Any opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and does not reflect the opinions of Gather the Jews. Read GTJ’s response here.
By profession, I am an officer in the United States Army. My job has brought me all around the world. I have both kept kosher and helped arrange Jewish servicemember events, always kosher, in locations as diverse as Seoul, Korea, Schweinfurt (Pig’s Crossing), Germany, and Baghdad, Iraq. It perplexes me then why some Jewish organizations, which tout their inclusiveness, insist on the exclusion of observant Jews by serving non-kosher food. At a time when far too many Jews are completely unaffiliated and totally disengaged from American Jewish communal life, Jewish organizations which have non-kosher events send a unmistakable “We don’t want you” message to observant Jews – a group which tends towards the most engagement, affiliation, and participation. Jewish organizations of every ideological stripe, which claim to welcome the entire community, act in this exclusionary fashion. A few examples:
The American Jewish Committee (AJC) is dedicated to “to work(ing) towards a world in which all peoples (are) accorded respect and dignity” by promoting “pluralistic and democratic societies.” Apparently, observant Jews aren’t a part of this “pluralism,” or necessarily in line for “respect and dignity.” Last month, the AJC held a Winter Access DC party at which it served non-kosher food and wine. I asked Jason Harris, the Assistant Director of AJC’s Washington Office, why the AJC holds non-kosher events. He responded by stating that the AJC serves “’kosher-style’ (food) when we host events at any bars or reception halls…” and that it is just too hard to find kosher food or catering in Washington.
J-Street claims that it is “rooted in commitment to Jewish values.” Evidentially, kashrut isn’t a part of the “Jewish values” in which J-Street is rooted. The 2011 J-Street National Conference featured only non-kosher food. Google “J-Street kosher” and you can read about the experiences of observant participants who had nothing to eat for three days. Benjamin Silverstein, New Media Associate with J-Street, states “the food at our events is at a minimum kosher style” and J-Street will “accomodate (sic) for specific needs.” At least if the blogosphere is accurate, at the 2011 National Conference, BLTs and Turkey and Cheese sandwiches qualify as “kosher-style” and “accommodation” in J-Street parlance.
I went to a Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) Hanukah party and found waitresses strolling with (non-kosher) lamb appetizers and butter sauce. I find this conduct distasteful, and stopped attending RJC functions. Just recently, I got an email from an RJC staffer, asking me and other Jewish Republicans to come back to the organization. I asked the RJC’s staffer whether the RJC had changed its practices. She stated that the RJC tries “to keep our events as kosher (or kosher-style) as possible.”
“Too hard.” “Accommodation.” “As kosher-style as possible.” Really? To be clear, “kosher style” food is not kosher and has the same status under halacha (Jewish law) as bacon. Observant Jews do not and cannot eat it. Anyone who organizes a Jewish event is or should be completely conscious of the fact that he or she excludes a portion of our community by serving “kosher-style (ie non-kosher) food. Why, then, do it?
Some argue “well, it is just too difficult” or “it costs too much” to have a kosher event. I am unmoved by tepid demurrer concerning the logistical difficulties of obedience to basic Jewish law. During my military career, adherence to Jewish law has not always been easy. Sometimes, when organizing Jewish events, loyalty to Jewish standards has meant serving potato chips and soda. Throwing hands-in-air, exclaiming “O well, too hard/too expensive,” and serving non-kosher food was never a thought – not for me, and not for the other participants, many of whom were not necessarily religious and did not keep kosher. Such surrender would be to the collective denial of Judaism and to the individual exclusion of the observant members of the community who would be unable to participate (and yes, there are observant Jews in the American military). If Jewish events can be kosher in Korea and Iraq- in the middle of a war- why not here, in Washington, where there are kosher caterers, kosher restaurants, and even non-Jewish venues with kosher kitchens?
There is no reason and no excuse for a non-kosher Jewish community event. It can be done here, and can be done with relative ease.
DC-based Jewish organizations of both local and national reach, including The Jewish Federation of Washington, the DCJCC, Hillel, AIPAC, and Gather the Jews only sponsor events which are kosher and have policies against serving non-kosher food. If these groups can do it, all can do it.
Others may ask “So you don’t eat… So what?” I doubt very seriously that anyone in community leadership would dare organize a joint event with Muslims which featured a beer/wine guzzle, or propose a Catholic-Jewish symposium centered around a beef barbeque on Friday during Lent. A liquor-based event would show profound disrespect to the sacred traditions of Islam. A meat-centric event during Lent would send a highly offensive message to Catholics. In both examples, Catholics or Muslims are consigned second-class status because they cannot fully participate and cannot eat. The same leaders, however, are perfectly content to send the same offensive, exclusionary and disrespectful message to observant Jews when their organizations serve non-kosher food – the message that the religious traditions of our people are unimportant and may be whimsically disregarded.
I, and many others who are observant, decline the exclusionary attitude and second-class status offered by Jewish community organizations which serve non-kosher food at their events. Members of these organizations should insist on change. It can be “kosher-style” or it can be “inclusive,” but it can’t be both and we, the observant members of the community, will not participate in your organizations so long as your dismissive posture remains.
Note from the RJC: The author of this piece references an incident that occurred several years ago and the author is no longer affiliated with or involved with the RJC. We would like to highlight a point omitted by the author that all the major events that the organization has hosted, including the Presidential Candidates Forum and events at the GOP convention in Tampa, were strictly kosher.