Stephen responds to Rabbi Freundel. Koshergate Part III

In the June 22nd edition of “From the Rabbi’s Desk,” Kesher Israel’s Rabbi Freundel – also a rabbi for the Vaad – responds to a May 23 blog post from Kesher congregant David Barak.  I’ve broken it down into a few parts, and I’ve taken the liberty of responding.

Rabbi Freundel (RF):  1. Competition. Competition can be a plus in a business setting where someone is selling a product. It can improve prices and service. But the Vaad in its Kashrut supervision role is not a business, its a regulatory agency and none of the synagogue Rabbis receive any money from their volunteer involvement in the Vaad so there is no financial incentive here for us. Competition between regulatory agencies is not desirable in fact it seems absurd to me. The only way to compete would be to lower standards and if one sees ingesting non-Kosher food as equivalent to eating poison (which is the way the tradition looks at it) lowered standards is not desirable. Would you really want the FAA to have competition? On the service side- when there is a claimed foul-up, the Rabbis all hear about it and have to explain it (e.g. the 6th and Rye situation). That is far more effective than competition in keeping things working correctly.

(SR):

I find it a bit surprising that Rabbi Freundel argues for a monopoly – I had thought the Vaad would deny monopolistic preferences. But now its true colors are shown, so the question becomes: is a monopoly preferable in this instance?  Answer: no, it’s not.

a)      “The only way to compete would be to lower standards.”  False.  You could provide a better service – if the Vaad didn’t respond to my phone call for a week, service could obviously be improved.  Or you could provide services for a better price – unless you’re saying that the Vaad’s price already equals marginal cost and is as competitive as possible (I seriously doubt that).  Competition could improve performance in both areas.  Kosher certifiers will provide service with a smile (not necessarily at a lower standard) if they know they might lose the customer.

b)      Completely beholden.  If there is only one kosher certifying organization in town, kosher restaurants are completely beholden to the whims of the certifying agency for a livelihood.  And if you think that rabbis are never capricious or never play politics, then I’ve got a bridge to sell you – they are as human as the next man.

Fortunately for the consumer, there is no way of legally imposing a kosher monopoly in DC.  There is no Jewish community legislative and executive branch.  People will pick their certifying organizations according to their preferences.  If Circle K isn’t strict enough for them, then they will only eat at the Vaad (or something to this effect – I actually don’t know the comparative “strictness” of these two).

(RF): 2. The New York Situation. If you examine the situation in NY, competition is an ongoing problem. There are dozens of restaurants under supervisions that many observant people won’t use. There is absolutely no uniformity of standards and problems abound. Many people who take kashrut seriously won’t eat in the homes of others who think they are strictly kosher and establishments often bounce from supervising agency to supervising agency which creates great confusion and continuing lack of clarity as to where (given the standards any individual might follow) any individual can eat on any given day. David is right that only the size of the community allows this situation to be tolerated.

(SR):

I’m not 100% sure what is being argued here (and yes, I did read David’s original post).  There are certainly economies of scale in New York City.  As for the uniformity comment…  This is something that will naturally happen if consumers care enough about uniformity.  Again, enforcing a de jure uniformity rule is a moot point because there’s no Jewish agency that can enforce this (but, also again, it can be done through market demand).  But in broader terms, this begs the question of what role does the state play?   Say you have a bunch of different types of electric outlets across states.  Should the federal government mandate that all states have the same electric outlets?  If you ask me, this will happen naturally if necessary – I know that I would pay a little bit extra to stay at a hotel that would allow me to plug my iPhone in, and that would eventually cause surrounding hotels to convert their plugs.  But that’s an aside.

(RF): 3. On PR. Certainly the Vaad could be better. But you will remember that on the most recent issue (6th and Rye) I did a full presentation and Q&A at Carlebach and at Seudah Shlishit. I have done these things before. I also wrote a full article describing the Vaad that was published in the WJW some years ago and the Vaad is talking about doing something similar again. On the other hand there are those who dislike the Vaad to the point where they spread unsubstantiated claims that are patently false or gross distortions of the truth

For example:

a.”The vaad wont give supervision to a places where the genders might mix.”  Has the author visited Ben Yehuda’s or even Eli’s on a Saturday or Sunday night, if you do you can see that the claim is patently false.

b. “The Rabbis make lots of money.” As indicated and as different than most Vaad’s we make nothing, it’s all volunteer.

c. The latest- “It costs $60,000/year for vaad supervision.” The only thing this can possibly refer to is the mashgiah’s salary which in most cases is not that high. Nonetheless the mashgiah in a full service meat restaurant often works 60 or more hours a week. That mashgiah is also entitled to vacation and if we can arrange for it, health care. (Remember these are often people supporting a family). As such they are actually being paid something between $15-18 dollars an hour-hardly an exorbitant amount for someone with specialized training who fills the primary supervisory role. Also, and this is very important, mashgichim are usually allowed to take on roles in the restaurant such as food preparation. Therefore they replace a worker who at the very least might be making $40-50,000. As such the financial burden is just not that great. The only other fees are administrative fees to allow the Vaad to maintain an office, a secretary, and a supervisory structure of an administrator and supervising mashgichim. These are no higher than the normal fees that the other supervising agencies charge.

