All but Observant Welcome

not kosh

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.

34 replies
  1. Lazar
    Lazar says:

    Well said. I’ve often felt the same sense of exclusion from Jewish organizations. Non Jewish organizations and businesses are always eager to accommodate my Kashrut needs and make me feel welcome, including a local Catholic university. I refuse to attend Jewish events that won’t serve Kosher food.

  2. Janet
    Janet says:

    I was surprised how many DC Jewish organizations served clearly non-kosher food even for casual events where it would be easy to be kosher, such as a BBQ where the participants are grilling the meat themselves. I just went to an event in Brooklyn co-sponsored by many organizations including J-street, and the food (including cheese) was kosher from Trader Joe’s, although they had both kosher and non-kosher wine. I appreciated that.

    On the other side, having just planned a DC wedding, I know that it’s difficult to have formal catered kosher events. Half the kosher caterers in DC are supervised by the “non-preferred” supervision agency, and only a subset of the remaining caterers are full-service. (Non-full-service caterers drop off fully cooked kosher food but don’t serve or heat it.) The small number of full-service kosher caterers take advantage of their market power, so until there’s enough demand that competition emerges to bring down prices, I could understand why less well-funded organizations might not be able to afford it, frankly.

  3. Rob Feldmeier
    Rob Feldmeier says:

    Thanks, Janet, for your insight. Like I said in my article, it is a false dichotomy between serving treyff and serving no food. At best, the dichotomy is between serving simple kosher foods and serving more elaborate non-kosher ones – it is always possible to get some soda, a few bags of potato chips, a veggie platter, and leave it at that. An organization which decides that it prefers to give offense to a seminal Jewish standard, as though kashrut is a mere trifle, to be waved away when necessary, is not an organization in which I will participate and is not one which represents the whole of the community.

  4. RJM
    RJM says:

    I agree with your sentiments one hundred percent and have often remarked on this phenomenon myself. Thank you for giving a voice to many of us who have felt the pain of being rudely and unapologetically excluded by our own supposedly liberal and inclusive brothers and sisters.

  5. K. Stern
    K. Stern says:

    First of all, thank you for serving our country as an officer in the Army. Second, thank you for writing this very thoughtful piece about the lack of inclusion in the Jewish community for all the different sects of Jews who wish to come together to celebrate holidays, support fundraisers, attend political rallies, or otherwise come together for something that is supposed to be of benefit to every Jewish man, woman, and child. As I tell my children, the Torah was given to one group – the Jewish people – and it was later decided (by us) that we break into groups. While customs vary between communities, kashrut always seemed (at least to me) to be a universal component in any pluralistic, Jewish gathering. Clearly we exclude all orthodox Jews when this very fundamental mitzvah is left aside.

    Based on my own experience hosting my son’s Bar Mitzvah in No. VA., it was impossible to find a venue that would allow our kosher caterers to bring in our food. Unfortunately, our shul was too small to accommodate all of our guests, so we had to find a hotel nearby. We didn’t even bother asking if we could kasher their kitchen; we simply wanted to bring in the food double-wrapped for storage. We pleaded with several different hotels before we finally decided that we would bring in a truck and leave it in idle for 25 hrs to store our food. It was a nightmare, but at least we got the job done and our son was pleased.

    I don’t offer this story as an excuse for the lamb appetizers with butter sauce. I offer it because surely if we could do it for our son, certainly organizations like the AJC and the RJC could swing it. I do wish No. VA. banquet halls would be willing to negotiate in order to make the whole thing easier, but like you’ve demonstrated as an officer abroad, where there is a will, there is a way to eat kosher.

  6. Yosef
    Yosef says:

    It is no wonder that American Jewry is dying a death of assimilation.
    We all know the truth after the last Jewish senses by the organized Jewish community, there are no more than 3 million Halachic Jews left in America.

