By Scott Fox
Food is perhaps one of the “greyest” aspects of Jewish life today. The Torah instructs us to abstain from ritually impure foods—but what does this mean in the 21st century?
One could argue that keeping kosher is both easier and more difficult than ever before. Today, between one-third and one-half of food in American supermarkets is kosher-certified, an astronomical increase since previous decades. It may seem surprising that so many companies pay for kosher certification (Orthodox Union, the blue label of hekhshers requires fees between $4,000 and $10,000) since observant Jews make up such a small portion of the consumer market, but others like Muslims, vegetarians and those concerned with food allergies are also buying into the kosher market for different reasons.
“It’s easier now than ever before to keep kosher,” says Rabbi Alexander Davis, senior rabbi of Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park. “It’s really just a question of choices. You can find practically any ingredient with a hekhsher today.”
But in a society with greater choices, many Jews no longer cling to traditional dietary rituals. This can be seen particularly in the Conservative movement, where many believe fewer Jews keep kosher than ever before. Davis infers that earlier generations of Jews were willing to do more to keep kosher, citing a congregant’s parent who grew up in North Dakota and traveled across state lines once a month in order to purchase kosher meat. But Davis estimates that only 20 percent of his congregation keeps strictly kosher in their homes today. And according to the most recent National Jewish Population survey in 2000, only 30 percent of Jews maintain kosher homes.
As an observant Convservative Jew, keeping kosher has often felt like the most essential part of my Jewish identity, probably because it requires the most continual focus. I feel like I can skip going to shul for Shabbat, but not skip out of kashrut for a lobster roll. Going to college 40 miles away from the nearest provider of kosher meat, I’ve become primarily a vegetarian in order to keep up my religious obligation. Of course, by kashrut, I mean my own internal conception of keeping kosher. That includes not asking if certain restaurant dishes contain meat and assuming that what looks like dairy is dairy. Ignorance can sometimes be bliss. I also tend to rationalize eating products without a hekhsher by looking through a food item’s ingredient list and assuring myself that none of them sound like they contain treif even if that’s not really the case. In some ways, kosher is more of a mindset that makes me feel okay about what I eat.
Cost is another factor. As food prices rise and incomes lower from years of economic turmoil, many feel that being kosher is too expensive. The price of kosher food is typically more expensive than regular food, as is buying two sets of dishes and silverware. The price difference is particularly true in communities that don’t have easy access to kosher products. Aaron Rubenstein, rabbi of Beth Shalom, a conservative synagogue in Memphis, said the high cost was definitely a reason for people to avoid keeping strictly kosher homes.
“Some people might be willing to go vegetarian to keep kosher [on a budget],” says Rubenstein. “But for others, it is hard for them to part from meat in their diet. Some people feel that they’re being price gouged and think they should not be buying into the system because someone is taking advantage of their need for Passover food or kosher meat.”
Hazon, a leading Jewish food organization, is helping to make kosher food an affordable option. The group sponsors community supported agriculture (CSA) programs in the United States, Canada and Israel. Hazon’s programs provide access to healthy, local produce to connect clients with their Jewish communities. Jewish food banks have also helped those unable to afford food. But those endeavors cannot solve the entire cost problem of kosher food.
But kashrut is about more than just food. Many feel that food is not kosher if the workers, animals or environment are mistreated in the process, even if the food meets all halachic standards. Many became aware of the terrible conditions in slaughterhouses after newspaper articles and a federal government raid exposed Agriprocessors, the largest producer of kosher meat, violating many labor laws, including the use of undocumented immigrants and child labor. Until the federal government raided their plant in Iowa in 2008, about half of the country’s kosher meat came from Agriprocessors. Since the company was forced to restructure after the scandal, their meat prices have risen even further.
The shame of Agriprocessors led the Conservative movement to sponsor the implementation of a hekhsher tzedek. Rubenstein calls the new certification more of an “ethical good housekeeping seal” than an actual determination of whether a product is halachically kosher or not.
But will our generation of Jews continue to keep up this somewhat idealistic obligation that is kashrut as they move through adulthood? Davis is optimistic. “There’s a greater awareness among that generation of the role food plays in our lives,” he says. “I think and hope that, as a Jewish expression of our identity and ideals, eating with consciousness would be more attractive than ever.”