One Missing Yarmulke, Several New Friends

We tend to see the differences that separate us from other religious groups rather than the commonalities. That sounds so cliché, but it’s true.

When some Jews hear of an Islamic religious school, called a madrassa, they make assumptions about what might be taught there. They don’t take the time to even consider that the Arabic word madrassa is very closely related to the Hebrew word midrasha, a Jewish religious school.

And when some Jews see a Muslim man wearing a skullcap called a kufi, they make assumptions about his religious views, political sentiments, and opinions on a range of social issues. They tend to forget how similar the kufi is to our kippah, or yarmulke.

One day recently both of these similarities struck me. My plane landed at Chicago’s Midway Airport. It was an early morning flight and I felt like I had traveled back in time since I actually arrived at an earlier time in Chicago than when I had taken off in Detroit thanks to the one-hour time zone difference. During the flight, I fell into a deep sleep.

It wasn’t until I got into my rental car that I realized I wasn’t wearing my yarmulke, as I normally do. At some point during my “nap,” my yarmulke must have fallen off and was lost on the plane. I pulled over to the side of the rode and checked everywhere — pockets, carry-on suitcase, and briefcase. My yarmulke was nowhere to be found.

I was on my way to a small Illinois town south of Peoria to check out a large spice factory that was interested in kosher certification from my agency. I knew I couldn’t walk in there without a yarmulke on my head. I was on a tight schedule though and at a loss for what to do.

I called my wife back in Michigan who began researching if there were any synagogues between my current location and my destination in Pekin, Illinois. While she did that, I continued to drive and search the sides of the highway for any random Judaica store where I could purchase a replacement yarmulke. And that’s when it caught my eye.

Off the highway on what seemed to be a service road was a small mosque. Would that work, I wondered. After all, there’s really not much of a difference between the Muslim kufi and some of the larger yarmulkes that my sons wear to their Jewish school every day. Would a kufi be a better option for me than stopping at a gas station and buying a baseball cap? It was worth a shot.

I exited the highway and did a quick turnaround to try and find the mosque I had passed a few miles earlier. It would be my first time entering a mosque despite the fact that I live in Metro Detroit with its dense Muslim population and abundance of mosques. Alas, the doors of the mosque were locked and it was dark inside. I quickly Googled the address and called the phone number that was listed, but it just rang and rang. For no good reason, I knocked on the doors again and then left.

As I drove away from the mosque I spotted what looked like another mosque in the distance. Perhaps that was the administrative office I thought. Maybe they could sell me one of those Muslim skullcaps (I hadn’t yet learned the word kufi). It was worth a try. I turned down the next street and headed for the building with the star and crescent on the roof. I couldn’t find the street that led to a parking lot so I parked at an auto repair shop and walked across a field to the building.

The doors were locked but I could tell there were people inside. I rang a door bell and a very nice woman opened the door. I saw classrooms up and down the hallways and immediately determined that I had just entered a madrassa. Cute little children were in a large room singing songs and playing games. That was obviously the pre-school. Older children ran up the stairs to a second level of classrooms. I went up to the reception desk and explained my situation. Rather than giving some story about being curious about Islam and wanting a kufi, I explained that I was a rabbi who customarily wears a Jewish head covering and somehow lost it on my flight into Chicago. I asked if they could sell me a Muslim head covering.

She seemed confused by my request, but explained they had no store in the building and didn’t sell kufis. But just as I was about to head back to my rental car, the woman found another woman and shared my story. She told me to wait a moment and about five minutes later she returned with a large, black knitted kufi for me. I asked her how much it would cost and she insisted that it was free. I took out a ten-dollar bill and handed it to her as a donation. The idea that I had just made my first charitable gift to an Islamic school was not lost on me. With some trepidation I placed the kufi on my head and thanked the kind women as I left.

Just as I got back in the car and took a look at myself in the rear-view mirror my phone rang. It was my wife telling me that there was an Orthodox synagogue in Peoria. I told her I was wearing a Muslim kufi on my head and shared my story of the welcoming women at the madrassa.

