Reform synagogues increasingly find interest in kashrut is growing


SAN FRANCISCO — Last November, at the Union for Reform Judaism’s biennial in Houston, a group of rabbis and lay leaders gathered for a workshop to discuss how Reform Jews should relate to the theory and laws of keeping kosher.

“The room was full,” says Rabbi Bennett Miller of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, N.J., one of three panelists.

New Mt. Sinai Cemetery advertisement

While some in the room felt Reform Jews shouldn’t even be discussing such a thing, “others were saying, ‘There are many of us trying to take kashrut seriously, and we wish we had guidelines.’ “

Some day soon, those guidelines may exist.

Miller is the immediate past chairman of a six-year-old Reform rabbinic task force on kashrut, which is trying “to come up with a philosophy or theology of kashrut, including various options from eco-kashrut to traditional kashrut to vegetarianism.”

The union’s department of worship, music and religious living has been fielding increasing numbers of phone calls from Reform congregations interested in making their kitchens kosher, department director Rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman says. Her department is developing a study guide to help them, which should be available next year.

A handful of Reform rabbis are talking about creating a Reform board of kashrut, which would certify foods as “fit to eat” according to ethical and political, as well as biblical and rabbinic, considerations.

Such conversations never would have happened 10 years ago. In fact, it was the movement’s 1999 Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism that opened the doors to serious discussion of mikvah, kashrut and other traditional rituals widely eschewed by the Reform movement since its emergence.

Interest in Jewish text study and traditional practices has been growing in Reform circles. Adult education classes are proliferating, attendance is up for day schools and religious schools, and head coverings and prayer shawls are the norm rather than the exception at many Reform synagogues.

According to two recent studies, more Reform Jews are putting their mouths where their values are. In a 2000 survey that was never published, 344 congregations — about half the movement’s affiliates — showed a surprising adherence to kosher laws.

Ten percent reported that their synagogues have kosher kitchens, 80 percent ban pork or shellfish and nearly half won’t serve milk and meat on the same plate or platter.

“The majority of our congregations keep some elements of kashrut, and that’s very interesting,” Wasserman says. “It represents a change over time.”

Wasserman wasn’t surprised at the ban on pork or shellfish. That’s “deeply culturally” ingrained in many Jews, she says, who may eat nonkosher food in restaurants and even bring it into their homes, but expect higher dietary standards in Jewish communal settings.

But separating milk and meat, she says, is “going to another level that I didn’t expect to see 46 percent of our congregations going to.”

Another survey conducted last November at the movement’s biennial revealed that individual Reform Jews are becoming more kosher-friendly.

More than 500 conference participants, about one-quarter of the total, answered online questions about their dietary practice. At home, 62 percent say they ban pork, 46 percent ban shellfish and 35 percent don’t mix meat and milk. In restaurants, however, just 51 percent avoid pork, 34 percent won’t order shellfish and 29 percent stay away from dishes that mix milk and meat, such as cheeseburgers.

Some 38 percent said they eat vegetarian in restaurants, compared to 28 percent who do so at home, reflecting a significant number of Reform Jews who presumably are avoiding kosher questions entirely by eschewing meat when eating out.

The survey, which has not yet been published, asked about dietary practice rather than kashrut. It included actions such as eating matzah at Passover — nearly 71 percent said yes — and saying motzi, the blessing over bread — 48 percent do it on Shabbat — that Wasserman explains are expressions of Jewish identity that would be lost in a survey only on kashrut.

“The connection of the table to something holy and sacred, the notion that what we eat is connected to an expression of being Jewish that is appropriate in a Reform Jewish context, is bubbling up within the movement,” she says.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of the Orthodox Union’s kashrut division, says the group is “very happy to see” Reform Jews keeping kosher, but adds that changing the definition of what’s kosher shouldn’t be on the table.

Setting up your own standards “is too amorphous,” Genack says. “It’s very subjective — people can agree or disagree philosophically.”

The emerging Reform notions of dietary practice encompass much more than traditional kashrut. The growing Reform interest in the totality of the concept is evidence of how the term is expanding.

Eco-kashrut is increasingly popular, with 43 percent of respondents to the November survey saying they “refrain from eating foods” they feel “are ethically questionable.”

That includes people who keep kosher; “moral vegetarians,” who may avoid Chilean sea bass because of over-fishing or foie gras because of force-feeding; those who support organic or local farmers; consumers of Fair Trade coffee; avoiders of non-union fruit; and a host of others who adhere to certain ecological or political standards that may have nothing to do with traditional notions of kashrut.

Debbie Cohn of Highland Park, N.J., is on the board of Anshe Emeth. She and her husband began keeping kosher 18 years ago, soon after their first daughter was born, though neither had grown up with the practice.

Cohn says her congregation has made changes to accommodate people’s evolving stances: Nondairy creamer is always available after meat meals, she points out, and at this year’s Purim carnival, which used to serve hot dogs along with pizza, only pizza was served.

Some older congregants objected, she says. The changes were spearheaded “by our younger members, who are returning to traditional things.”

Rabbi Lucy Dinner, who has been at Temple Beth Or in Raleigh, N.C., for 15 years, says the conversation changed 10 years ago. Now her synagogue holds meals where they serve free-range chicken, “and we let people know when and why we’re doing it.”

They’ve brought in the local Chabad rabbi to kasher, or make kosher, their kitchen when they hold events for the entire Jewish community, yet they also respect members who don’t keep kosher.

Some rabbis on the Reform kashrut task force are talking about having the movement set up its own kosher board, which would certify foods according to yet-undetermined Reform standards. That would give Reform Jews a framework to develop their own approaches to kashrut.

They were motivated in part by a recent scandal in kosher slaughterhouses, which flashed scenes of animal cruelty around the Jewish world. Those Reform Jews who want to keep kosher but are appalled by conditions in some kosher slaughterhouses “feel our hands are tied because we have no place else to go,” Wasserman says.

Rabbi Richard Levy, director of the School of Rabbinic Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, promotes the idea of Reform kosher certification. He says it actually would be more stringent than traditional kosher laws because ethical considerations would be added to existing dietary prohibitions.

“I would like to see it as an extension of halachah,” or Jewish law, he says. “It would expand what dietary practice means in a Jewish setting to include a concern for the people who harvest our food, bring it to market and sell it, a concern with the pain of living creatures, which has led people not to eat veal or foie gras, to look for free-range poultry and beef, or more humane methods of slaughter.”

Levy thinks such a system could emerge in the next decade.

“It’s not a pipe dream,” he insists.