  7. Jacob
    Jacob says:

    It seems to me keeping “kosher style” is sort of like saying “Cancun doesn’t count” or “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”. It is a fun marketing gimmick… Although there are likely several valid exceptions (including people who intellectually think they should keep Kosher but are unable to for particular circumstances). Any other ways to defend or define kosher style.

    • Rob Feldmeier
      Rob Feldmeier says:

      I won’t comment on a person’s individual practice here, because I’m not trying to comment on the validity thereof with regard to individuals. However, there is no excuse for Jewish community organizations to “kosher style” observant members out of participation. It is ALWAYS possible to keep kosher and it is ALWAYS possible to have kosher events. In my personal life, I have done it on every inhabited continent – where there’s a will…

  8. RS
    RS says:

    This “kosher style” is so common and so offensive. As an observant college student, I studied abroad in West Africa, where I managed three fully kosher meals a day. If I can do it, so can every Jewish organization America- especially the ones on the East Coast. Thanks for publicizing this.

  9. Al
    Al says:

    This is precisely the reason why I felt alienated by my Hillel. I never understood why it was ok to bring Domino pizza to events. It made me feel isolated as one of the few observant Jews on campus and not partaking in eating while food is such a big part of our culture! As the leader of a non-Jewish group, I made sure to bring in kosher food such as chips, drinks, dips- it does not take much. Also, I was at the Hannukah party put on by RJC, the food was specifically catered by Shalom’s and Krispy Kremes and no other food was dispersed unless maybe you went to a different area of the venue?

  10. Rob Feldnmeier
    Rob Feldnmeier says:

    The RJC Hanukah party I mention was not 2012’s- like I said, I haven’t been back to an RJC event because of my previous experience. I’m glad to hear that there is some progress from the RJC on this issue, and, as I told there staffer, I’d be happy to start coming again, when the practice of serving non-kosher food ceases completely.

  11. Rob Feldnmeier
    Rob Feldnmeier says:

    The RJC Hanukah party I mention was not 2012’s- like I said, I haven’t been back to an RJC event because of my previous experience. I’m glad to hear that there is some progress from the RJC on this issue, and, as I told their staffer, I’d be happy to start coming again, when the practice of serving non-kosher food ceases completely.

  12. Simcha
    Simcha says:

    Following is my letter to FIDF:

    Dear Ms. Friedman,

    First of all, thank you for your work on behalf of the soldiers of the IDF.
    Second, I would like to add my voice to the demand that kosher options be available to observant Jews at your events.

    As a former IDF warrior living in DC, and an observant Jew, I find myself demotivated to partake in an event or organization that communicates to me that my worldview is unimportant to it. This message resounds even more strongly in a country where I have been provided with certified Kosher meals at conferences in hotels and private Catholic colleges, with little or no effort on my part.

    The IDF itself is 100% kosher. This is because it is an inclusive organization, where many of the soldiers are observant, many much more than myself. Today and increasingly so, many of the most prestigious combat and special forces positions are held by Orthodox Jews, as the Religious Zionists are increasingly becoming the main torch bearers of Zionism in our time.

    Best wishes and utmost respect,
    Simcha Korenblit

  13. Judith Hellerstein
    Judith Hellerstein says:

    Excellent Article. I agree completely. It is really unfathomable to me why these organizations continue to serve unkosher food when Kosher Food is readily available. If they feel that they can not afford kosher food than perhaps they need charge a price for admission that covers these costs. Or why not try to go all vegetarian and serve only cold foods. This will allow a much larger proportion of people to partake. Also it is not only people who are orthodox that feel excluded by these groups but a much large subset of all jews, who observe the laws of kashrut. These people may identify themselves as conservative, reform or non-denominational.

  14. S
    S says:

    Pluralism means accepting all those are part of the community while not being necessarily your choice. Big tent does NOT mean falling back on the most extreme philosophy. As a progressive member of the community (who mind you does keep a kosher home), it is not my place to tell others what their Judaism means or how they should be practicing.

    I’m not coming into your synagogue and demanding to chant Torah as a woman, you can’t come and demand others meet you on everything either.