I called the Orthodox synagogue which didn’t have a gift shop or any complimentary yarmulkes,but the woman on the phone referred me to the Reform congregation that shared a building and had a gift shop. When I called that number I got the recording telling me to call the husband-wife rabbis on their cell phone. I called and found myself talking with Rabbi Karen Bogard who told me that her husband Rabbi Daniel Bogard had dozens of yarmulkes and I could drive to their home to pick one out.

Rabbi Karen told me that she and her husband had just graduated from rabbinical school and begun to serve this small congregation in Peoria. We played the game of Jewish geography and learned we knew many people in common. After driving for another couple hours she called me back and directed me to a park close to their home where she would be with the couple’s newborn baby. I drove to the park, gave Rabbi Karen a hug, picked out a yarmulke and then began telling her the story of my visit to the Islamic school. I proudly showed her my new kufi.

While I wore the borrowed yarmulke to the visit at the spice factory, I still felt appreciative to the generous women at the madrassa who provided me with the kufi. It is a story I will continue to tell with pleasure. Losing a yarmulke led me on an adventure to a mosque, a madrassa and a neighborhood park where I met a new rabbinic colleague.

I keep that black kufi on the desk of my office and every once in a while I smile as I consider the similarities between Jews and Muslims. Perhaps, my kufi will serve as a reminder to others to seek out the connections with members of other religions and to explore what we share in common rather than what divides us.

Cross-posted to the Forward’s Arty Semite blog, MyJewishLearning’s Members of the Scribe blog, and the Jewish Book Council’s blog.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Passover and Pet Food

As a kosher supervisor (mashgiach) and the owner of a kosher certification agency, I am constantly impressed by the level of attention, respect and genuine care that non-Jewish business owners demonstrate for their kosher observant customers. I once again witnessed this first hand when I met the owner of Premier Pet Supply last week.

Mike Palmer, who is half Chaldean and half Italian, owns the pet food and supply store with his uncle, the store’s founder. Located in Beverly Hills, a suburb of Detroit, the store has received a lot of positive attention of late because of Mike’s knack for publicity and his people skills (he obviously has great pet skills too!). The store is consistently named best pet supply store in the area and Mike was just named one of the Elite 40 Under 40 for Oakland County, Michigan.
Mike called me a few weeks ago and asked if I would come by his store before Passover to answer some questions about kosher for Passover pet food. Since my family doesn’t own any pets and I haven’t certified kosher dog food in over a year (the dog treat company Kosher Michigan certified went out of business in 2010), I decided to brush up on the laws concerning pet food on Passover. And it’s a good thing I did because when I got to the store I was overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge Mike possessed concerning the kosher laws and Passover. He knew more about the intricacies of the holiday than many Jewish people I know.
As we walked the aisles of his store I checked the pet food that he had labeled as being appropriate for Passover and there were no errors. He explained that he had read an article by the Star-K kosher certification agency and felt he had a good understanding of what makes pet food kosher for Passover, but he wanted to run some questions by me. We had a long conversation about kitniyot (legumes, which most Ashkenazi Jews don’t eat on Passover) as well as the custom of feeding the family dog in the garage on Passover, which many families follow. Over and again, I heard Mike express how important he believes it is to provide quality service to his Jewish customers and ensure that they can purchase the best food for their pets on Passover while adhering to the holiday’s regulations.
In terms of what Jewish law says about pet food on Passover, the most important thing to remember is that chametz (leavened products) from the five grains (barley, oats, rye, spelt, or wheat) is forbidden to eat or derive benefit from. Feeding chametz to one’s pet would be deriving benefit from it. Additionally, a Jewish person is not allowed to even possess any chametz on Passover. 
As I explained to Mike, while kitniyot (legumes) are not eaten by most Ashkenazi Jews, they may be fed to pets on Passover. Also, one does not need to change over the dishes for pets, meaning that the usual food bowls for pets can be used on Passover but they should be cleaned out first.
A 2009 article in the NY Times featured a Passover Seder for dogs that took place at a Chicago pet food store to promote Evanger’s Dog and Cat Food Company which sells Kosher for Passover products. (Joshua Lott/Chicago Tribune)

There is a custom of “selling” one’s pet to a non-Jew on Passover. The reason for this has to do with deriving benefit from chametz. Thus, if one leaves a pet with a non-Jew during Passover the pet owner will still derive benefit from chametz when the non-Jewish friend feeds the pet. Therefore, some observant Jews will “sell” the pet to the non-Jewish friend on the condition it is sold back at the conclusion of the holiday in the same fashion as the “legal fiction” sale of chametz.