(SR):

I salute your PR efforts.  But 1) not everyone goes to Kesher Israel.  2) Nobody under the age of 35, who is not a Jewish professional, reads the Washington Jewish Week.

As for the last sentence in the first paragraph – that’s ad hominem.   Trying to deligitimize arguments because you say the person dislikes you.  As Scott Weinberg would say, “Where’s the evidence?”  I, for one, didn’t know a thing about the Vaad or the rabbis there until I tried doing business with them.

Complaint A:  I’ve heard it only once, but I never believed it.

Complaint B:  If the Vaad made a ton of money, then I would imagine every rabbi in DC would want to work for it, or else open another certifying organization.  That’s one the beauties of a competitive market – something you of course don’t support  – it keeps wages in check.

Complaint C:  I’ve never heard somebody say he had to pay $60,000 to the Vaad for certification.  But since I think this complaint refers to me, I think I’ll address it.  Rabbi Saunders (of the Vaad) estimated to me that a mashgiach’s yearly salary would total $60,000.  And Rabbi Saunders said the mashgiach could probably attend to non-kosher duties about 33 percent of the time.  This salary – $15 to $18 per your calculation – is almost double what a normal sandwich shop employee earns.  And these employees do not usually get healthcare either – something you now impose (despite the fact that it has nothing to do with kashrut).  Plus normal employees can work full time, not one-third of the time.  Yes, I realize that this is part of doing kosher business, but you have to also appreciate that $60,000 is cost prohibitive for many small shops that don’t do larger price sales like Eli’s restaurant does.  Additionally, when we asked for quotes from individual mashgiachs not affiliated with the Vaad, we received a much lower quote.

I’ve said throughout my response that the Vaad has no way of imposing a monopoly through law (despite its desires) because it can’t enact legislation that would shut down non-Vaad-certified restaurants.  But I’ve also said in the past that the DC kosher food world suffers from a lack of competition.  How to reconcile these two?  The Vaad has done a great job of dominating market share and keeping out competition simply by reputation.  Local rabbis tell all prospective kosher restaurateurs that they should use the Vaad as their certifying organization (as many Rabbis told me), and many kosher eaters don’t trust any non-Vaad certifiers.  Of course, the Vaad is well-within its rights to exert its influence and power this way.  But individual authors and commenters are also within their rights to try to show the community that subservience – rabbinical and congregational – to the Vaad might result in higher prices and fewer kosher restaurants.  If enough people begin to feel this way, then other options will arise.  That’s why I celebrate Sixth & Rye.

Stephen Richer is a co-founder and director of Gather the Jews.  The views expressed in this article belong solely to Stephen.

Other GTJ posts on this subject:

Kosher Kontroversy: In Defense of the Va’ad – Bethany Murphy

Koshergate Kotinues – Link to HuffPo / Forward piece.

How Kosher is DCs Kosher Food Truck? – Link to WaPo article.

Q: why doesn’t DC have more kosher food restaurants? A: The Vaad – Stephen Richer

 

 

 

30 replies
  1. Elanit
    Elanit says:

    Interesting thoughtful comments. My only comment is to point out that Rabbi Freundel wrote the piece for his congregation, hence his comments on his personal PR efforts at his synagogue. Should more be done? Sure. But it shouldn’t be a knock against him that not everyone goes to Kesher. His presentation at synagogue and his email was specifically him speaking as the Rabbi of Kesher Israel, not as a rabbi on the Vaad.

    Reply
  2. David
    David says:

    Stephen,

    Thank you for the link.

    The biggest obstacle to more kosher options in DC is that the population who keeps strictly kosher is relatively small. There’s a large number of places in the ‘burbs, and that’s typical of pretty much any US city other than New York.

    The Va’ad is a pain, but honestly they’re not worse than any of the DC government regulatory agencies – go try to get an occupancy permit sometime, and you’ll see what I mean.

    To a larger point, I presume you haven’t run a kosher restaurant before – the “kosher” duties of the mashgiah are, to a large extent, things that the restauranteur would need to have done anyway (i.e. washing vegetables thoroughly, accepting deliveries). The “non-kosher” duties could include things like running a register, taking orders, preparing food, or the like.

    Reply
  3. Jacob
    Jacob says:

    This article confused me. It appears to no longer be about the 6th and rye. What are you saying exactly. On an unrelated subject I received an email from the rabbi today and he promised to call me when he is back in the USA after July 7th. I suggest emailing or calling him directly.

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  4. Jacob
    Jacob says:

    As a response to the general theme of ” koshergste”. For the people that eat only at vaad approved resturaunts: how many of you care what places other agencies certify. I am part of this group and it doesn’t much matter to me.
    For people who eat at resturaunts not certified by the vaad. How many of you care what places the vaad certifies.

    Reply
  5. Rabbi Sanders
    Rabbi Sanders says:

    My, my, my. Or, as we say, oy, oy, oy. I am quoted as having told Stephen that “a mashgiach’s yearly salary would total $60,000”. I said nothing of the sort. What I did say was that the total amount of hours that a facilty is open per week is approximately 65 hours (Sunday through Thursday at 12 hours per day, and five hours on Friday). This is roughly a full time job plus a half time job, necessitating two mashgichim, not one. 65 hours@ $18.00 per hour = $1,170 , and, if there are actually fifty weeks a year in which a kosher store can be open (closed on Passover, and so forth) then it works out to a grand total of $58,500 per year for one full time and one part time mashiach.