    And kudos to these organizations on realizing their target audience is not the 5% of Jews who need kosher food, but the 95% of Jews who want a meaningful Jewish community and experience. This is what community is all about.

    • Rob Feldmeier
      Rob Feldmeier says:

      S, I’m not expecting a Reform synagogue to serve kosher food when only Reform Jews are present – aReform synagogue serves people who believe in Reform doctrines. I don’t expect it to provide me with a mechitza upon demand. However, if a Jewish organization claims to serve every Jew, not just secular and Reform Jews, that means just that, every Jew, including the large number of us who belong to the Conservative movement or Orthodox Judaism, which requires that its adherents to keep kosher. Even the Reform Movement holds that, at group events invoving everyone, for the sake of Jewish unity, food should be kosher.

      Why you would take offense to a JEWISH organization being just that, Jewish, and complying with the norms expected by Orthdox Judaism and the Conservative AND Reform movements is beyond me. Further, as someone who claims to keep a kosher home, why you would find kashrut “extreme” is even further beyond logic. The only thing “extremist” is your kudos to treyff.

  15. confused
    confused says:

    S, I am confused by your comment. Do you think it would be “falling back on the most extreme philosophy” or “tell[ing] others what their Judaism means” to request that the RJC or any other organization offer the same options as tons of completely secular organizations like the Mayflower, Omni, and just about every other hotel and conference center in town?

    Have Orthodox Jews imposed their beliefs on the Nationals in order to get Kosher food at the Stadium?

    Asking that a service be provided, and even abstaining from a company’s other services, is not imposing anything on them. The RJC can continue not to offer kosher options and Rob can continue avoiding their events.

    He’s not trying to get a law passed that persecutes people for their religious beliefs. He has no authority to force anyone to do anything. He is merely making an argument and trying to persuade people to listen to him.

    Whether you agree with that argument or not, he is no way telling anyone what their Judaism means or how they should be practicing.

  16. A
    A says:

    Two points for “S”:
    1. No, community is having kosher food so that everyone may partake.
    2. It can be argued what the standard for kosher food is but the problem is that many Jewish organizations have no such standard.

  17. Jon
    Jon says:

    Thank you for the thoughful article. I know we have talked about this issue before. I agree with you with a handful of small caveots:
    At what point do you draw the line. Say you are doing a wine and cheese event what about someone who will not use a basic heckser (recognized in the US, but not by Chabbad Lubbavich etc) and will only use something like Cholov Yisroel? Are we excluding them by not using the strictest hechsher available?

    What about with vegetables? There was a discussion that due to having to look for microscopic bugs, kosher certified salads are actually very expensive (according to a couple of people who just threw a full blown kosher wedding).

    There has to be options that are available, but sometimes the organizers can go over line. I had this experience in the past when obtaining liquor for a Jewish event. I got a bottle of scotch donated that touched a barrel that once had non kosher sherry. It wasn’t central to the event and in this case it would have been very easy for someone who believed it was not kosher by their standards to just not drink it. Instead I was asked to go back and ask for additional donations above and beyond what was initial even requested, which puts extra requirements on those looking to help the jewish community.

    Overall though I agree with you and I am amazed when I see things like Fried Chicken from Fast food places at a shabbat dinner.

    • Rob Feldmeier
      Rob Feldmeier says:

      Jon, thank you for your comment. I’m glad that you like my article. If any of the organizations above served only food that had ANY hechsher, or served food that under ANY standard could be widely considered kosher, I would not have included that organization in the article – even if the standard is one which I personally believe to be too lenient.

      I frequently attend Chabad and one of the things which I find impressive is that Rabbi Shem Tov is quite clear about the fact that, while he may keep stringencies like Cholov Yisrael and inspected vegetables, he would never tell someone that eating Cholov Stam or thrice-washed vegetables is wrong. His precise quote to me was “G-d forbid I should say it’s not kosher.” Kashrut, like Judaism, has wide goal-posts.