While many Jews are not familiar with the laws governing pet food on Passover, it is reassuring that there are pet supply store owners like Mike Palmer who are concerned about this. It is admirable that he has taken the time to research this subject and has gone out of his way to help his Jewish customers find the right pet food for Passover.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Honey for Rosh Hashanah

The following was published on the HuffingtonPost and on several Patch.com sites before the Rosh Hashanah holiday:

At no time during my experience in a New York City rabbinical school did I think I would ever be donning full beekeeper regalia and watching as thousands of bees made honey on a farm in Michigan’s Amish country. But that is precisely what I found myself doing for the first time this past spring.

In addition to learning about the honey-making process, I’ve also learned about colony collapse disorder, the unexplained phenomenon of worker bees disappearing from hives causing a shortage of bee honey in recent years. I learned this from Don and Carol Ragan, a lovely couple who own the Windmill Hill Farm in Croswell (located in the “thumb” of Michigan). Carol first contacted me in February immediately after reading an article in the Detroit Free Press about Kosher Michigan, the kosher certification agency I started. She wanted to know what was involved in obtaining certification for her bee honey.

I told her that I would have to get back to her because I really wasn’t sure what it took to certify bee honey as kosher. The mere fact that bee honey is kosher is itself odd. After all, it is a product of the non-kosher bee (no insects except for certain locust species are deemed kosher by the Torah). So, how can a product of a non-kosher animal be kosher? It is believed that honey is kosher since it is produced outside of the body of the bee. But that isn’t totally true. In actuality, bees suck nectar from flowers with their proboscis (mouth) and this nectar mixes with saliva and is swallowed into the honey sac, where enzymes from the saliva break down the nectar into honey. The nectar is never digested, but rather transformed into honey by the saliva. The honey is regurgitated when the bee returns to the hive and the water is evaporated, thereby thickening it into honey which is then sealed in the honeycomb. The rabbis of the Talmud explain that bee honey is kosher since it is not an actual secretion of the bee, but rather the bee functions as a carrier and facilitator of the honey-making process.

All of this is interesting because honey is a staple food of the Jewish New Year’s holiday of Rosh Hashanah, which begins this year on Wednesday, Sept. 28. Honey sales increase in heavily populated Jewish areas thanks to this seasonal honey custom. Among the familiar traditions of Rosh Hashanah are the dipping of apple slices in honey and eating honey cake.

The Ragans knew that that adding kosher certification to their jars of honey would make their products more popular before Rosh Hashanah. Their Windmill Hill Farm produces 30,000 pounds of honey annually from more than 500 hives. All of their products are now certified kosher through my Kosher Michigan agency. Like many beekeepers around the country, the Ragans’ operation has grown from a hobby to a successful business. They began with only four hives that they discovered when they purchased the Croswell farm, but they quickly recognized how their passion could turn into profits.

“We’re passionate about making honey,” said Carol Ragan. “When we first discovered hives on our Croswell farm we were excited to experiment with making honey. We never realized how much we would come to enjoy it or how much of a market there is for honey products.”

Even with colony collapse disorder, beekeeping is on the rise throughout the country. New York City legalized recreational beekeeping last year, and even Michelle Obama had a beehive installed outside the White House.

