Chicago native Shmuly Yanklowitz wants to encourage kosher restaurant owners to think about another dimension to the way they make and serve food. Yanklowitz and the organization he co-founded, Uri L’Tzedek (“awaken to justice” in Hebrew), have full confidence in kashrut boards that examine a restaurant’s compliance with Jewish dietary laws.
His main concern is workers’ rights in kosher establishments. The cooks and servers who make the kosher food deserve to have their rights protected, said Yanklowitz, a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York. These rights―fair pay, fair time and a safe work environment―are at the center of the Tav HaYosher (“ethical seal”) program Yanklowitz helped develop.
“Kashrut boards do a phenomenal job making sure that standards are met,” said Rabbi Ari Weiss, Uri L’Tzedek’s executive director. “Our idea is to have a second conversation with restaurant owners—one that focuses on workers’ rights and work conditions. It’s a way to add another dimension to the production of a service we enjoy.”
Following Yanklowitz’s final-five finish in the Jewish Federations of North America’s “Jewish Community Heroes” contest, Uri L’Tzedek recently expanded the Tav HaYosher program to Chicago. Seven local kosher restaurants have already opened doors to volunteer compliance officers and received the seal.
“We’ve been excited to find that there’s a real open arms attitude both from restaurants and the broader community,” Yanklowitz said.
Volunteers like Chicagoan Irene Lehrer Sandalow will check up on seal holders on a regular basis, examining payroll records and speaking with managers and workers. Each compliance officer is required to undergo training on communicating with restaurant owners and workers, and reviewing documentation.
“I’m a Modern Orthodox Jew and I’m very passionate about social justice,” said Lehrer Sandalow, the director of outreach and education at the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, who was among the first to sign up as a volunteer compliance officer. “It’s really important to me as an Orthodox Jew, who is very strict about observing Jewish Law, to also be very strict about how we treat our workers.”
Rabbi Dr. Ben-Dov Liebenstein, the commissioner of the Kashruth Committee of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, said being Orthodox requires a Jew to be involved in social justice.
“As kashrut supervisors, we are cognizant of ethical laws involved in social justice,” he said. “We have our code of practice and our standards.”
Meanwhile, Yanklowitz and Weiss see Uri L’Tzedek as bringing Orthodox Jewish perspective into the larger Jewish society conversation on social justice.
“There is a strong appreciation of text as grounding for action in the Orthodox community,” Weiss said. “So we look back at the Torah and at the notion of obligation and keeping kosher. We are speaking the ‘Orthodox language’, but also engaging the larger Jewish social justice ecosystem.”
The intersection of workers’ rights and kashrut was highlighted after a 2008 Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid on the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Pottsville, Iowa, in which almost 400 workers who were in the country illegally were arrested. Social justice activists from across the Jewish community sought ways to reassure kosher consumers that food was being produced ethically from the point of view of worker treatment.
Following the Agriprocessors raid, the Conservative movement created its own ethical kashrut seal, the Magen Tzedek (shield of justice), which aims to “assure consumers that kosher food products were produced in keeping with the highest possible Jewish ethical values and ideals for social justice,” according to its Web site. The Reform movement also endorsed the initiative, through its Central Conference of American Rabbis.
An Israeli non-governmental organization, B’Maagalei Tzedek, launched Tav Chevrati (the social seal) in 2004 to ensure that workers in restaurants are treated according to the minimum standard required by Israeli law. By 2009, the organization had certified more than 350 restaurants in Israel with its seal, including 250 kosher restaurants.
“Kosher is very identifiable,” Weiss said. “Some people who do not eat kosher still make it a point to buy kosher products because they associate kosher with holiness, with thoroughness, with taking extra care.”