      In my own home, I keep kosher. If I know that someone is coming who keeps a higher standard than I do, I adapt to that standard and everyone eats to the higher standard. I do this because I extend to other Jews the same courtesy that I extend to people of different faiths. For example, if I know that a religious Hindu is coming, the meal is vegetarian because some castes don’t eat meat. If I know that an observant Muslim is coming, I serve no booze because Muslims find alcohol consumption to be offensive. I do this because I want my guests to be welcomed. I wouldn’t make a special batch of vegetarian and serve up cow (in the case of the Hindu) or offer fruit juice while everyone else got drunk because that A. shows that I don’t really respect the other person’s beliefs, and that I have invited him to have him watch me engage in conduct which he believes to be wrong and B. singles out my guest and makes him feel different than the rest.

      I suspect that anyone above who grouses about not wanting kosher would do that same thing as I do for a non-Jewish friend or guest. Can’t we treat our own with the same level of courtesy that we would extend to someone else?

  18. Bulldog
    Bulldog says:

    Rob, et al.,
    Would you feel better if an organization hosted an event at a “Bring your own food” place like Iron Horse? You could bring food that meets your definition of Kosher, someone else could grab a burrito at Chipotle, someone else could eat beforehand or afterward. They would still serve non-Kosher wine, but you could choose to have a Star-K bottle of Sam Adams while someone else sips a non-hechsherred Chardonnay? That might be a compromise that satisfies all variations of Jewish observances.

    • Rob Feldmeier
      Rob Feldmeier says:

      Several Jewish organizations, including GTJ, do just that. The next GTJ Happy Hour is at Buffalo Wild Wings. The only drink special offered are on kosher drinks (ie, beer and mixed liquor). If someone wants to order a glass of non-kosher wine, or a non-kosher burger, it’s a free country. There are always creative solutions.

  19. Jeremy Yonteff
    Jeremy Yonteff says:

    Great Article, unfortunately this is nothing new, and is hardly limited to kashrus in terms of house non-observant jews create essentially discriminatory practices with respect to Torah observant jews. I cannot tell you how many times i have been to “inclusive” events that feature things forbidden in halacha whether it is kashrus related, kol isha, not to mention events devoted to the founding of the State of Israel which you would certainly hope to be inclusive, featuring music and dancing during the counting of the omer. I also cut ties with the RJC over supporting Romney who practices a type of xtianity that is Idolatry in jewish law.

    Also, the liberal jewish community has many views they identify as “jewish values” which are in fact counter-torah, thus making traditional jews the “bad guys”. What person wants to be around those who will call him or her a bigot/misogynist etc, simply for obeying the will of Hashem as expressed in the Torah. Observant Jewish women are treated as traitors to the “cause” of feminism by those with no appreciation of the sanctity and bliss of a torah based marriage keeping the laws of Family Purity.

    Observant jews should not subject themselves to watching jews violate and mock torah, nor be made to feel as second class citizens at “inclusive” jewish events.

    The reality is non-observant events should be treated the same way we would treat those of any other false religion, just as we treat non-observant shuls essentially like a church or mosque. Observant jews attending such events suggest to unobservant jews that what they are doing is permissible, we should refuse to attend so they should know that what they are doing is wrong.

    • Rob Feldmeier
      Rob Feldmeier says:

      Jeremy, I must be clear that my differences with the RJC have to do primarily with its glib disregard for fundamental Jewish beliefs like Kashrut and Shabbat. I did not become a Republican because I am soft of values. I do NOT agree with you with regard to Gov. Romney.