Many members of the Jewish faith prepare dishes and baked goods with honey in time for Rosh Hashanah. Dan Sonenberg, owner of Johnny Pomodoro’s Fresh Market in Farmington Hills, Michigan, explained, “My honey sales increase ten-fold during the holiday season and we build honey displays next to our apple offerings in the store. This cross-merchandising makes it easier for our Jewish customers to purchase both during this time of year. Honey products are also featured in our kosher baked goods department where our most popular items are the apple fritter challah (Jewish egg bread) and the honey apple cake.”

While the Bible describes Israel as “the land flowing with milk and honey,” it was more than likely referring to date honey. Bees were not common in Israel thousands of years ago, but today Israel has about 500 beekeepers with approximately 90,000 beehives that produce more than 3,500 tons of honey annually.

The basis of using honey in baked goods and dipping apples into honey on Rosh Hashanah is to have a sweet year. While the secular New Year is kicked off with toasts of champagne, the Jewish New Year is launched with the sweet taste of honey. And maybe a little sugar high too.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

The Food Truck that Drove Right Over Kosher Politics

Article first published as The Food Truck That Drove Right Over Kosher Politics on Technorati.

Kosher certification in the nation’s capital has become much like everything else in D.C. – political and divisive. The Vaad Harabanim of Greater Washington has long had a monopoly on kosher certification and it doesn’t want to give up its stronghold anytime soon.

Over the past several decades, reports have surfaced of the Vaad refusing to certify sit-down restaurants as kosher because it will lead to socializing between single Jewish men and women (which could in turn violate strict Jewish law). The Vaad even insists on charging for its own certification on top of already established certifications. As Jay Lehman recently wrote to the editor of the Washington Post, “The Vaad has made it clear that other kosher-certifying authorities are not welcome in the area to supervise these establishments. In addition, all kosher meat and poultry wholesale suppliers who wish to sell to kosher establishments are expected to submit to Vaad supervision, even if they are already certified by another nationally recognized kosher certifier.”

These tactics, which seem to violate the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, have come to light as a result of the local D.C. Vaad refusing to grant a kosher certificate to Sixth and Rye, the new food truck run by the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue. Last year, the non-denominational congregation offered an iPad as a prize to the individual who came up with the synagogue’s next big idea. The winning submission was a kosher deli restaurant housed in a truck to jump on the country’s trend of food trucks that roll out at certain times as announced via a Twitter feed.

The main reason the synagogue leaders launched the Sixth and Rye food truck wasn’t because they thought D.C. needed another kosher restaurant (though it does), but rather to increase its out-of-the-building engagement with local Jews in the District. The plan was to run the food truck at lunch each Friday afternoon. Everything seemed to be in place after they found a truck to rent, arranged for it to be made strictly kosher, purchased the signage, and contracted with celeb “Top Chef” contestant Spike Mendelsohn. The only thing that kept Sixth and Rye from opening as planned was the local Vaad’s refusal to certify the truck.

The popular synagogue, which functions more like a Jewish center with no membership, only had the best of intentions. In creating Sixth and Rye, they were planning to reach out to young Jews and provide a delicious, kosher deli lunch to workers in downtown Washington. The Vaad, in refusing to certify the food truck as kosher, missed a great opportunity. Thankfully, along came a rabbi from Baltimore who agreed to give Sixth and Rye his hekhsher (kosher seal of approval).

Rabbi Y. Zvi Weiss, the Baltimore kosher certifier, essentially broke the Vaad’s monopoly when he gave the food truck his okay. Hopefully, this will demonstrate to Washington’s kosher observant community that alternative options to the Vaad exist. With more than one kosher certifying agency in our nation’s capital there will be more kosher restaurants and a price decrease on kosher food. The Washington Post article about Sixth and Rye painted a clear picture of the misperceptions in the kosher marketplace. It reported that a young Washington local called the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Washington and was told that they were not certifying the truck, sohe didn’t bother getting in line to order his deli lunch. If the Vaad doesn’t certify it, he was certain it couldn’t be kosher. Alternatively, he could have inquired about the food truck’s certification and then learned from Baltimore’s Rabbi Weiss about his supervision and standards thereby making an informed decision.

