The Celebrate Israel Festival on May 31 at Pier 94, slated to be the largest gathering to date of Israeli-Americans in New York.
Yechiel Spira is part of a new breed of Internet-based Orthodox investigative journalist. The native New Yorker, who made aliyah in 1984, is on the front lines of Jerusalem’s “almost anything goes” kosher-food industry via his Jerusalem Kosher News website (www.jerusalemkoshernews.com).
In an interview with The Jewish Press, Spira spoke about why he started Jerusalem Kosher News and the effect his reporting has had on Israel’s kashrut industry.
The Jewish Press: Had you ever dabbled in journalism or kashrut before starting Jerusalem Kosher News?
Spira: I have a background in catering, the kosher meat industry and other food-related fields. I would like to stress that I am not a rabbi but a kashrut investigator/journalist. My goal is to bring readers accurate information, to permit people to make their own decision or provide them with sufficient information to probe a kashrut matter with a rav.
When and why did you start Jerusalem Kosher News?
I launched it about 30 months ago, with the hope of educating the public on the standards prevalent in the Israeli marketplace, as well as with the belief that an informed kosher consumer should make his or her own decisions based on knowledge, not false presumptions. I came to the realization that people, including my own family, haven’t a clue as to the kashrut pitfalls in Jerusalem.
Even residents of the religious neighborhoods like Har Nof are sometimes unaware of the problems. I decided to begin educating my children and my close friends and somehow that snowballed into creating JKN.
How many people in Israel and abroad read and/or subscribe?
Thousands subscribe – it’s free of charge, by the way – and the website continues to climb. We’re passing 170,000 monthly viewers, and JKN also features a newly-launched Facebook page.
I have also developed a working relationship with many kosher agencies abroad that regularly send me e-mails and call me with requests to probe matters of kashrut for them. I do my best to cooperate, time permitting. Remember, this is a volunteer effort. I must also make a parnassah in addition to my kosher reporting.
Does the Chief Rabbinate cooperate with you? What about other kashrut agencies?
The staff of the Chief Rabbinate are generally very cooperative, especially Rabbi Rafi Yochai, who heads the Kashrut Enforcement Division. Some of the private agencies, the so-called badatzim, are hesitant. Perhaps they fear my probing will tarnish their names.
The attitude in Israel is different from what it is in North America. While there should be transparency, I have difficulty getting rabbonim to give me their names on the phone. They’ll ask, “Why do you want to know?” They are seemingly unaccustomed to giving relevant information to a curious consumer.
I am working to get local residents into the habit of phoning kashrut agencies more frequently to demand explanations. At the end of the day, the many legitimate kashrut agencies are making a handsome living and, with very few exceptions, are not operating out of the goodness of their hearts.
Do the kashrut agencies respond to some aspects of your reporting?
Only when the attack is negative, and then they usually come out swinging. Once they see that my reports are supported by the facts, they calm down. But there have been some extremely uncomfortable moments, threats and shouts. But here I am, still doing my thing.
What are the biggest scandals or problems associated with kashrut you’ve found in Jerusalem?
The most common, and perhaps the most serious, involve stores advertising themselves as “kosher” or “kosher-mehadrin” while lacking legitimate kosher certification. Even more disturbing is the fact that some members of the religious community continue to patronize these establishments. Some people are unaware and some are unable to navigate the kashrut scene in Hebrew – and that includes tourists and new immigrants alike.
Is the Machane Yehuda market becoming a big kashrut problem?
It is not beginning to become a problem – it has always been a problem. It is a microcosm of the entire city. The difference is that the market is concentrated and home to hundreds of thousands of shoppers on a weekly basis. Thus, the problems are more painful since so many people fall prey to their own false kashrut assumptions.
The “shuk” is a difficult business community, one that the state kashrut enforcement people prefer to avoid.
What should American tourists look for when patronizing a falafel/pizza store or even a meat restaurant?
I don’t rate agencies, but my pocket kashrut guide and website list the acceptable hechsherim, as well as the growing list of unauthorized hechsherim as defined by the Chief Rabbinate.
One must discard the notion that everything in Israel – even Jerusalem – is kosher. It’s a noble dream – but simply not true. As is true in your home community, if you do not recognize a hechsher, turn around and walk out. Don’t make the assumption that it is OK even if you see frum-looking people eating there. They too may have been duped.
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