‘Eco-kosher’ Jews have an appetite for ethical eating
By Mary MacVean and Duke Helfand
May 8, 2009
With Sabbath candles burning and 14 guests seated around her dinner table, Joanna Arch held up a cup of kosher red wine and chanted the kiddish kiddish prayer in Hebrew:
“God blessed the seventh day and made it holy because on it he rested from all his creative work.”
As is the custom, the guests observed the holy day of rest with a meal, but with a twist: They were sharing a “sustainable” Sabbath dinner on this Friday evening, with food that was locally grown, mostly organic and intended to elevate their practice of Judaism.
Arch and her husband, David Andorsky, passed around goat cheese — made at home — sprinkled with oregano, thyme and chives. Sarah Newman brought ratatouille made with her home-canned tomatoes and vegetables from a farmers market.
The others, too, prepared food that was not only kosher and vegetarian, they explained, but provided a way for them to strengthen their ties to their faith and to live out a Jewish imperative to protect the Earth.
The dinner reflected a powerful current in Jewish culinary consciousness: Growing numbers of people are choosing to express their values through the food they put on their tables, altering the most basic day-to-day decisions about nourishment. It’s why Jenna Snow picked loquats from her yard — rather than buying them at the store — for the custardy cake called clafoutis that she made for the Sabbath potluck.
The movement has become so popular in recent years that synagogues increasingly are forging relationships with farmers, farm education programs are starting up and Jewish “sustainability” conferences are attracting sold-out crowds. At a three-day gathering in Northern California in December, volunteers even learned how to kill, pluck, salt and rinse their own turkeys.
“Food is the most intimate relationship we have to the nonhuman world,” said Zelig Golden, a San Francisco lawyer who co-chaired that gathering. It was the third food conference sponsored by Hazon, a New York-based environmental organization that in 2004 branched out into food issues. It has since become the primary force behind many programs in the sustainability movement — an effort to use natural resources responsibly to avoid depleting them.
“Jewish tradition has a lot to say about the use of land, the treatment of animals and workers,” said Nigel Savage, Hazon’s executive director. “Jewish tradition should heighten our awareness of the choices we are making.”
Even though Hazon’s efforts are aimed at Jews, the marriage of sustainability and religion reaches beyond the Jewish world.
The Presbyterian Church (USA), for example, has designed a curriculum for high school students and young adults titled “Just Eating? Practicing Our Faith at the Table.”
The General Assembly of Unitarian Universalists Assn., meanwhile, last year selected “Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice” as a four-year topic of study and action by its 1,000 congregations.
Such efforts are part of a larger food movement whose advocates wrestle with ethical questions raised by the food they buy and eat. They have been inspired in part by Michael Pollan, author of the best-selling “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and others who argue that fast food and an industrial food system have divorced many people from the source of their food.
Rabbis and other Jewish leaders began picking up on the theme about five years ago. Sinai Temple in Westwood is among several dozen synagogues nationwide that have embraced community-supported agriculture projects — in which people buy shares in a farm’s operation in return for a portion of the harvest.
In explaining the project to two dozen congregants who came out one recent night to meet farmer Phil McGrath and taste some of his English peas and black Russian kale, Rabbi Ahud Sela said that God told Adam not only to till the land but to protect it. By purchasing a share — $1,500 for 40 weekly boxes of produce — congregants would get food grown 60 miles away, not shipped from South America, he said.
“I know where my produce comes from. It’s a guy named Phil McGrath,” Sela said. “He farms 300 acres in Oxnard. I’m proud of the person who produces the food for my family.”
Another rabbi, Dov Gartenberg of Temple Beth Shalom in Long Beach, is taking a different approach to “reestablish the centrality of the table” in Jewish life. Gartenberg and Emily Moore, a chef, are writing a book of holiday ritual meals — which he will talk about at this year’s Hazon Food Conference in December, to be held again at the Asilomar conference center near Monterey.
One such meal marks the holiday of Shavuot, which occurs in May or June each year and commemorates the Jews receiving the Torah from God at Mt. Sinai.
Gartenberg’s congregation will share a Seder at their synagogue with foods tied to the Torah, including a honey-tasting related to teachings in Proverbs that wisdom should be as sweet to the soul as honey is to taste.
“It gives taste to the text we study,” Gartenberg said, “and I think that is valuable because taste forms memories.”