Unfortunately, the local Vaad in D.C. (and in many other communities around the country) has convinced people that only they have the power to pronounce what is kosher. This only leads to ignorance and knee jerk reactions. When I spoke to Esther Safran Foer, the director of Sixth and I, she told me that another Orthodox rabbi in town sent a letter of support to her. Not only that, but he promoted the kosher food truck on his Facebook page and then bought over a dozen sandwiches for the Torah class he teaches on Capitol Hill.

Kudos to Sixth and I Historic Synagogue for putting this innovative idea in motion. In addition to the convenience of kosher deli lunches once a week in downtown Washington, perhaps this food truck will jumpstart a national conversation to curtail the political nature of kosher certification. While these local Orthodox kosher certification agencies may enjoy their monopoly, some competition will be best for the consumers. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if in the future the only thing Sixth and I had to worry about with their food truck was whether they had enough challah on hand to serve the hundreds in line?

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Twins Beat Mets in Kosher World Series

The Minnesota Twins have never played the New York Mets in a World Series, but when it comes to having Kosher food at the ballpark the Twins win.

Kosher Sports Inc. had been the exclusive Glatt Kosher provider at Shea Stadium, the former stadium of the NY Mets, since 2006. In 2008, the and Kosher Sports Inc. announced a multi-year agreement for the kosher concession company to continue as the exclusive Glatt Kosher concessionaire at Citi Field, which opened in 2009. However, things haven’t gone so smoothly in this agreement.

Kosher Sports Inc. says its contract with the Mets allows it to offer its kosher food at every game at Citi Field, the New York Daily News reported. The Mets’ management, however, issued a ban on sales during the Jewish Sabbath — between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday. This is likely the first case of a Major League Baseball team being more strict on kosher standards than a kosher food supplier. (There are of course those who would contend that a Jewish person attending a baseball game and purchasing food there on the Jewish Sabbath may not be that punctilious about the kosher laws.)

So, the case was all set to be heard by a federal judge who was to decide whether a vendor can sell kosher food during Mets games on the Jewish Sabbath. However, that federal judge had to recuse himself from the case because he was seen wearing a Mets baseball hat during a break in the trial and once wore a necktie with the Mets team colors during the trial.

Things seem to be going much more swimmingly in the Midwest. Kosher food will be offered at Target Field for the first time. In Target Field’s second season as the Minnesota Twins’ home field, fans will be able to purchase Hebrew National hot dogs and all the fixings from a strictly kosher card behind home plate.

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Avi Olitzky of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park will provide the kosher certification and supervision. I was honored to provide some counsel to Rabbi Olitzky when he launched his kosher certification agency, MSP Kosher, a year ago. It’s wonderful to see other Conservative rabbis in the kosher certification arena, helping to create more options for the kosher consumer while maintaining strict standards, transparency, and sound business ethics.

The Star Tribune reports that “The cart will still be open Fridays and Saturdays but won’t be supervised.” I’m glad to see the Twins organization is not causing the same ruckus that led the Mets to a courtroom where Kosher Sports is seeking $1 million for breach of contract.

Congratulations to Rabbi Olitzky for bringing kosher hot dogs to the ballpark in Minnesota and to the Minnesota Twins for not messing up a good thing.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Ending Kosher Nostra: How to Bring Sanity to the Kosher Certification Industry

Here is my recent post on The Detroit Jewish News blog:

There’s a joke I often tell about a conversation regarding the kosher laws between Moses and God. God dictates the Jewish dietary laws to the Israelite leader in easy to understand terms, but Moses repeatedly complicates these statutes. Finally, frustrated, God gives up and tells Moses to just do whatever he wants.

From the commandments to not cook a calf in its mother’s milk and the prohibition on eating certain animals, the kosher laws have become a very complex system of eating restrictions. To ensure the compliance of the kosher standards from the farm to the factory to the grocery store to the restaurant, an entire industry of supervision and certification was been established. In recent years, I’ve found myself entrenched in this world of hashgacha.

