Students at the Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh soon will be enjoying a brand new kitchen on campus where, while baking challa and preparing Shabbat meals, they will find that kashrut is both fun and accessible.
Hillel JUC also plans to lease its new kitchen facilities to local caterers to prepare foods “for events in the kosher community,” according to Executive Director Aaron Weil.
But while the kitchen will meet the kashrut standards of what Weil called “the overwhelming majority of the Jewish community here,” a committee of local rabbis that attests to the kashrut of local businesses and institutions has not certified it as kosher.
In an e-mail circulated last week, the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh listed several organizations, restaurants and caterers as kosher “at the community standard,” but singled out Hillel and Riverview Towers as “not certified” by the Vaad.
The e-mail also claimed that, “to our knowledge [Hillel and Riverview], do not carry any Rabbinical Kashrus supervision and certification.”
Hillel and Riverview Towers maintain that their kitchens are indeed kosher, but said they couldn’t afford to meet some standards required by the Vaad.
The Vaad said its e-mail was intended to clear up confusion within the local community.
Riverview Towers, the senior citizen apartment complex at 52 Garetta St., said it consulted with the Vaad in recent months, and is following all of the Vaad’s recommendations for preparing food, but ultimately could not afford to pay for a kitchen supervisor, known as a mashgiach, for 10 hours each day — a requirement for Vaad certification — according to Hannah Steiner, executive director of Riverview.
“We are HUD housing and we can’t roll the extra cost of supervision to the tenants, especially because not 100 percent of them are Jewish,” Steiner said.
“But we are committed to staying kosher,” Steiner said. “We’re using kosher products, and are following the instructions of the Vaad. And the Vaad did a great job of training our staff. The Vaad was very generous. We’re following everything except having someone here that is a full-time mashgiach.”
Hillel JUC also approached the Vaad about certification, but Weil said, “the construction and food costs required to meet the Vaad’s standards were beyond our budgetary means.”
Instead, Hillel JUC decided that when it opens its kitchen next month, it would use only OU — the kosher certificaton of the Orthodox Union — or OU-equivalent certified products that would be prepared under rabbinic supervision.
Weil said that the standard of kashrut imposed by the Vaad, while meeting the needs of a small segment of the community, was not the only standard of kashrut in the local Jewish community.
“The Vaad has a different standard of kashrut,” Weil said. “The Vaad’s standard of kashrut is based on bishul pas yisroel and cholov yisroel (laws mandating that the production of bread and dairy goods be supervised by an observant Jew). These standards meet the requirements of a certain segment of the community, primarily Lubavitch.”
Weil said the “overwhelming percentage” of Hillel students are Conservative.
“For those students, the products with the OU certification are kosher,” Weil said. “The Vaad said that OU is not enough.”
For example, Weil said, Starkist brand tuna, which carries an OU heckscher, or certifying mark, is not accepted as kosher by the Vaad.
“The Vaad has a community standard, but it is not the community standard,” Weil said. “Their standard works for their community, and our standard works for ours. An overwhelming percentage of the Jewish community accepts the OU standard.”
“There is no monopoly on the interpretation of halacha,” Weil added. “What makes Pittsburgh such an incredibly rich community is that it is a community that understands and embraces this.”
The meals Hillel currently serves to students are prepared by Vaad-certified caterers. Those meals will continue. The new kitchen would simply add another component to Hillel’s outreach, allowing students to learn how to prepare kosher meals.
“To suggest that the food we serve is not kosher is misleading, as the preparation of the food we serve was done under the supervision of the Vaad itself,” Weil said. “When we open our new kitchen next month we will be under rabbinic supervision and we will meet a community standard that is acceptable to the overwhelming majority of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.”
He added that upon request, Hillel would continue to offer special arrangements for any student who would require food to be prepared under a different standard.
Weil called it “unfortunate” that the Vaad’s e-mail, claiming Hillel had no kosher certification, was circulated before checking that claim’s veracity. He said the Vaad never contacted Hillel to check that claim.
