Kosher Kontroversy: In Defense of the Va’ad

On this site and around town the past several weeks, there’s been a lot of talk about the Va’ad certification policies, in general and in regards to the Sixth & Rye truck, specifically. What I’ve heard about the truck since the first day it opened, however, has made me glad I never compromised my kashrut standards by patronizing it.

There are several issues with the truck that I’ll take on one by one, in no particular order:

  • The Va’ad were approached only after an opening date was set for the truck. This set them on a time crunch, and also made it clear that the owners of the truck were opening with or without the Va’ad go-ahead. Why should the Va’ad bend over backwards for people who didn’t care anyway?  The Va’ad did their best, but still couldn’t come to an agreement that both sides felt comfortable with.
  • The truck is used for non-Kosher operations the rest of the week. This is hugely problematic from a kashrut perspective. As anyone who has kashered a kitchen knows, it’s a huge undertaking. To expect to do this switch every week with no problems is asking for a lot of trust, something most serious Kosher-keeping Jews don’t lend blindly.
  • The operator of the truck operates both the Kosher side and the non-Kosher side of the business. It’s Friday afternoon. The line is around the block, and, oh crap, you’ve run out of Kosher mustard. The mashgiach is busy on the other side of the truck talking to a customer. One quick move, and we can keep the line moving with mustard from the non-Kosher fridge. Who cares? It’s just mustard. Is this a far fetched scenario? If you know why the DCJCC’s cafe shut down a few years ago, you’d know that it’s not.
  • The owner of the truck doesn’t attempt to keep Kosher himself. Many people believed that this was discriminatory and that it’s not fair to expect an owner to keep Kosher him or herself. With the cost of keeping Kosher, there is no incentive to keep everything strictly on the up-and-up if the social pressure and spiritual cost is non-existent if rules are bent.
  • The owner of the truck doesn’t seem to have much respect for Kosher rules in the first place. At an event in 2008 at 6th & I, Spike Mendelsohn was asked to showcase latke recipes that his family uses during Hanukkah. For one of the chosen recipes, Spike disclosed his secret ingredient: Jello. When someone yelled to the stage that this was not Kosher, Mendelsohn laughed off the complaint and joked that this kind of Jello was Kosher. While some do hold that Jello is Kosher, Mendelsohn’s response indicates a level of disrespect and ignorance for the ins-and-outs of the Kosher market.
  • The certifying rabbi was out of the country on the truck’s inaugural day. No matter how organized and put together anyone is, the first day opening any restaurant, Kosher or not, is a madhouse. The opening of the Sixth & Rye truck was no different. The certifying rabbi, originally from Baltimore, was nowhere to be found on the day of the truck’s launch.
  • Only a few weeks after the truck’s launch, interested parties received an email about the truck opening especially for Shavuot. Normally, the truck is only operational on Fridays. The week of Shavuot (the holiday began on Tuesday night and lasted through Wednesday and Thursday) would not have impeded their operational schedule. The Sixth & Rye team, however, decided to open the truck specially for an event at 6th & I on Tuesday night, which began less than two hours before the holiday started. This holiday is one in which no money can be exchanged or work performed. When the certifying rabbi was contacted about the problem, he seemed unaware of the truck’s special (and incredibly problematic) schedule change that week. Owners need to ask if they are within their kashrut agreement to change anything, not warn the rabbi to respond.

While the Va’ad made every effort to work with the operators and owners of the truck, I believe they made the right move in deciding not to give it their stamp of approval. Making the determination that the truck was strictly Kosher was not one that they could make, given the situation as it stood. When, several weeks later, the Shavuot problem presented itself, I believe the Va’ad were vindicated in their decision.

While it is preferable to have as many Kosher options in the city as possible, Jews have to feel comfortable that the Va’ad are taking every possible precaution to ensure that their Kashrut is of the highest authority. It is not the Va’ad’s job to open more restaurants. Given several debacles that have occurred in recent years with Kosher restaurants and operations in Washington and the surrounding area, the Va’ad is not only justified, but required, to ensure that their certification is trusted by everyone in the Jewish community.

Bethany S. Murphy is a member of and regular at Kesher Israel and a fundraiser for a conservative think tank here in DC.