    I also never said that mashgichim can only attend to duties other than kosher ones only about 33% of the time. What I did say is that it varies, depending on the type of store. If the store requires huge amounts of kosher duties (tons of vegetables to check for bugs and process, lots of meat to salt) then the mashgiach has less time to attend to other things. (The store’s layout also matters – can the mashgiach observe all areas in one contiguous flow, or are there multiple areas.) In the store that Stephen would like to open I said that I think the mashgiach would attend to his kashrut duties perhaps 33% of the time, exactly the opposite of his statement.

    That’s what I said. Most of the mashgichim in our system therefore make in the $40,000 range, and most do not have health benefits (which they should). The nonsensical idea that a mashgiach should be compared to some kind of kitchen worker is absurd.

    Generally speaking, the Vaad is a true community organization. It’s officers are the only democratically elected servants of the community – our rabbis, each of whom underwent a rigorous search and election process. They – elected by the community – call the shots – for the community, entirely on a volunteer basis. The mashgichim employed by the Vaad have over the years included the young and old, male and female, black and white – from every synagogue in the community. Architects and lawyers out of work, housewives and college students have all worked for the community. A community has the right to guide its own destiny and determine its own standards.

    I am a public servant, and as such am available to anyone who wants to call me at any time to inquire about anything kosher. My number is 202 489 6856.

    And lastly – my name is Sanders, not Saunders.

    Reply
    • Stephen Richer
      Stephen Richer says:

      I’ll take the last point first. Sanders vs. Saunders. Sorry about that. I’d only heard your name spoken before, and that’s what it sounded like. I couldn’t find it on the Vaad’s website to check the spelling. You’re not list under the affiliated rabbis. (http://www.capitolk.org/congregations.html)

      Jumping to the first paragraph… Well. That’s what I wrote down as you having said (yes, I took notes). But no, I did not tape record our conversation, so there’s really no way of substantiating this. I would ask why I would write down something higher than what I heard when that number played a large part in eliminating the viability of our kosher shop endeavor. You can ask anyone — I’d never heard of the Vaad prior to calling you (I don’t keep kosher), and I certainly didn’t have any reason to think ill of you, so why would I purposefully change the number? Let’s then go with Occam’s Razor on this one — not assume that I have some weird tragic past with the Vaad — and take my word that is what I heard.

      As for the one-third thing. I also have in my notes — and I reported immediately after to my partners — that one of the benefits of a non-meat kosher restaurant would be that the Mashgiach could work up to 50% of the time on normal store responsibilities. If you framed this an improvement, it must follow that the meat mashgiach could not work 66% of the time on normal store responsibilties.

      “The nonsensical idea that a mashgiach should be compared to some kind of kitchen worker is absurd.” I acknowledge that paying a mashgiach is a part of the kosher food business. That’s just how it is. Not denying that. As for what the fair wage for a mashgiach is… His wages should be whatever the market demand is for him.

      “It’s [sic] officers are the only democratically elected… A community has the right to guide its own destiny and determine its own standards.”

      Couldn’t agree more. People should eat where they want to eat. If they only have faith in the Vaad, then they should only eat at the restaurants the Vaad certifies. Totally fair. However, I have heard many complaints about the lack of kosher restaurants in DC (especially 6 months ago when there was non DistriKt or Sixth & Rye), and I simply suggested that the Vaad could be seen as something as an obstacle. Whether or not you view this as a good thing….

      “I am a public servant…”

      I salute you — and the other rabbis of the Vaad — for the services your provide to the community. But just because you’re doing a nice deed for free, doesn’t mean your decisions are unassailable. I know very well that people object with some of my Gather the Jews decisions despite the fact that this too is a public service that has earned me 0 dollars and 0 cents.

      Thanks much for the response Rabbi Sanders. We always welcome your voice and opinion either through comments on articles or through an actual article. Please email if this is something you’re interested in doing in the future.

      Stephen

      Reply
  6. Rabbi Sanders
    Rabbi Sanders says:

    Hi Stephen,

    You just have to take better notes :)… illustratively, I am not a member rabbi of the Vaad (only pulpit rabbis are, and their service on the Vaad is entirely pro bono) but it”s only full time employee (there is a part time office manager). The Vaad’s entire operating budget for the year is (an unbelievably low) <$120K, including my salary ($62K plus expenses – I have another job in order to survive) the office manager's , rent, and so on. I have been offered directorships of no less than four other Vaad's in the last few years at starting salaries well more than double my current one, and have refused, largely because this Vaad is so pure in its devotion to penury that it is thus able to make hard decisions with no financial pressure. Whenever religion and money collide, money will always win. It's better to have no money.

    Following the sad debacle of the non-kosher steak incident a couple of years ago at the JCC, I was asked to speak at the annual gathering of kosher organizations held yearly at the OU's international headquarters in New York City. The room was extremely crowded, with representatives of practically every organization and Vaad around the country present, as well as some from abroad. I had the privilege of speaking between the presentations of the two Chief Rabbis of Israel. Following my brief remarks, in which I described the incident and how it was handled (immediate termination and so on) I was met with an angry and frustrated chorus of questions and responses, almost all of which said the same thing: " In our town, if you tried something like this, some other kosher organization would pick up the certification by the next day".