“For both Riverview and Hillel, the way the e-mail was sent out was hurtful, particularly this time of year,” he said.
The Vaad e-mail singling out Hillel and Riverview was intended to clear up confusion in the community, according to Rabbi Daniel Wasserman, speaking on behalf of the Vaad.
Wasserman said that for about 10 weeks, Vaad supervisors worked at Riverview, but ultimately Riverview decided not to be certified. The Vaad did not want to give the community the false impression that the Vaad had certified the facility.
Similarly, because many people had the “misimpression” that Hillel JUC was certified under the Vaad “or some other certifying agency,” Wasserman said the Vaad felt compelled to set the record straight.
“If you claim to be kosher, you must be certified by a rabbinic authority,” Wasserman said. “To claim that you are kosher without rabbinic supervision is disingenuous at best.”
Wasserman said that several Orthodox parents and students approached the Vaad under the impression or with the assumption that Hillel JUC had been certified as kosher. He said it was the Vaad’s “right and responsibility to correct that misimpression.”
“We have a certification that we refer to as ‘community standards,’” Wasserman said. “We are not saying that these are the only acceptable standards, but the Vaad is sensitive to community cohesiveness, and we won’t give a certification unless everyone can eat there. We have a standard that everyone can be comfortable with, and no one is excluded.”
Wasserman added that the Vaad only imposes its “community standards” on institutions that are primarily serving the Jewish community or primarily identified with the Jewish community.
“The Vaad is responsible to the community. We oversee kashrus at certain facilities, we respect it and we’re careful,” he said. “Kosher cannot be a cavalier word to throw around. The community is relying on us.”
Wasserman circulated a second e-mail on behalf of the Vaad on Tuesday, further clarifying its position, and suggesting that, if another entity desired to “take personal responsibility for the kosher certification of Hillel JUC they certainly do not need the Vaad’s permission to do so. Indeed, it would solve the problem of ambiguity and misrepresentation. The certification would then stand on its own merits to be judged by the students, the parents and the community. Until such time, Hillel JUC, or any other facility, that operates without rabbinic kosher supervision and certification and has no right to claim to be a kosher facility.”
Not everyone agrees that a kosher facility depends on rabbinic certification.
“It’s simply not true that unless an institution is certified by a rabbi it is not kosher,” said Rabbi Joel Roth, professor of Talmud and Jewish Law at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
“The purpose of supervision is to attest to the fact that a facility is kosher. The supervision doesn’t make it kosher, it only attests to it,” Roth said. “It surely is within the right of the Pittsburgh Vaad to state whatever standards it deems appropriate for its certification. But it’s important for the community to understand that its absence of supervision does not render it (a facility) not kosher.
“The vast majority of the Orthodox world does not require the level of stringency that Pittsburgh’s Vaad requires,” Roth added. “They are behaving inappropriately if they are hinting that a facility is not kosher just because it is not under their supervision.”
Roth said that two standards of Vaad certifications could be useful in advising the community as to the kashrut of various facilities: One certification could indicate that the facility is kosher under the Vaad, but is not pas yisroel or cholov yisroel, while a second certification could be used to indicate the facility follows the stricter standards.
Rabbi Menachem Genack, Chief Executive Officer of OU Kosher, was not aware of the local situation until contacted by The Chronicle, but said that Roth’s suggestion of implementing two Vaad certifications “is not unreasonable.”
Genack said that while he had not had the opportunity to investigate the facts, nor speak to the parties involved locally, he understood the Vaad’s position of inclusivity, and added that “the OU firmly believes that local issues are best handled by the local Vaad, and the OU does not generally supervise local establishments.”
Genack added that because students served by Hillel JUC often came to college campuses from other communities, and were often from various Jewish affiliations, he could “understand why a Hillel might be in a different category” than other community institutions.
“A Vaad may want to consider the appropriate standards for a Hillel, taking into account economic factors. We want a Hillel to meet the needs of the students; that should be factored in,” Genack said.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)