In her recently published book, Kosher Nation, Sue Fishkoff provides the reader with an insider’s perspective about what goes on in the kosher food industry on a daily basis. Each chapter details another aspect of the Jewish dietary ethic – how kosher food has conquered the U.S. market, the business of kosher certification, the rise and fall of the Jewish deli, the kashering of a hotel for a wedding, and the often scandalous production of kosher slaughtered meat. Fishkoff circles the country to explain the subtle nuances of “keeping kosher” in the 21st century. She travels as far as China to shadow a kosher supervisor checking for compliance in several factories. Fishkoff provides insight into the sometimes dirty politics in which the kosher certification agencies have notoriously engaged. From extortion and price gouging to fraud and general dishonesty, kosher certification has gotten a bad name.

My journey to the kosher certification profession was not planned. In 2008, I was hired as the rabbi of Tamarack Camps, with my main focus to supervise of the agency’s kosher kitchens. To adequately prepare for this new role, I returned to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York where I was ordained. Though I had served as a mashgiach (kosher supervisor) in the cafeteria as a rabbinical student, I required detailed instruction to oversee the large camping agency’s many industrial kitchens as a rav hamachshir (certifying rabbi).

This new position led to my private certification of a few bakeries, bagel stores, and a vegetarian restaurant with the eventual formation of my own kosher certification agency – Kosher Michigan. This experience has been nothing less than fascinating. I now certify a paper mill that makes paraffin wax paper for kosher foods, olive oil bottling at a spice company, a gourmet chocolate factory, a foodservice corporation that provides shelf-stable meals to areas hit by natural disasters, as well as several other businesses. I’m frequently called upon to kasher industrial and residential kitchens, consult Jewish organizations on kosher matters, and speak about the kosher food industry.

I have become accustomed to fielding many questions about my kosher certification. People want to know if “the Orthodox” (as if it’s a monolithic group) accepts my imprimatur. They want to know if “Conservative kosher” (their phrase) is really legitimate. I’m frequently asked to articulate my standards and demonstrate my knowledge. Without even understanding the term, they want to know if all of the food I certify is glatt (even the bagels!). Some are surprised that I conduct unannounced spot checks more often than many of my Orthodox colleagues.

As Fishkoff demonstrates in Kosher Nation, the kosher business has changed drastically over the past several years. She writes, “Kosher has become one of the country’s hottest food trends… A generation ago, kosher was a niche industry, the business of the country’s small minority of observant Jews… Today one-third to one-half of the food for sale in the typical American supermarket is kosher. That means more than $200 billion of the country’s estimated $500 billion in annual food sales is kosher certified.” Not bad for a religious tribe that accounts for less than 2% of the U.S. population.

And it’s not just that there’s more kosher food out there. The rules of the game have radically changed as well. So many proverbial fences have been erected around the kosher laws that no 19th century rabbi would recognize them. Rabbis today can make a modest living washing leafy vegetables and checking them for miniscule bug infestations. The ultra-Orthodox have ruled that such innocuous items as strawberries, Romaine lettuce, Brussels sprouts, smoked salmon, and water cannot be consumed because of either insects or microscopic copepods. Non-observant Jewish owners of kosher grocery stores, meat markets, and restaurants are no longer trusted to hold the keys to their own businesses.

A Mafia-like reputation (“Kosher Nostra”) has been attributed to the kosher certification industry. Fishkoff tells stories of strong-arm tactics and extortion when it came to kosher meat. “Corruption and scandal also plagued the processed food industry,” she writes. “Keeping kosher is a mitzvah, but giving kosher certification is a business. And that means money, politics, and all the other unpleasant temptations that can distract a Jew from fulfilling God’s commandments.” There’s a sordid history of lax supervision of kosher-for-Passover food, substitution of cheaper treif meat in butcher shops, and rabbis selling high priced kosher certifications with no oversight in exchange. Rabbi Don Yoel Levy, the head of the OK kosher agency was interviewed by Fishkoff. He told her, “Kashrus today is power and money. And unfortunately, it’s extremely competitive. Instead of people working together to improve kashrus, everybody tries to get business away from the other one.” Levy even blames kosher politics for his father’s death. He attributes the 1986 scandal that included death threats against the state inspectors to be the cause of his father’s demise.