For many Jews, the question was once whether to follow the Torah’s dietary laws. The book of Leviticus, for example, requires that meat come from animals that chew their cud and have split hooves in order to be considered kosher. But for “eco-kosher” Jews, those laws have come to represent only part of the equation — particularly as they relate to the consumption of meat.
Kosher meat has long enjoyed a reputation — among Jews and non-Jews alike — for high quality and an expectation that it is produced in an ethical manner. But that status was badly shaken last year by allegations that the country’s largest kosher slaughterhouse, in Iowa, abused workers, animals and the environment.
In horrified reaction, a group of Conservative rabbis designed an additional food certification known as Magen Tzedek, or shield of righteousness, that sets standards for protecting workers and the environment. The Conservative leaders expect to announce by the Jewish new year in September a first round of companies adding the voluntary seal to their products.
Morris Allen, a Minnesota rabbi who came up with the idea, describes the seal as a complement to kosher certifications — but one that should carry equal force.
Allen said he hopes the undertaking will allow Jews to “return to that notion that keeping kosher is responding to a higher authority. It will be a recognition that what we eat is central to who we are.”
His effort has earned mixed reviews from Orthodox leaders. Some dismiss it as unnecessary, saying rabbis should leave oversight of worker safety and the environment to the government.
Other Orthodox leaders, however, have taken up a similar cause, including a group of rabbis in Los Angeles. They are pursuing a voluntary certification that is focused on the wages and job conditions of workers employed by local businesses, schools and synagogues, starting with those along Pico Boulevard, which cuts through the heart of an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. Orthodox rabbis and activists in New York, meanwhile, are preparing to launch a seal for restaurants.
The Iowa raid also helped inspire another response. Some businesses have started selling another variety of kosher meat — this one from grass-fed cows that are raised humanely in open pastures rather than in stalls or pens.
“It’s a big deal to take the life of a living thing in order to consume it,” said Roger Studley, the husband of a Conservative rabbi in the Bay Area. “I would say it’s OK to do that, but you want to minimize the suffering of the animal.”
Studley, who helped organize the ritual slaughter for the Hazon Food Conference in December, decided to leave his university job to start a business emphasizing kosher, organic-raised and local items, KOL Foods West.
He is part of a close-knit network of Jewish activists that also includes several of the guests at the Sabbath potluck in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.
The dinner was one of a semi-regular series of “sustainable Shabbats” organized by Sarah Newman and Nadya Strizhevskaya that rotate among various homes or apartments in the Westside neighborhood.
“Shabbat is already a time to lead the most sustainable lifestyle possible,” said Newman, a researcher and blogger for the film company Participant Media. “If you are an observant Jew, you are already putting in the time and energy to make this ritual. We’re trying do the same type of thing with the meal.”
Late on a recent Tuesday afternoon, Newman and Strizhevskaya met some of the other dinner guests at the farmers market in Culver City, discussing whether one vendor’s olives would make the cut (no — unclear if they were kosher) and what everyone might bring. Because some of the diners are vegetarians, there would be no meat.
Everyone had to bring food that was homemade and from local sources, preferably organic. No paper goods would be used. Even the soda water would be produced on the spot, to avoid having to buy bottled water.
“Even if my potatoes don’t come out perfectly, the consciousness about it raises the flavor,” Aviva Bernat, a doctor, said at the market, where she bought red, purple and Yukon gold potatoes. She later added rosemary from her sister’s yard.
Bernat, like others at the Shabbat dinner, took a turn explaining what she had made.
On the sprawling table in Arch and Andorsky’s art-filled home were 20 or more dishes: homemade challah bread, sprouted black-eyed pea hummus dip with garlic and lemon, cauliflower with curry yogurt dressing, strawberry and apple pies, a pizza topped with caramelized onions.
Newman held up her bowl of ratatouille and pointed to the zucchini and heirloom tomatoes that she had canned at home. Using ingredients grown locally rather than those shipped thousands of miles reduces pollution, she said.
Strizhevskaya displayed her quiche, made with kale, peppers, onions, rosemary and marjoram — all from the Culver City market.
“When we go through this very long process of preparation, we become more at one with the creation all around us,” Strizhevskaya told the group. “We stop taking God’s gifts for granted. For me, that’s what Judaism is all about.”
As dinner drew to a close, the friends sang the “grace after meals” in Hebrew:
Because of His great goodness, we have never lacked food. . . . You are blessed, Lord, who provides food for all.