    Our town has experienced explosive growth in the number of kosher options available (We now have more meat restaurants than Baltimore, for example) in a very short time. Most of this growth has come in the northern suburbs. I think that's because there's more demand for kosher there – but I also think that DC is next, just based on the feelers I receive from time to time.

    So I look forward to the natural progression that comes from growth in population and infrastructure. A unified communal approach has enabled spectacular growth, and will further enable it as time goes on.

    Shabbat Shalom to you, Stephen, and to the entire community.

    Reply
  7. Stephen Richer
    Stephen Richer says:

    I’ll work on it. I don’t pretend to have mastered the art yet — far from it.

    The scenario of a certification organization opening up and gaining market share because it will stamp its kosher seal on almost any organization — irregardless of how kosher it is — is indeed problematic.

    The only way really around this is through the vigilant consumer. Kosher-keeping consumers should only trust restaurants that are certified by trustworthy certifiers. In order to gain the confidence of its customers, certifiers should make public as much of their processes as possible. That way customers know exactly what standards different agencies use.

    I guess that if I could ask for one thing out of my experience with the kosher world and this conversation, it would be that — greater transparency. I would love for the Vaad, Ohev Sholom, etc. to list on their websites exactly what their standards are, what the kosher certification process entails, what the expected costs are, and what the expected time frame is. Right now, it’s a bit of a black box for those of us not in the “in.” And black boxes don’t encourage investment or entrepreneurship.

    Shabbat Shalom to you too Rabbi Sanders. And, again, thanks for your comments.

    Reply
  8. GTB
    GTB says:

    When I first heard of 6th & Rye my intentions were to eat at it unless the Vaad could provide an explanation I considered coherent for not doing so. It has done so, as per Bethany’s article, and the facts that arose later in regard to the truck (the Shavuot incident) have shown the Vaad’s caution to be right.

    Lets be real honest about what this food truck is and what it is not. It was intented to provide a “genuine” food experience. Just like a truck might sell “geniune” Mexican tacos or “genuine” Vietname Banh mi, the intention here was to provide Washington with genuine kosher deli. Kosher and Kosher-style conflated into one item.

    To the person who actually keeps kosher this is not merely patronizing; here’s the rub: I already have deli in DC: Eli’s. The utility of an extra deli for one meal a week – and Friday afternoon at that – is virtually nill. You know what the average kosher person in downtown DC wants? Kosher tacos or banh mi or sushi or Chinese or, G-d help me, pizza. A simple pizza. A truck aimed at selling the same product as the narrow range already sold? You’re kidding.

    And as Bethany pointed out, the Vaad was given less then a day to negotiate a fairly novel kosher food distribution method. This does not show good intent to me.

    The truck was clearly never intended for people who keep strictly kosher. At most we were intended as incidental beneficiaries. I get that. But there’s no “koshergate” here. Merely, some people want the kosher designation as a marketing gimmick (the owners), some well-intentioned people are subsidizing direct competition to Elis in the view this somehow improves Jewish life in DC (6th & I) and some well-intentioned rabbis who decided the Vaad must have bad intent ending up getting in over their heads (you know who you are) and should just pray the owner never finds it in his economic interest to evade their rules. Not that the need for a subsidy indicates there could be any such interest.

    Reply
  9. masortiman
    masortiman says:

    Regulatory agencies need to be democratically responsible. That could mean to the majority of Jews, which in DC would mean largely Reform and unaffiliated Jews. Or to the majority of people who have kosher homes – which in greater DC probably means as many Conservative Jews as Orthodox Jews. Or at least to the majority of Jews who only eat meat out – which still leaves a very large group who are not affiliated with shuls associated with the Vaad. The regulatory agency model does not apply to kosher certification, because we do not have democratic community governance (or even other nondemocratic governance that all accept as legitimate)

    The proper model is the financial statement audit model. Clients pay for the certifications that their customers value. Since kashrut certification (like auditors underwriting) is not free, theres no point to getting one that doesnt have credibility with someone. Since some investors, like some kosher consumers, have lower standards, the results are imperfect. But the alternative is leaving monopoly power to a board that is not democratically responsible. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the 6th and Rye case (and I think how we view those has a great deal to do with our personal standards and opinions) I don’t know that that monopoly is a good thing. It apparently is not being exploited financially by the Vaad here (I have seen serious accusations on that account about other metro areas though) but even so, I dont accept their right to impose their standards on matters where there is legitimate halachic dispute.

    I, as Conservative Jew moving toward more observance have no intention of privileging Vaad certification over others (except where C rabbis convince me a given certification is unreliable). Other kosher consumers are of course free to not eat anywhere other than Vaad certified establishments. I hope our individual choices do not too much interfere with the others needs.

    Reply
  10. masortiman
    masortiman says:

    ” the intention here was to provide Washington with genuine kosher deli. Kosher and Kosher-style conflated into one item.

