyst for Jews who now practice ethical kashrut was a scandal at Agriprocessors Inc., the largest provider of kosher meat in the United States.

May 12 marked the anniversary of federal immigration raids at the Postville, Iowa, company, where 389 immigrants were arrested in the Bush administration's largest crackdown on illegal workers at a single site. For years, the company faced allegations of worker abuse and violations of labor laws. It was also criticized over code violations and slaughtering practices not in line with kosher rules to minimize animal suffering.

"I was horrified because those people know what Jewish law says about that," Dubrawsky said. "They, of all people, who put forward this righteous face, should have known better."

The Agriprocessors raid and allegations of violations reverberated at the Kosher Store at the H-E-B off Far West Boulevard, Cross said. It's the grocery chain's only dedicated kosher store statewide, and it has relied on Agriprocessors for the bulk of its meat products for years. The 2008 raid caused a flurry of questions, said Frank Efrayim Brock, the food supervisor at the store."

People in Texas are curious about where food comes from now," he said.

The discussions prompted by the raid created "a growing pain in the kosher community, the first big moment in kosher," Brock said. "Now, kosher has to reflect the values in society. Ultimately, this was going to happen, and it's for the good because we can have relatively inexpensive meat that doesn't have a stigma attached to it."

Cross said the store stopped doing business with Agriprocessors in November. "But there was no one to fill the void," he said, so he had to search for new suppliers.

He selected Wise Organic Pastures in Pennsylvania, which supplies kosher meat both to the H-E-B Kosher Store and to Central Market stores in Austin. He also chose meat suppliers in Minnesota and South Dakota.

Rabbinical authorities in charge of kosher standards, referred to as mashgichim, are developing a seal for ethical foods. The new and traditional stamps are called hekhshers. Even before the raid, Rabbi Morris Allen of Mendota Heights, Minn., started work on an ethical kashrut symbol — called Magen Tzedek, which means seal of justice. He is director of the Hekhsher Tzedek Commission, which has worked to get the seal placed on products since 2006. He said that the commission hopes to have the seal on at least three products before Rosh Hashana in September.

Adoption of the proposed seal would be one way to make ancient Jewish practices fit a more modern society, said Lisa Goodgame, 37, the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council with the Jewish Community Association of Austin.

"Ethical kashrut may make keeping kosher relevant again for my generation because it helps blend how we eat with spirituality, which is very important," Goodgame said.

The seal benefits everyone involved, Allen said. "More people will be buying kosher products, because they're kosher, they're ethical or for both reasons," he said. "It will be a win for food producers, the workers who will be treated better, the animals that will be treated better and the environment. Our product is ultimately the antidote to the horrific tragedy in Postville."