Stephen responds to Rabbi Freundel. Koshergate Part III

In the June 22nd edition of “From the Rabbi’s Desk,” Kesher Israel’s Rabbi Freundel – also a rabbi for the Vaad – responds to a May 23 blog post from Kesher congregant David Barak.  I’ve broken it down into a few parts, and I’ve taken the liberty of responding.

Rabbi Freundel (RF):  1. Competition. Competition can be a plus in a business setting where someone is selling a product. It can improve prices and service. But the Vaad in its Kashrut supervision role is not a business, its a regulatory agency and none of the synagogue Rabbis receive any money from their volunteer involvement in the Vaad so there is no financial incentive here for us. Competition between regulatory agencies is not desirable in fact it seems absurd to me. The only way to compete would be to lower standards and if one sees ingesting non-Kosher food as equivalent to eating poison (which is the way the tradition looks at it) lowered standards is not desirable. Would you really want the FAA to have competition? On the service side- when there is a claimed foul-up, the Rabbis all hear about it and have to explain it (e.g. the 6th and Rye situation). That is far more effective than competition in keeping things working correctly.

(SR):

I find it a bit surprising that Rabbi Freundel argues for a monopoly – I had thought the Vaad would deny monopolistic preferences. But now its true colors are shown, so the question becomes: is a monopoly preferable in this instance?  Answer: no, it’s not.

a)      “The only way to compete would be to lower standards.”  False.  You could provide a better service – if the Vaad didn’t respond to my phone call for a week, service could obviously be improved.  Or you could provide services for a better price – unless you’re saying that the Vaad’s price already equals marginal cost and is as competitive as possible (I seriously doubt that).  Competition could improve performance in both areas.  Kosher certifiers will provide service with a smile (not necessarily at a lower standard) if they know they might lose the customer.

b)      Completely beholden.  If there is only one kosher certifying organization in town, kosher restaurants are completely beholden to the whims of the certifying agency for a livelihood.  And if you think that rabbis are never capricious or never play politics, then I’ve got a bridge to sell you – they are as human as the next man.

Fortunately for the consumer, there is no way of legally imposing a kosher monopoly in DC.  There is no Jewish community legislative and executive branch.  People will pick their certifying organizations according to their preferences.  If Circle K isn’t strict enough for them, then they will only eat at the Vaad (or something to this effect – I actually don’t know the comparative “strictness” of these two).

(RF): 2. The New York Situation. If you examine the situation in NY, competition is an ongoing problem. There are dozens of restaurants under supervisions that many observant people won’t use. There is absolutely no uniformity of standards and problems abound. Many people who take kashrut seriously won’t eat in the homes of others who think they are strictly kosher and establishments often bounce from supervising agency to supervising agency which creates great confusion and continuing lack of clarity as to where (given the standards any individual might follow) any individual can eat on any given day. David is right that only the size of the community allows this situation to be tolerated.

(SR):

I’m not 100% sure what is being argued here (and yes, I did read David’s original post).  There are certainly economies of scale in New York City.  As for the uniformity comment…  This is something that will naturally happen if consumers care enough about uniformity.  Again, enforcing a de jure uniformity rule is a moot point because there’s no Jewish agency that can enforce this (but, also again, it can be done through market demand).  But in broader terms, this begs the question of what role does the state play?   Say you have a bunch of different types of electric outlets across states.  Should the federal government mandate that all states have the same electric outlets?  If you ask me, this will happen naturally if necessary – I know that I would pay a little bit extra to stay at a hotel that would allow me to plug my iPhone in, and that would eventually cause surrounding hotels to convert their plugs.  But that’s an aside.

