How kosher is D.C.’s kosher food truck?

Correction: Earlier versions of this article neglected to identify Shira Stutman, director of community engagement at the Sixth and I Synagogue, as a rabbi. This version has been updated.

May 20, 2011

David Weinberg had planned to be first in line to buy a nice corned beef sandwich from the kosher food truck that opened Friday in Washington. The Web consultant has long lamented the lack of kosher cooking downtown and, as a foodie, was thrilled to hear that “Top Chef” contestant Spike Mendelsohn would have a hand in the deli on wheels.

But when a block-long line formed at the truck in its first hour, Weinberg was not in it. He had called the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Washington, the area’s main certifier of Jewish restaurant kitchens, to ask whether it was all right to patronize Sixth & Rye, the mobile eatery launched by the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue.

“Unfortunately, they said no,” said Weinberg, 29. “I’m always excited to have a new kosher restaurant open up, and food trucks are just this awesome local food thing that is happening. But I assumed, wrongly, that it would be under the Vaad. Until it is, I can’t eat there.”

Perhaps it was inevitable when a hipster food trend crossed paths with 3,000 years of dietary tradition, but the debut of a van dispensing nouvelle slaw and high-end challah has caused a debate worthy of Talmudic scholars: Is the kosher food truck kosher?

For now, the silver panel van will not bear the blue and black “K” that would mark it approved by the Washington Vaad. The group supervises more than a dozen kosher restaurants in the region, including the cafeteria at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. But after several months of negotiations, the Vaad declined to certify the truck as kosher, according to the synagogue.

“The food is all completely kosher, but it seemed to come down to the ownership of the truck,” said Sixth & I director Esther Safran Foer. “We rent the truck from somebody who is not Jewish,” who will use it to serve non-kosher food the rest of the week. The Vaad was “concerned that he not be in the truck while we are serving. But he has to be. He owns the truck and holds the license.”

A spokesman for the Vaad wouldn’t speak about the group’s reasons for withholding approval.

“Unfortunately, despite our putting significant effort into the project, it ultimately did not meet the standards of the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington,” which oversees the Vaad, said Rabbi Binyamin Sanders, who runs the kosher certification program for the council.

But interpretation of kosher law is often in the rye of the beholder. Other scholars had no problem with the truck’s ownership and staffing. The synagogue found an orthodox rabbi in Baltimore to sign off.

“I have a lot of respect for the Vaad, and we hope to work with them in the future, but we had to get rolling,” Foer said as she looked at the line of several dozen waiting to order. “And we are!”

The truck served more than 350 orders in two hours.

Whose stamp to trust

For most of the inaugural diners noshing along the curb, the lack of a local kosher seal of approval was less important than the texture of the rye and the crunch of the home-fried potato chips. Even the Jewish customers seemed unconcerned by the dispute.

“I came for a corned beef sandwich,” said Zach Pleat, 28, who moved to the District two years ago from south Florida and has been tracking the food truck’s planned arrival on Twitter. “I haven’t had any good Jewish deli food since I came to D.C.”

His officemate, Leslie Rosenberg, 25, said the kosher tradition isn’t important to most of her Jewish friends.

“For my age group, I know literally one person who keeps kosher,” she said.

But for strict kosher keepers in Washington, the disagreement means they have to decide whose kosher stamp to trust.

Some, like Weinberg, said they won’t partake until the local Vaad gives the truck the all clear. Others said the out-of-town certification was just fine with them.

“I’m willing to trust Sixth & I,” said Sharon Beth Kristal, 38, a contractor for the U.S. Marshals Service who was in line at the truck. A conservative Jew who keeps kosher, she normally orders only fish or vegetables when she eats out. “I’m delighted to have another place to have meat other than at home.”

The synagogue, which plans to operate the truck each Friday, insists it will be run on strict kosher principles. Each Thursday, the truck will be thoroughly scrubbed with hot water, and the stainless steel counters will be covered with butcher paper. The utensils, all of which have been dipped in a mikvah, a purifying bath, will be segregated by use. Ingredients, all kosher, will be stored in locked cabinets and coolers in the synagogue’s kitchen.

A mashgiach, or supervising rabbi in the employ of the certifying rabbi in Baltimore, will keep the keys and be on hand to monitor the cleaning and serving. The synagogue will pay for his services, Foer said.

A choice of supervision

Some Washington area rabbis were outspoken in support of the truck’s kosher bona fides. In response to questions from several congregants, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom Synagogue in Northwest posted a message on his Facebook page saying Sixth & I was good to go.

“I’m eating there,” Herzfeld said in an interview. “In fact, I’m getting 12 or 15 sandwiches for the Torah class I’m teaching on Capitol Hill.”

Herzfeld also bypassed the local Vaad when it came to certifying the kitchen at his synagogue.

“They’re doing a lot of very good and informed and important work,” he said. “But they are not the only ones capable of providing supervision. My own kitchen is supervised by me.”

Some observant Jews said they could have predicted that the issue would become political.

“None of us are surprised that this was not easy,” said rabbi Shira Stutman, director of community outreach at Sixth & I.

Steve Hendrix came to The Post more than ten years ago from the world of magazine freelancing and has written for just about every page of the paper: Travel, Style, the Magazine, Book World, Foreign, National and, most recently, the Metro section’s Enterprise Team.
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