      In all frankness, whether or not Gov. Romney’s religion is viewed by Judaism is idolatry is irrelevant whether or not the RJC should support him for political office. His religion is neither your business nor is it mine. Governor Romney was a candidate for President, not for Chief Rabbi. While morality must play a strong role in the discharge of our governance, theology must not. We do not, and should not, make electoral decisions based upon a person’s religious affiliation. To do otherwise is bigotry, and comments such as the one above are highly unfortunate, as they play into the stereotypes about the religious world’s supposed narrow-mindedness. It is also not Torah Judaism – assuming, for the sake of argument, that you are correct about the status of his religion as idolatry, provide a posek (religious opinion) from ANY rabbi who holds that among the prohibitions for idolaters, voting for electoral college electors pledged to support Romney is among that which is forbidden.

      • Jeremy Yonteff
        Jeremy Yonteff says:

        It is a mormon belief that G-d was at one time a mortal man (i am not reffering to the yoshke but another regular human), and that righteous people become a G-d of their own world. Given that belief, a Posek is not required, as they worship a created being/object. My objection to Romney was that a polytheist could not be trusted to be a strident defender of moral values or a truly G-d fearing person, and during the primary when given the option it was absurd to support him. I made no assertion it was prohibited to vote for him, simply foolish. The rejection of idol-worship is not like ruling how far a person can walk without a kippah, it is the very essence of every prohibitive command in the Torah. There is never a time when rejecting idolatry is wrong, let alone prohibited, even when ones life is threatened to force them to worship an idol, where in fact a person MUST sacrifice their own life rather than commit an act of idol worship.

        As for whether or not a person’s religious beliefs should affect our vote, i have never heard any Rabbi suggest that ANY part of Jews life should be compartmentalized in such a way, and as religious jews, all parts of our own life are determined by the Torah, although we should not expect gentiles to keep jewish law, we certainly have an obligation to elect gentiles who conform to the Noahide laws, chief among them the prohibition of idol worship, sexual immorality, and bloodshed.

  20. Rob Feldmeier
    Rob Feldmeier says:

    I’m glad that the RJC has taken notice of this article and asked Rachel to post their side of the story. They are correct in stating that I no longer go to any of their events – because they have non-kosher ones. I am also glad that their “major events” (ie, the ones at which their major donors are watching them) are kosher. The RJC does not, however, dispute the essential point I raise – that they have non-kosher events (these tend to be the ones for you and me, the young professionals) and that these events are improper for a Jewish organization. I’m glad that some of the time (at “major events”) they respect Jewish law and practice. The rest of the time, however, the observant are asked to go to the back of the bus. No thanks.

    Instead of getting all hot and bothered, might it not be easier to stop having non-kosher events?

  21. AY Z
    AY Z says:

    On average I attend over half dozen events per year. From seminars, trainings, shows and conventions, I can say that I have never experienced one that didn’t offer a Kosher diet. Of course, none of those were Jewish events. From Microsoft, Intel, HP, Sony and others, they all offer a variety of diet options. IMHO it comes down to “inclusion”. While most, if not all of the non Jewish event organizers try to show they are accommodating everyone, some Jewish organizations try to show that they are “like” everyone.
    Once before a trade show from one of the major computer hardware distributers, I got a phone call saying that according to their information, the only kosher place they found in the area has a questionable certification and if I’ll feel comfortable eating their food. I offered and did my own research. I found a place with a reputable hashgacha and the event planner was happy to switch. Microsoft does a lot more at their annual partner show. They bring down a Jewish chef with a mashgiach and offer you a full and fresh kosher menu.
    It’s shocking to see how far companies will go to make everyone feel comfortable and how little some Jewish organization will do to offer at least the same.

    • Jeremy Yonteff
      Jeremy Yonteff says:

      Ironically, any large non-jewish entity, hotels, hospitals etc will generally have the means to provide kosher food. It is my understanding also that while there is no problem in an observant jew attending a secular non-jewish event (related to work, a gentile’s birthday etc) provided they of course do not eat the food, but an observant jew should not attend a jewish event where non-kosher food or wine is served as an extension of “thou shalt not put a stumbling block before the blind” since attendance is essentially an endorsement or Chas V’shalom another observant jew present may mistakenly believe the food is kosher and eat it.


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