Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Jews debate the ethics of kosher food supply

By Irene Sege
The Boston Globe Staff
July 30, 2008

The friend who told Susan Cetlin earlier this summer that she loves Aaron's brand kosher chicken didn't get the nod of agreement she might have expected.

Instead, Cetlin, a psychologist whose Sharon home is kosher, listed allegations of unsafe working conditions and underpayment against Aaron's parent company, Agriprocessors, the nation's largest producer of kosher meat and the object of a large immigration raid in May. Cetlin is boycotting Agriprocessors, and soon her friend was, too.

The raid on Agriprocessors' Iowa plant has sparked debate in the Jewish community about the role of ethical considerations in the production of kosher food and sets the backdrop against which the moderate Conservative movement will issue guidelines Thursday for an ambitious new "hekhsher tzedek," Hebrew for "certificate of righteousness." The additional stamp would identify producers of kosher foods that meet its standards regarding working conditions, treatment of animals, and the environment.

In rolling out the new certification, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly, two national umbrella organizations, join a wave of socially conscious buying that has led many consumers to seek fair-trade coffee and sneakers not made by children.

To Conservative Jewish leaders, the new certification symbolizes the embrace of tradition and modern social concerns that defines the denomination.

"Hekhsher tzedek reminds us that kosher is not just about rituals," said Rabbi Barry Starr of Temple Israel in Sharon, where Cetlin is a member. "That's a very powerful niche for the Conservative movement."

For Cetlin, who was raised in a nonobservant Jewish home and considers keeping kosher part of her spiritual journey, the allegations against Agriprocessors have violated her trust in a way that concerns about other products have not. Federal and state authorities are now investigating complaints of illegal working conditions at Agriprocessors, including allegations, detailed in The New York Times, that underage immigrants worked shifts as long as 17 hours.

"Kosher gives me the sense that it's a respectful process," said Cetlin, 52. "It's respecting the life of the animal, as well as the worker. When this situation came up, it felt very uncomfortable. My daughter, who is a vegetarian, thinks the way to avoid all of this is to become a vegetarian. It is so hard to make decisions about what is moral or ethical."

With hekhsher tzedek, the Conservative movement also jockeys for a foothold in a kosher industry dominated by Orthodox Jews, the most traditional branch of Judaism.

To succeed, Conservative officials must persuade an industry that already invites supervisors of the religious aspect of food production into its facilities to accept additional inspectors who focus on ethical issues. At issue are religious dietary laws that specify how animals are slaughtered, prohibit consumption of pork and shellfish, and dictate that meat and dairy not be eaten together. Other portions of Jewish law mandate ethical behavior.

Most Orthodox Jews have kosher homes - 86 percent, according to the National Jewish Population Survey - compared with one-quarter of Conservative Jews. Yet because Conservative Jews outnumber Orthodox Jews, they account for one-third of American Jews with kosher homes. Only 5 percent of Reform Jews, the most liberal denomination, keep kosher.

Dr. Steven Ugent - who lives in Sharon, where he is a member of Temple Israel - sees keeping kosher as more than simply following a biblical commandment. "It's a way to be conscious of who you are and that there's a God every time you eat, and to make a separation between the profane and the holy," the 43-year-old dermatologist said. "When you eat, it's not just a mundane act."

Dr. Ugent is curious about what standards hekhsher tzedek will use. "Clearly ethics are important," he said. "I would pay attention to that kind of thing."

Before the Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid, in which almost 400 workers who were in the country illegally were arrested, Agriprocessors supplied 60 percent of the nation's kosher beef and 40 percent of the kosher poultry. The company, which has been fighting unionization, has hired replacement staff and is now returning to full capacity, said spokesman Menachem Lubinsky.

The production squeeze has been felt here, with purveyors from supermarkets to the Butcherie in Brookline and Larry Levine's Kosher Meat Market in Peabody, two of the area's main kosher grocers, filling their gaps with aternative suppliers. The pipeline is slower, and, with pressures on supply, prices have risen. Todd Levine, co-owner of Levine's, estimates that a quarter of his customers are boycotting Agriprocessors, and Butcherie co-owner Walter Gelerman has fielded a few questions on the subject.

Shortly after the raid, United Synagogue suggested that its members seek alternatives to Agriprocessors, and a number of Conservative rabbis preached on the topic and e-mailed members. The Orthodox social justice group Uri L'Tzedek ended its boycott July 8 after Agriprocessors hired a former US attorney to oversee its compliance efforts. The Conservative advisory remains in effect.

Michael Holloway, a 52-year-old biologist from Sharon, feels that he must finally decide whether to join the boycott, now that he has seen Agriprocessors meat in the supermarket for the first time since the raid.

He is troubled by accounts of Agriprocessor's treatment of workers and concerned about the health of the kosher meat market.

"There are few enough kosher meat producers as it is," he said. "We need that company. I hope I am eventually going to be able to buy their product without feeling remorse. I'll probably be buying less and watching closely."

This month Agriprocessors pledged cooperation with investigators and defended itself in full-page advertisements in a dozen Jewish newspapers around the country, including Boston's Jewish Advocate. "These issues, if they were a problem at some point, are all being addressed," said spokesman Lubinsky.

It is in this climate that United Synagogue has readied its hekhsher tzedek guidelines, culminating a two-year process spurred by stories about Agriprocessors in the Jewish Forward and developed with the help of the Boston consulting firm KLD Research & Analytics.

"This is an example of the Conservative movement at its best," said Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz of Temple Emanuel in Newton, the region's largest Conservative congregation. "It's adhering to an ancient tradition and at the same time living with ethics and sensitivity to other people."

The Minnesota rabbi spearheading the effort has long made encouraging kosher observance a mainstay of his pulpit. "My belief is more people will buy kosher products with hekhsher tzedek because it speaks to their value system on multiple levels," said Rabbi Morris Allen of Beth Jacob Congregation in suburban St. Paul.

The initiative draws mixed response from the Orthodox.

Rabbi Chaim Wolosow of the Chabad Center of Sharon, an outreach arm of the ultra-Orthodox Lubavitch movement, is skeptical. "It's an insult to all the religious people and the Orthodox people and all the people who have the highest standards," he said. "It's saying they don't care about the workers and the animals. This assumes the Orthodox people who give hekhshers have not been doing that."

The Orthodox Union, the umbrella organization that is the country's major certifier of kosher food, is critical, too.

A company indicted or convicted of ethical wrongdoing would lose its approval, said Rabbi Moshe Elefant, chief operating officer of the union's kosher division. "We think it's best left to the government."

Among Orthodox leaders expressing cautious support is Rabbi Gershon Gewirtz of Young Israel of Brookline, the largest Orthodox congregation in New England. Although Gewirtz opposes boycotting Agriprocessors before allegations of what he terms "absolutely intolerable" behavior are substantiated, he sees a place for a thoughtfully executed hekhsher tzedek.

"Their intent is valid," he said. "Companies that deal in religiously sanctioned food items should also follow an outline that is reflective of Jewish law in relationship with their employees. That has to be carefully structured."

In Sharon, meanwhile, Cetlin continues her boycott.

"I'm a more liberal Jew," she said. "To me, having an ethical endorsement would matter as much as the more traditional kosher certification."