    To the person who actually keeps kosher this is not merely patronizing; here’s the rub: I already have deli in DC: Eli’s. The utility of an extra deli for one meal a week – and Friday afternoon at that – is virtually nill. ”

    I presume most kosher style consumers wont pay a premium for certification for a couple of premade sandwiches. Given that they DO have to pay for a mashgiach, I can’t see how that can make economic sense. There MAY be a bunch of kind of sort of kosher consumers – C Jews, R Jews, others, who are not strictly kosher, but DO want to be more observant, by at least eating kosher when its easy. Thats pretty much where I am right now (my DD has gone beyond that, my DW is not yet at that point)

    I dont use 6th and Rye cause its not handy to me – but if it were, I would probably use it. Certainly the first article I saw on it indicated some serious folks who were glad of the choice.

    Reply
  11. Jay Lehman
    Jay Lehman says:

    As the one who sent the letter to the editor of the Washington Post, I would like to elaborate on the Washington Vaad issues, which was difficult to do in 200 words.

    The Vaad has had a virtual monopoly when it comes to kosher establishments in the DC area for decades. The Vaad has made it clear that other kosher supervising organizations including nationally recognized authorities such as OU, Star-K, and Kof-K are not welcome into the DC area to supervise kosher establishments. I have spoken to representatives of several organizations who confirmed this. Even the Vaad itself admits this policy. While the Vaad has no legal means to enforce this policy, most organizations have chosen to stay away from DC in order to avoid confrontation. I have been told by some of these organizations that they would have no problem coming into DC if the Vaad ended its objection to allowing them in.

    There are some that argue that this monopoly is good because it maintains a higher level of kashrut. In most cities around the country including our neighbors in Baltimore, there is more than one choice in kashrut organizations. There is the Baltimore Vaad (Star-K) and also other options including but not limited to OU and Kof-K. Baltimore’s Orthodox Jewish community is much more to the right than that of DC, and there is no shortage of kosher establishments who are trusted by the vast majority of Baltimore’s Orthodox Jews. The bottom line is that competition not only drives improved service and price but also maintains a high standard of kashrut. If a particular kosher organization is not trusted by many people, anyone going into the kosher business trying to attract this population will not use that organization. The problem in DC is that there has only been one choice for kashrut. Anyone who wants to be kosher has had to go through the Vaad or not be kosher. There was no incentive for the Vaad to be easy to work with because they had total control of the market. Kosher owners would have to put up with whatever the Vaad demanded even if unrelated to kashrut because there was no other choice. I truly believe that the Vaad monopoly has significantly hindered the growth in number and quality of kosher establishments in the DC area.

    The Vaad monopoly also impact prices. As I mentioned in my letter, all kosher meat/poultry suppliers to DC area kosher establishments must submit to Vaad supervision even if they are already certified by a nationally recognized organization such as the OU. This policy obviously increases cost and aggravation for meat suppliers to the DC area, and ultimately affects the kosher consumer.

    Catering is also affected by the Vaad’s monopoly. The Vaad does not allow any non Vaad caterers into member shuls unless they submit to additional Vaad supervision. For example, I cannot bring in a Star-K supervised caterer from Baltimore into my shul unless that caterer goes through the process and expense of submitting to Vaad supervision. With Baltimore so close to DC, it is a true shame that we cannot benefit from their catering options which in my opinion offer better quality at a better price than Vaad caterers.

    Another issue related to the Vaad is the concept of membership. The Vaad is based off of its member shuls of which there are now ten. Most Vaads serve a community, not a select group of shuls. In Baltimore, for example, there is no concept of shul membership in the Star-K. There are many Orthodox shuls in the DC area including Chabad, Silver Spring Jewish Center, and Ohev Shalom-National Synagogue who are not members of the Vaad and have no say in the decision making process. This is a stark contrast to what Rabbi Sanders characterizes as a democratic organization. In addition, Rabbi Herzfeld of the Ohev Shalom-National Synagogue applied to be on the Vaad and was rejected with no reason given. So much for a democratic organization. The Vaad, as an Orthodox Jewish organization should serve all Orthodox Jews in the area, not select members.

    Rabbi Sanders mentioned that Vaad’s budget is less than $120,000. I went of Guidestar and looked up the Vaad. There are no 990 forms listed. The reason given is that the organization is a church. Clearly, the Vaad is not a house of worship. My question is that if they are all volunteers, and only spend $120,000, why not release their financial records? Using the Baltimore example again, the Star-K has a financial statement which can be viewed online.

    I am not asking the Vaad to change how they operate their kosher supervision. They can operate it how they see fit. My goal is simply to give DC access to other alternatives. This could be accomplished with a simple statement by the Vaad stating that we are here to serve our community but no longer object to other kashrut authorities doing business in the DC area. With that statement, the monopoly would end, and the kosher consumer would finally have the choice which they deserve.

    Reply
  12. David
    David says:

    @Jay,

    How precisely does a kosher consumer benefit from a multiplicity of supervising agencies?

    Given that none of the non-va’ad supervising agencies which have been used in DC (R’ Weiss, R’ Steinberg, MAOR) have publicly available, published standards either, how would one go about determining whether a given supervision was adequate?

    As a consumer (who has a far above average amount of knowledge about both kashrut and restaurant operations), I am a huge fan of simplicity and transparency. Calls for additional supervising agencies do not accomplish this, and in fact make the situation worse.