I am frequently called by local business owners who have been interested in acquiring kosher certification for years, but have been turned off by the methods of the established agencies. I recently met with a store owner to discuss certifying her food market, which had previously been under kosher certification. When I told her that I wouldn’t confiscate her set of keys to her store even though she is not an observant Jew and that I donate the majority of my profits to local charities, she told me that I was “a breath of fresh air.”

Positive change, however, is afoot in the kosher world. Today, more people are increasingly concerned about the food they eat, where it comes from, and who is making it. They want to be assured that it is clean, fresh, safe, and healthy. More people have specialized diets because of lifestyle choices, health reasons, or religious values. Kosher is just another option in a category that includes vegan, organic, gluten-free, and heart smart. There is a growing non-Jewish demographic that is maintaining some form of a kosher diet. And the leaders of Reform Judaism, which once shunned kashrut, are now promoting adherence to the kosher laws on some level.

Like me, other Conservative rabbis around the country are launching kosher certification agencies. There may be four major agencies, but there are close to a thousand smaller ones. Getting rid of the monopoly enjoyed by some kosher agencies in communities will only help reduce the price of kosher food. Kosher certification, I maintain, is about trust. When dirty politics and corruption are allowed to enter, they only diminish the holiness that kosher observance intends. Ending “Kosher Nostra” will add sanity to the kosher industry.

We have become so far removed from the kosher laws of the Torah and Talmud that we focus less on why we keep kosher and more on how punctilious we can be, only to “out frum” the next person. We have become so concerned about everyone else’s kosher standards that the same laws enacted to keep our community united are being used to keep us from ever being able to eat together. I’m reminded of the joke about the ultra-pious man who dies and goes to heaven. When a colossal feast of the choicest, most expensive foods is laid out in front of him, he inquires with the ministering angel about the kosher certification there in heaven. When he’s told it is the Holy One, God himself, who has sanctioned the kashrut of the food he decides to play it safe and just orders a fruit plate.

My goals for Kosher Michigan are simple. I want to help create more options for the kosher consumer without exorbitant prices. I want to shift the focus of kosher certification to trust and the compliance of sensible standards, regardless of denominational affiliation. It does not necessarily follow that a restaurant owner who does not observe the Sabbath cannot therefore be trusted to maintain the strictures of the kosher laws in his establishment. And just because a non-Jew has looked at a bottle of wine does not mean it is no longer suitable for Jewish consumption. I want to help people ask educated, thoughtful questions about kosher certification, rather than resort to pejorative comments that seek to divide our people.

I consider it a great honor to have the responsibility of keeping my eye on food production and preparation to ensure proper compliance of our kosher laws. No matter why people choose to eat kosher, I want them to feel confident trusting my certification. I’m only one person, but if I can help make the kosher industry more “kosher,” it’s an important start.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Mike Tyson to Open Kosher Restaurant

According to the JTA.org, former boxing champion Mike Tyson is in talks to open a chain of high-end kosher restaurants. Supposedly, Tyson has been in negotiations with the Jewish businessman Moshe Malamud, owner of the Franklin Mint and chairman of the Asian technology service provider emaimai. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency picked up the story from last Friday’s New York Post.

“They discussed the concept as well as the name, but nothing was finalized,” a representative of the kosher Manhattan restaurant Solo (on Madison Avenue), where the men dined, told the Post.

Tyson decided last spring to begin following a strict vegan diet, which he says gives him more energy.

I guess the obvious joke about Mike Tyson become a vegan is that he’s cut human ears out of his diet.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Sweet Like Honey

One thing I’ve learned since I started Kosher certifying a grocery store’s bakery section is that there are a lot different types of honey. Last week, I was a guest on the Fox2 Detroit Morning Show’s cooking segment called “Cooking School.” I wanted to display various foods related to Rosh Hashanah, so I went to  Johnny Pomodoro’s Fresh Market in Farmington Hills, Michigan and grabbed as many different varieties of honey as I could find.

