For three years, Shai Ghini paid $500 per month for a kosher inspector to pop into his small Italian trattoria just off Jerusalem’s famous Mahane Yehuda market. He wanted to be able to say that his restaurant, Topolino, is kosher, to attract Jerusalem’s religious clientele.
Three years ago he gave up the certification and hasn’t looked back.
“Part of it was the money,” Ghini said. “But the real reason was they wanted me to use a special kind of lettuce that is resistant to bugs [which are not kosher]. It was often brown and wilted. Then I heard they used a lot of pesticides, and I said, ‘that’s it,’ and we gave up the certificate.”
At the beginning, he says, his business declined by almost one-third. But it quickly recovered, and he counts many observant Jews among his clientele. One thing that makes it easier, he says, is that his restaurant serves only dairy, meaning there is no chance of violating the prohibition of serving dairy and meat together.
“As far as we’re concerned, we’re kosher,” said Ghini. “There are a lot of people who trust me and my word more than the rabbinate’s word that we’re kosher.”
The restaurant uses only kosher products and is closed on Shabbat. Customers don’t seem concerned by the lack of a certificate.
“It doesn’t bother me that there’s no kosher certificate,” said Mika Singer as she shared a romantic lunch with her Italian boyfriend. “I know this is a place where meat and milk aren’t served together. Why should a body that is making money from restaurants have to be involved?”
Kosher certification is big business. In Jerusalem alone, some 1,000 businesses and restaurants have kosher certification from the Chief Rabbinate. The restaurant owners pay a few hundred dollars, as well as the salary of a kosher supervisor at $10.50 per hour.
Rabbinate spokesman Ziv Maor says the supervisory body is providing a service to restaurants that want certification.
“There is no obligation for anyone to sell kosher food or to consume kosher food,” he said. “Anyone who wants to sell or consume nonkosher food has the full right to do so. What the rabbinate does is protect Israeli citizens who wish to consume only kosher food by stating what is kosher.”
Kosher means that all ingredients are certified according to Jewish law, and produced under rabbinic supervision.
New restaurants say that getting certified kosher makes it much easier to attract business. Many Jerusalemites and tourists will only eat in kosher-certified establishments.
On Dorot Rishonim street in downtown Jerusalem, Humus Abu Yoyo serves the ubiquitous chickpea paste. In an effort to attract customers, owner Erez Sapir offers “all you can eat hummus” for $6. He’s started a “hummus wall of fame” for anyone who eats more than three plates.
Sapir wants a kosher certificate and began the process with the Jerusalem rabbinate. However, he also owns another restaurant across the street called Bolinat, which is listed in Lonely Planet. Bolinat is not kosher and is open on the Sabbath.
“The two restaurants and the two kitchens are completely separate,” Sapir said. “But because I also own a nonkosher restaurant, they want me to have a full-time inspector at the hummus place, which could put me out of business.”
One Jerusalem rabbi is offering a different type of certification. Rabbi Aharon Leibowitz, the head of the Sulam Yakov yeshiva not far from Topolino, has launched a project in which his rabbinic students do voluntary inspections.
“We actually drew on rabbinic students who are studying the laws of kashrut,” Leibowitz said. “Instead of a hierarchical supervision, we are offering a partnership that brought expertise into the institution, an objective voice and pair of eyes into the system, but instead of an adversarial relationship it was a partnership.”
He said they hope to expand beyond Jerusalem and offer certification in other cities.
“Let’s begin to respect the ability of the consumer to choose his own standards,” Leibowitz said. “If the owner says it’s kosher, and the customer trusts him, then why does the government of Israel feel that it should get involved?”