    Reply
    • Jay Lehman
      Jay Lehman says:

      My point is simply if the Vaad lifted its objection to outside hashgachas, nationally accepted organization such as OU, Star-K, and Kof-K would be willing to come to DC. This would make it easier for kosher establishments to open in DC and help improve quality, choice, and price. I see these benefits in other cities including Baltimore, Miami, and NY. These hashgachas are well respected by virtually everyone and are seen all over the country, why not here in DC?

      Reply
      • David Barak
        David Barak says:

        Could you please point me to the place where any of those national hashgahot have published their standards, so that I can compare them with the va’ad’s standards and decide whether they are adequate? Conversely, if the national agencies are holding to the same standard that the va’ad is, what would be the actual advantage to the consumer of having them here?

        Reply
        • Jay Lehman
          Jay Lehman says:

          You could contact the OU, Star-K, Kof-K, etc. and I am sure they would be happy to discuss their standards. These hashgachas are widely accepted nationwide. I have witnessed vaad Rabbis eating at establishments under these hashgachas in other cities. I am guessing that 99% if not 100% of DC area kosher consumers would eat under these hashgachas and their Rabbis would have no objections in other cities.

          Again, as I have said before, the advantage of multiple hashgachas is choice. When one agency has total control of kashrut it invites abuse as I have documented. There is no incentive for a single agency to have good customer service, and there are no market forces to keep costs in control.

          With multiple hashgachas free market forces will drive a better product at the best possible price. I disagree wit those who say that this will decrease the level of kashrut in that the kosher market will demand a reliable hashgacha. If a particular hashgacha has issues, establishments will avoid them so they can continue to capture the kosher market.

          This system works in Baltimore, and institutions including Ner Israel and Aguda and others there seem to have no problem with it.

          We in DC also deserve choice as so many other cities have. If the vaad is so incredilble as you suggest, then they have nothing to fear and will maintain their market share even with competition.

          Reply
          • David Barak
            David Barak says:

            Again, as I have said before, the advantage of multiple hashgachas is choice. When one agency has total control of kashrut it invites abuse as I have documented. There is no incentive for a single agency to have good customer service, and there are no market forces to keep costs in control.

            This would only make sense if the customers of the restaurants are the customers of the supervising agency; they are not. The customers of the supervising agency are the restaurants themselves – what you are advocating is that the restaurants are requiring better service, not that actual consumers get better service.

            Also, when price is the discriminating factor, as you imply, then there is a race to the bottom with regard to quality. This is basic business 101 – once something becomes commoditized such that price is the only relevant discriminator, all of the parties involved attempt to minimize their costs. This will necessarily lead to less consistent standards in supervision, as there is no way to differentiate based on quality.

            I understand that you mean well in this, but the position you are advocating is one which will lead to an erosion in quality of kashrut standards in what is a very small kosher market. I hope you will reconsider your position.

    • Rabbi Steinberg
      Rabbi Steinberg says:

      In reply to David’s comment that

      “Given that none of the non-va’ad supervising agencies which have been used in DC (R’ Weiss, R’ Steinberg, MAOR) have publicly available, published standards either, how would one go about determining whether a given supervision was adequate?”… “I am a huge fan of simplicity and transparency. …”

      David;

      The information regarding the standard used to certify any food service establishment or product label under our approval is clearly specified on the Teudah (certificate) itself.
      A phone number is also printed there for those who have further inquiry.

      If you have any helpful suggestions as to how the information which you refer to can be communicated with even more “simplicity and transparency”, please feel free to contact us at the given number.

      Thank you for your interest in CupK (R) Kosher Supervision.

      Rabbi Y. Steinberg

      Brooklyn, NY

      Reply
      • David
        David says:

        In reply to R’ Sternberg’s post,

        Thank you for joining the discussion. I have not been to the truck, and therefore have not personally examined the teudah (regardless of any kashrut controversy, I don’t work downtown). It’s pretty easy nowadays to publish websites – an example of a type of transparency which would be superior to what the va’ad currently has would be a website listing your positions on (for instance): dairy bread; whether yotzi v’nichnas is sufficient in some restaurants, and if so, which ones and why; whether a restaurant owned by gentiles needs to be closed on shabbat; or whether food-processing implements can be kashered without waiting 24 hours.

        The complaints about the va’ad are not that they are too lenient; it would be a big help for a consumer who lives in DC to be able to evaluate on what basis you decide whether to supervise a given establishment. The va’ad is not very transparent – I ask you, as the agent of change in this matter, to please exceed their transparency and actually put your opinions on the record. Most agencies do not do a good job of this, and work by reputation alone – but that leads to all sorts of rechilut and bad things being said, so I hope that we can move to a standard which is based on what the decisions are, rather than who makes them.

        By the way, this is the first I have heard that the agency you represent is the CupK – all of the articles and discussions refer to you by name, implying that you are a solo actor. I was not able to locate a website for the cupK – the only significant reference I could find was the restaurant which switched back to the OK from the CupK. I encourage you to have a presence on the Internet so that inquiring minds may contact you.