A recent article in Hadassah Magazine by Adeena Sussman (“Sweet Talk”) argues that it’s time for honey to share the stage on Rosh Hashanah. Sussman introduces the reader to many new sweeteners, but I think there’s still enough different types of honey to go around.

On the Cooking School segment I baked (well, not really baked… it was staged) a honey cake for the Jewish New Year. Here’s the final part of the video from Fox2 with Lee Thomas:


I wish everyone a sweet new year!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Hebrew National Hot Dogs: Questioning Higher Authority

A 2004 article in the Jewish Daily Forward proclaimed that “Hebrew National became the unchallenged king of the kosher meat industry by marketing its product to non-Jews with the help of several catchy advertising slogans, including the famous, ‘We answer to a higher authority.’ But its success masked a bizarre twist: Most kosher consumers won’t eat the company‘s products.”

The article went on to explain that following the death of Hebrew National’s in-house Rabbi Tibor Stern and the decision to get kosher supervision from the Orthodox Triangle K, under the auspices of Aryeh Ralbag, the company is regaining the confidence of the Orthodox community.

In my final year as a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, I sat in on a discussion of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which ruled that it would approve Hebrew National meat products. The Forward article stated that “Members of the committee say the decision will have a large impact on religiously observant Conservative Jews, especially those living in smaller communities with limited access to kosher food. Law Committee members said that the status of Hebrew National is one of the most common questions they field regarding kashrut. Due to the perceived significance of the question, the committee veered from its recent policy of not issuing statements on the acceptability of various kosher certification agencies for fear of law suits.”

Sue Fishkoff, in a New York Times op-ed (Red, White and Kosher) yesterday, took on the issue of Hebrew National’s kosher acceptance. Of course, Fishkoff’s timing was perfect since it is 4th of July weekend when millions of families will be grilling hot dogs.

What I liked most about her op-ed was her explanation of why Kosher is the fastest-growing segment of the domestic food industry. She writes:

Today, a majority of Americans believe that kosher food is safer, healthier, better in general than non-kosher food. And they’re willing to pay more for it. Kosher is the fastest-growing segment of the domestic food industry, with bigger sales than organic. One-third to one-half of the food in American supermarkets is kosher-certified, representing more than $200 billion of the country’s estimated $500 billion in annual food sales, up from $32 billion in 1993.

Given that Jews make up less than 2 percent of the population, and most of them don’t keep kosher, it’s clear that the people buying this food are mostly non-Jews. While some consumers probably aren’t aware that their pasta or cookies are kosher, many are folks who believe that “higher authority” promise.

I couldn’t agree more. This month, my kosher certification company, Kosher Michigan, adds several new businesses that will be certified kosher under my supervision. In addition to another bagel bakery (New York Bagel), Kosher Michigan will also certify Schakolad Chocolate Factory — a handmade European style chocolate franchise in Downtown Birmingham started by Israeli chocolatier Baruch Schaked. Kosher Michigan now certifies four production lines at Dunn Paper, a parafin wax paper manufacturer. Last month, we certified the bakery, pre-ordered fruit trays, and candy/dried fruit/nut tray department at a popular Metro Detroit supermarket, Johnny Pomodoro’s Fresh Market.

My goal is to bring more kosher options to the marketplace. Sue Fishkoff articulates the delight that Jewish Americans feel each time another product becomes certified kosher. “It’s not just hot dogs. Every time a major American food product goes kosher, observant Jews are delighted. Coca-Cola in 1935. Oreos in 1997. Tootsie Rolls last year and two Gatorade drinks earlier this year. Häagen-Dazs ice cream, Smucker’s grape jam, Tropicana orange juice — every new item brought into the kosher pantry is a sign of fitting in the American mainstream while being observant.”

Just last week I was introduced to a Florida man who had never met a rabbi before. He confessed that he knew absolutely nothing about Judaism, but that only a few months prior he had eaten a “kosher dog” for the first time. Now that he’d had a “kosher dog,” he told me, he would never eat just a regular hot dog again..

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller