Eco-Kosher Movement Aims To Heed Tradition, Conscience

Devora Kimelman-Block of the Tifereth Israel Congregation sorts grass-fed, organic kosher beef with kosher butcher Shlomo Moinzadeh.
Devora Kimelman-Block of the Tifereth Israel Congregation sorts grass-fed, organic kosher beef with kosher butcher Shlomo Moinzadeh. (By Alan Cooperman -- The Washington Post)
By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 7, 2007

First she had to find an organic cattle farm near Washington. Then a shochet, a person trained in kosher slaughtering, who was willing to do a freelance job. Then a kosher butcher to carve the beef into various cuts and other families from her synagogue to share it.

All told, it took Devora Kimelman-Block of Silver Spring 10 months to obtain 450 pounds of meat that is local, grass-fed, organic and strictly kosher. Which is a lot of effort -- and a lot of meat -- for someone who keeps a kosher vegetarian household.

"Here I am, leading this meat thing, and we don't even eat meat in our house," she said.

The only way to make sense of Kimelman-Block's effort is to understand that she is part of a budding movement, sometimes called "eco-kosher," that combines traditional Jewish dietary laws with new concerns about industrial agriculture, global warming and fair treatment of workers. Eco-kosher, in turn, is part of the greening of American religion -- the rapid infusion of environmental issues into the mainstream of religious life.

Notoriously drafty churches are insulating their ceilings and buying renewable energy through a ministry named Interfaith Power & Light. Synagogues are switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs. The vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals drives a Toyota Prius, and more than 50 other evangelical Christian leaders have pledged to neutralize their "carbon footprints" through energy conservation.

But, for many people, the primary daily impact of rising environmental consciousness is on the food they eat. They want it to be produced locally, sustainably, organically and humanely. Increasingly, religious people view this as a religious obligation, not just a matter of good health or ethics. The trend is advancing particularly fast among Jews, who have a long tradition of investing food with religious meaning.

"I would no sooner bring eggs from caged, battery-farmed hens into my home than I would shrimp or pork," said Nigel S. Savage, who keeps a kosher household in New York. He edits a Web site, the Jew and the Carrot (, that is devoted to what he calls "the new Jewish food movement."

Since going online in November, the Jew and the Carrot has vaulted from 300 hits a month to 300,000. But the most dramatic expansion of eco-kosher principles is likely to come in the next few years as Conservative rabbis and congregations, which occupy the middle ground between Orthodox and Reform Judaism, create a new ethical standard for food production.

The Conservative seal of approval will not be based on traditional kosher requirements, such as separating meat from dairy products, avoiding pork and shellfish, and slaughtering animals with a sharp knife across the throat.

Rather, the Conservative hechsher tzedek, Hebrew for "justice certification," will attest that a particular food was produced at a plant that meets ethical norms in six areas: fair wages and benefits, health and safety, training, corporate transparency, animal welfare, and environmental impact.

Rabbi Morris Allen of Mendota Heights, Minn., head of the committee drafting the rules, said he hopes to have enforceable standards in place by Rosh Hashanah, in September. Within a year after that, he said, the justice certification should begin to appear on packaged foods.

Allen emphasized that the hechsher tzedek is meant to supplement, rather than replace, traditional kosher certification. Still, the idea has stirred attacks from some Orthodox authorities, who contend that it will cause confusion about what is truly kosher.

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