        Thank you very much, Rabbi, and Shabbat Shalom,
        David

        Reply
    • Rabbi Steinberg
      Rabbi Steinberg says:

      In reply to David’s comment that

      “Given that none of the non-va’ad supervising agencies which have been used in DC (R’ Weiss, R’ Steinberg, MAOR) have publicly available, published standards either, how would one go about determining whether a given supervision was adequate?”… “I am a huge fan of simplicity and transparency. …”

      David;

      The information regarding the standard used to certify any food service establishment or product label under our approval is clearly specified on the Teudah (certificate) itself.
      A phone number is also printed there for those who have further inquiry.

      If you have any helpful suggestions as to how the information which you refer to can be communicated with even more “simplicity and transparency”, please feel free to contact us at the given number.

      Thank you for your interest in CupK ® Kosher Supervision.

      Rabbi Y. Steinberg

      Brooklyn, NY

      Reply
  13. jacob
    jacob says:

    @Jay,

    can you please share examples of your evidence you cite:

    “In the past, some people considering opening a kosher establishment in the area became discouraged after trying to work with the Vaad, and they decided not to open.”
    This should be an easy example for you to prove; can you please share an example of when this happened. Otherwise i dismiss your claim as hearsay.

    “The Vaad has made it clear that other kosher supervising organizations including nationally recognized authorities such as OU, Star-K, and Kof-K are not welcome into the DC area to supervise kosher establishments. I have spoken to representatives of several organizations who confirmed this. Even the Vaad itself admits this policy.”
    This should be an easy example for you to prove; can you please share an example of when this happened. Otherwise i dismiss your claim as hearsay.

    “Anyone who wants to be kosher has had to go through the Vaad or not be kosher. ”
    I disagree with your conclusion, and it seems to me that you are contradicting your previous statement about the existence of respected kosher certification agencies such as the OU, Star-K and Kof-K

    “The Vaad monopoly also impact prices. As I mentioned in my letter, all kosher meat/poultry suppliers to DC area kosher establishments must submit to Vaad supervision even if they are already certified by a nationally recognized organization such as the OU. This policy obviously increases cost and aggravation for meat suppliers to the DC area, and ultimately affects the kosher consumer.”
    Do you have evidence of any person, restaurant or company impacted by this claim. You may have found a significantly valid criticism of the Vaad if this is proved to be true.

    “Rabbi Sanders mentioned that Vaad’s budget is less than $120,000. I went of Guidestar and looked up the Vaad. There are no 990 forms listed. The reason given is that the organization is a church. Clearly, the Vaad is not a house of worship. My question is that if they are all volunteers, and only spend $120,000, why not release their financial records? Using the Baltimore example again, the Star-K has a financial statement which can be viewed online.”
    This paragraph commingles several issues. With regard to American Tax law the simple answer is that organizations classified as “churches” are not required to be “a house of worship”. Please see any tax attorney for a more detailed explanation.
    If you would like the Vaad to release their financial records please consider writing to them or attending one of their board meetings. I doubt they have ever received a written or in person request for financial records.

    “This could be accomplished with a simple statement by the Vaad stating that we are here to serve our community but no longer object to other kashrut authorities doing business in the DC area. With that statement, the monopoly would end, and the kosher consumer would finally have the choice which they deserve. ”
    This would be an excellent conclusion if there was a single documented piece of evidence supporting your premise. However in the absence of this evidence i dismiss the conclusion. Moreover kosher consumers have many choices.

    Reply
    • Jay Lehman
      Jay Lehman says:

      “In the past, some people considering opening a kosher establishment in the area became discouraged after trying to work with the Vaad, and they decided not to open.”

      I have spoken to people who were discouraged after trying to work with the Vaad. I am not at the liberty to give names. I also know of Baltimore caterers who looked into going under the Vaad but had too much aggravation.

      “The Vaad has made it clear that other kosher supervising organizations including nationally recognized authorities such as OU, Star-K, and Kof-K are not welcome into the DC area to supervise kosher establishments. I have spoken to representatives of several organizations who confirmed this. Even the Vaad itself admits this policy.”

      I spoke to a representative of the Kof-K who said that the Vaad does not welcome outside hashgachas and they would not come into DC unless the Vaad said it was ok. Also, Rabbi Sanders of the Vaad admits to this policy and strongly believes in it. Again, the Vaad has no legal means to keep national hashgachas out, but for the most part the national hashgachas are not interested in confrontation.

      “The Vaad monopoly also impact prices. As I mentioned in my letter, all kosher meat/poultry suppliers to DC area kosher establishments must submit to Vaad supervision even if they are already certified by a nationally recognized organization such as the OU. This policy obviously increases cost and aggravation for meat suppliers to the DC area, and ultimately affects the kosher consumer.”

      Several years ago, Abeles and Heyman a meat wholesaler from New York and under the OU did not want to pay the fees to be under the Vaad. The Vaad placed letters in all DC kosher establishments stating that Abeles and Heyman products are no longer reliable. During this incident, Abeles and Heyman remained under the OU. Eventually, A & H caved to the Vaad and agreed to pay the fees to sell in DC. I have copies of letters between Rabbi Winter and A&H covering this entire incident. A&H asked why do we need to be under the Vaad when we are already under the OU. Rabbi Winter wrote back that this is Vaad policy.

