MENDOTA HEIGHTS, Minn.
A dozen years ago, Rabbi Morris Allen stood before his congregation in this Twin Cities suburb to announce a program called Chew by Choice. As Conservative Jews, the members of his synagogue were bound by religious law to eat only kosher food, but as typical Americans, relatively few did so. So the rabbi asked them just to stop eating flagrantly impermissible foods like pork and shellfish as the first step toward fuller observance of the dietary strictures.
The campaign at his synagogue, Beth Jacob Congregation, ultimately won Rabbi Allen an invitation to lecture at an Orthodox yeshiva in New York. Closer to home, he served alongside Orthodox rabbis on a kosher-certification panel for the Twin Cities area and collaborated with a local Hasidic rabbi in encouraging supermarkets to stock kosher meat after the last kosher butcher in St. Paul went out of business.
In the last year, however, Rabbi Allen has extended his concern with kosher standards from adherence to religious ritual to commitment to social justice. His drive to create a “hechsher tzedek,” a justice certification, on the basis of how kosher food companies treat their workers, has brought him into intense conflict with the Orthodox authorities who traditionally have dominated the certification process.
Last month, the hechsher tzedek received formal endorsement from the Rabbinical Assembly, the national association of Conservative rabbis. In voting to support Rabbi Allen’s initiative with an unspecified amount of “volunteer and financial support,” the assembly invoked a verse from Deuteronomy declaring, “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger.”
The biblical reference fit with Rabbi Allen’s own line of argument. With kosher meatpacking plants heavily dependent on Latino immigrant labor, he has maintained, it is no longer sufficient for kosher certification to be granted solely on the basis of proper Jewish methods of inspecting and slaughtering animals.
“As concerned as we are about how an animal gets killed, we need to be equally concerned about how a worker lives,” Rabbi Allen said in an interview several weeks ago at his synagogue. “We need to be certain that the food we are obligated to eat is produced in a way that demonstrates concern with those who produce it.”
While the catalyst for Rabbi Allen’s action was a series of articles in The Forward weekly newspaper about accusations that workers at a large kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa are exploited, the resulting conflict has far wider import. The kosher-food industry accounts for annual sales of $11.5 billion, much of it to 1.1 million steady consumers, according to the Lubicom marketing firm. Such major corporations as ConAgra and Cargill have kosher subsidiaries.
By religious tradition, and in some cases state law as well, kosher certification generally rests with Orthodox boards. Each council, or “vaad,” will put its insignia on an approved product, allowing a consumer to know which products are meat, which are dairy and which are neutral. The Orthodox Union, the largest force in certification, oversees more than half the kosher items in circulation.
So the entrance of the Conservative movement into the field represents a challenge to the Orthodox authorities not only on ethical grounds but also on market share.
Even before activity began on the hechsher tzedek, Conservative Jews tended not to follow the Orthodox model in insisting that meat be not just kosher but “glatt” as well. The term means “smooth” and refers to the fact that a slaughtered animal’s lungs had no defect. In practice, glatt meat has been perceived as somehow more kosher than kosher, and it is invariably more expensive, too.
Still, the current friction might never have emerged had it not been for a lengthy investigative report by Nathaniel Popper in The Forward last May. Quoting union activists, a local Roman Catholic priest and several workers who were cloaked by pseudonyms, Mr. Popper accused the AgriProcessors packing plant in Postville, Iowa, of paying substandard wages and offering minimal safety instruction and health care to its 800 employees, many of them immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala.
The owners of AgriProcessors disputed the portrayal, even taking out a full-page ad in The Forward to rebut it. But Rabbi Allen, who had been involved in getting Twin Cities stores to buy kosher meat from the Iowa plant, took up the issue with leaders of both the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm. Last August, he went as part of a five-member team to visit Postville, meeting with owners, senior managers and about 60 current or former workers.
“We weren’t able to verify everything Popper wrote,” Rabbi Allen recalled, “but what we did find was equally painful and filled with indignities.”
His study group specifically criticized AgriProcessors, which has been resisting efforts at unionization, in three areas. Its starting wage of $6.25 an hour came to about $3 less than unionized kosher slaughterhouses pay. It gave workers safety training in English, even though many were fluent only in Spanish. And it provided only one option for health-care coverage at a cost of $50 per week for a family.
By the time the United Synagogue threw its support behind the hechsher tzedek last December, both the concept and Rabbi Allen had come under widespread attack from Orthodox figures. Rabbi Asher Zeilingold of St. Paul, who had collaborated with Rabbi Allen in the past, emerged as a very public defender of AgriProcessors, issuing a report that characterized The Forward’s accusations as “completely unfounded, without any basis in fact.”
In an arrangement that is relatively common in kosher certification, Rabbi Zeilingold is paid by AgriProcessors to oversee the plant.
The trade magazine Kosher Today quoted Rabbi Zeilingold decrying Rabbi Allen’s “deceptive behavior.” A certification council tied to the Satmar Hasidic sect denounced the hechsher tzedek. A prominent rabbi writing an opinion column in The Jewish Press, a weekly newspaper with a largely Orthodox readership, described the social justice certification as an “alien imposition.”
Rabbi Menachem Genack, the chief executive of the Orthodox Union’s kosher division, has taken a more carefully modulated stance.
“The issues raised — workers’ rights, safety, environmental issues — are not mundane issues,” Rabbi Genack said last week in a telephone interview. “The question is one of implementation. These issues are best dealt with within the mandate of other agencies — federal and state. We believe they’re handling it properly and have the expertise and the authority to handle it.”
Such arguments have plainly not swayed the Conservative movement. Now that the Rabbinical Assembly has endorsed the hechsher tzedek in principle, Rabbi Allen said, the next step is to formulate the specific standards each workplace would be required to meet. His goal is to have that list drafted by Rosh Hashanah in early September, the holiday that begins Judaism’s period of reflection and atonement.