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Eco-Kosher Movement Aims To Heed Tradition, Conscience

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 ( http://www.jcarrot.org), 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.

"We're not trying to muscle ourselves into the business that others have developed" of certifying kosher foods, Allen said. "We do believe that most Jews, if given a choice between 'This item is kosher' and 'This item is kosher and also was produced by a company that respects its workers and the environment,' that most Jews will choose the latter."

Only about 15 percent of the nation's roughly 5.2 million Jews keep kosher. Yet their buying power, plus the appeal of kosher items to some other consumers, has resulted in a huge market. Kosher certification now appears on 100,000 food products, made by 10,500 companies, worth $225 billion a year, according to Menachem Lubinsky, editor of the trade publication KosherToday.

In consumer surveys, less than a quarter of the shoppers who deliberately choose kosher products are observant Jews, Lubinsky said. That statistic is not lost on Conservative rabbis, who acknowledge that their new certification could appeal to both Jews and non-Jews.

Kimelman-Block, who is married to a Conservative rabbi, recalled feeling ashamed after reading articles last year in the Jewish newspaper the Forward about the treatment of workers and cattle at a large kosher slaughterhouse in Iowa.

"I know that [the Iowa plant] is probably no worse than the other U.S. food processors, but they're doing it in the name of Judaism, in the name of holiness," she said. "That's the thing about kashrut -- it's supposed to be ethical, and it . . . has this dark side that either people don't know about, or if they know about, they think it's irrelevant."

Allen voiced similar feelings after he and other Conservative rabbis inspected the Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, in March 2006 and found labor practices that they suspect are also common in non-kosher plants.

"We found people arriving from the mountainsides of Guatemala on a Tuesday and being on the front of the production line on Wednesday," Allen said. "We saw people who could barely read Spanish getting training in English and having no idea what was said to them."

Agriprocessors says the allegations were false or overblown and have been resolved, and Orthodox inspectors have reiterated that the plant's output is strictly kosher. But Allen said his visit to the slaughterhouse changed his thinking.

"Having promoted kashrut for 21 years and made it a central part of my rabbinate, all of a sudden it made sense to me: How could I be satisfied if the ritual aspects of kashrut were being followed, but the way the workers were treated was degrading and contrary to Jewish ethical norms?" he asked.

As the movement catches on, the number of products certified as both kosher and organic is rising fast. The Jew and the Carrot Web site has spawned 10 community-supported agricultural cooperatives, in which Jews around the country have bought shares in local farmers' organic harvests.

One of them is Kimelman-Block's group of about 25 families at Tifereth Israel Congregation on 16th Street in Northwest Washington. Three years ago, they began obtaining fruits and vegetables from a farm in Brandywine. This year, they arranged for free-range kosher chickens and grass-fed kosher beef as well.

"I'm very interested in my children having a relationship with where their food comes from," said Kimelman-Block, 36, who has two daughters and a son, ages 2 to 7. "I just think it's an important part of what I'm teaching them that we go out to this farm and we know the farmer and we help plant the potatoes and help pick the strawberries."

Since many eco-kosher Jews are reducing or eliminating meat from their diet, Kimelman-Block is faintly embarrassed to be moving in the other direction. But after 14 years of mostly vegetarian eating, with occasional fish for protein, she is excited about consuming small quantities of beef and chicken -- as long as she knows its origin.

"Environmental issues used to depress me. It was just bleak," she said. "Doing something makes me feel much more positive."

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