      “Rabbi Sanders mentioned that Vaad’s budget is less than $120,000. I went of Guidestar and looked up the Vaad. There are no 990 forms listed. The reason given is that the organization is a church. Clearly, the Vaad is not a house of worship. My question is that if they are all volunteers, and only spend $120,000, why not release their financial records? Using the Baltimore example again, the Star-K has a financial statement which can be viewed online.”
      This paragraph commingles several issues. With regard to American Tax law the simple answer is that organizations classified as “churches” are not required to be “a house of worship”. Please see any tax attorney for a more detailed explanation

      Again, if you go on guidestar you will see many other Vaads who do file 990 forms.

      If owners of kosher establishments had an option to go under a national hashgacha such as OU, Star-K, or Kof-K, it would improve kosher opportunities in DC. The DC Vaad can do whatever it wants, but do not force everyone in the DC area to live under their rules. The Vaad should end its objection to other hashgachas in DC. If they do, other mainstream national hashgachas such as OU, Star-K, and Kof-K would then be willing to come to DC. I am confident that 99 if not 100% of DC area kosher consumers would trust these hashgachas in other cities, why not here in DC as well? Most cities already have more than one choice in hashgacha.

      Reply
  14. GTB
    GTB says:

    Jay Lehman,

    So the big thing the Vaad does wrong is that it asks the national hecshers not to show up? And that the national hecshers choose to listen to the Vaad? You did not allege anything untoward. You alleged that local rabbis want local standards for local restaurants. And that other certifiers respect that.

    And if rabbis like R’ Herzfeld disagree, him not being a Vaad member? He has exactly the prerogative he has chosen to exercise with the van: he can certify his own restaurants or arrange another supervision to his own liking. Similarly, there is Maoz which is not certified by the Vaad. The van itself shows there is, in fact, no monopoly.

    The market will chose whether the establishment survives and whether there is economic value to these other certifications.

    Reply
    • Jay Lehman
      Jay Lehman says:

      You are correct with your point, but the fact of the matter is that national mainstream hashgachas such as OU, Star-K, and Kof-K will not come to DC unles the Vaad ends its objection to it. They do not want to have confrontation with the Vaad. My point is that the Vaad should end their objection to outside hashgachas. If the Vaad is so amazing in what it does, all kosher establishments in DC will continue to use the Vaad. If they have issues, at least the kosher establishment owner will now have other reliable options as they do in most other cities. This will ultimately benefit the kosher consumer.

      Reply
      • David Barak
        David Barak says:

        Jay,

        The va’ad is made up of the pulpit rabbis of the vast majority of the Orthodox synagogues in the greater Washington DC area. If you’re a member of a va’ad shul, make sure to make your opinion known to your rabbi. If you’re not a member of a va’ad shul, I’m not sure what to tell you. It might be illuminating to spend some time talking to the national agencies and asking them *why* they would go along with the va’ad’s request.

        As a member of a va’ad shul, I think the current policy is a good one, and is better for kosher consumers than a multiplicity of poorly differentiated supervising agencies would be. In those cities where there are several agencies functioning (i.e. ones with larger kosher-keeping communities than DC), I have yet to encounter a case where the differences between the agencies are made public and clear so that consumers can make an informed choice. In general, multiple agencies is a recipe for whispered innuendo and rechilut, and I am glad that DC has a strong single authority in this area.

        But of course, there is no King in Israel, so everyone may do as he pleases…

        Reply
        • Jay Lehman
          Jay Lehman says:

          I am a member of a Vaad shul. My Rabbi refuses to even discuss the issue. I have witnessed him eating in OU and Star-K establishments in other cities, but he will not allow caterers under these hashgachas into the shul unless they submit to Vaad supervision.

          As I have said before, I have spoken to several kashrut agencies and they abide by the Vaad policy in order to avoid confrontation. Keep in mind, these hashgachas are all over the country and have no issues going into cities all around the country. DC is a rare exception because of the vaad.

          As to the advantages to multiple hashgachas, see my response to your other post above.

          Reply
          • David Barak
            David Barak says:

            I responded above to the issue of multiple supervisions. I beleive you are making a category error in your argument, and I hope you reconsider.

            Rabbis of the member congregations of the va’ad are selected by the boards of their synagogues. They are accountable in their posisitons to them, and should certainly be willing to discuss the issue. I have attended several (most!) of the shuls in the Washington DC area, and have not found any of the va’ad rabbonim to be reticent about providing an explanation for their opinions. I will say that you will get better success if you ask for an explanation with an open mind: i.e. allow yourself to consider the other side of the argument, and concede in advance the possiblity that the rabbi might be correct. If you frame the question as an attack on the rabbi or his position, I can imagine why he would not discuss the issue.

            If you want this position of the DC va’ad to change, the only way to get that to happen is to initiate conversations with your rabbi. Attempting to “break” the va’ad’s control of kashrut in the DC area will only lead to trouble and additional schisms in the community – we have had enough of those and don’t need any more.

    • Jacob
      Jacob says:

      Maoz has a piece of paper on the wall with the name of a Rabbi referencing the name of the Yeshiva he attended, you can walk in the door to see it if you are interested. However, it’s a rather contentious issue (that is totally unrelated to this blog post) and i recommend that you check with your own personal Rabbi / Synagogue / Family / Community to determine if you would choose to eat there.

      Reply

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