(RF): 3. On PR. Certainly the Vaad could be better. But you will remember that on the most recent issue (6th and Rye) I did a full presentation and Q&A at Carlebach and at Seudah Shlishit. I have done these things before. I also wrote a full article describing the Vaad that was published in the WJW some years ago and the Vaad is talking about doing something similar again. On the other hand there are those who dislike the Vaad to the point where they spread unsubstantiated claims that are patently false or gross distortions of the truth

For example:

a.”The vaad wont give supervision to a places where the genders might mix.”  Has the author visited Ben Yehuda’s or even Eli’s on a Saturday or Sunday night, if you do you can see that the claim is patently false.

b. “The Rabbis make lots of money.” As indicated and as different than most Vaad’s we make nothing, it’s all volunteer.

c. The latest- “It costs $60,000/year for vaad supervision.” The only thing this can possibly refer to is the mashgiah’s salary which in most cases is not that high. Nonetheless the mashgiah in a full service meat restaurant often works 60 or more hours a week. That mashgiah is also entitled to vacation and if we can arrange for it, health care. (Remember these are often people supporting a family). As such they are actually being paid something between $15-18 dollars an hour-hardly an exorbitant amount for someone with specialized training who fills the primary supervisory role. Also, and this is very important, mashgichim are usually allowed to take on roles in the restaurant such as food preparation. Therefore they replace a worker who at the very least might be making $40-50,000. As such the financial burden is just not that great. The only other fees are administrative fees to allow the Vaad to maintain an office, a secretary, and a supervisory structure of an administrator and supervising mashgichim. These are no higher than the normal fees that the other supervising agencies charge.

(SR):

I salute your PR efforts.  But 1) not everyone goes to Kesher Israel.  2) Nobody under the age of 35, who is not a Jewish professional, reads the Washington Jewish Week.

As for the last sentence in the first paragraph – that’s ad hominem.   Trying to deligitimize arguments because you say the person dislikes you.  As Scott Weinberg would say, “Where’s the evidence?”  I, for one, didn’t know a thing about the Vaad or the rabbis there until I tried doing business with them.

Complaint A:  I’ve heard it only once, but I never believed it.

Complaint B:  If the Vaad made a ton of money, then I would imagine every rabbi in DC would want to work for it, or else open another certifying organization.  That’s one the beauties of a competitive market – something you of course don’t support  – it keeps wages in check.

Complaint C:  I’ve never heard somebody say he had to pay $60,000 to the Vaad for certification.  But since I think this complaint refers to me, I think I’ll address it.  Rabbi Saunders (of the Vaad) estimated to me that a mashgiach’s yearly salary would total $60,000.  And Rabbi Saunders said the mashgiach could probably attend to non-kosher duties about 33 percent of the time.  This salary – $15 to $18 per your calculation – is almost double what a normal sandwich shop employee earns.  And these employees do not usually get healthcare either – something you now impose (despite the fact that it has nothing to do with kashrut).  Plus normal employees can work full time, not one-third of the time.  Yes, I realize that this is part of doing kosher business, but you have to also appreciate that $60,000 is cost prohibitive for many small shops that don’t do larger price sales like Eli’s restaurant does.  Additionally, when we asked for quotes from individual mashgiachs not affiliated with the Vaad, we received a much lower quote.

I’ve said throughout my response that the Vaad has no way of imposing a monopoly through law (despite its desires) because it can’t enact legislation that would shut down non-Vaad-certified restaurants.  But I’ve also said in the past that the DC kosher food world suffers from a lack of competition.  How to reconcile these two?  The Vaad has done a great job of dominating market share and keeping out competition simply by reputation.  Local rabbis tell all prospective kosher restaurateurs that they should use the Vaad as their certifying organization (as many Rabbis told me), and many kosher eaters don’t trust any non-Vaad certifiers.  Of course, the Vaad is well-within its rights to exert its influence and power this way.  But individual authors and commenters are also within their rights to try to show the community that subservience – rabbinical and congregational – to the Vaad might result in higher prices and fewer kosher restaurants.  If enough people begin to feel this way, then other options will arise.  That’s why I celebrate Sixth & Rye.

Stephen Richer is a co-founder and director of Gather the Jews.  The views expressed in this article belong solely to Stephen.

Other GTJ posts on this subject:

Kosher Kontroversy: In Defense of the Va’ad – Bethany Murphy

Koshergate Kotinues – Link to HuffPo / Forward piece.

How Kosher is DCs Kosher Food Truck? – Link to WaPo article.

Q: why doesn’t DC have more kosher food restaurants? A: The Vaad – Stephen Richer