The Vaad Harabanim (Rabbinical Council) of Greater Washington serves many functions for the Greater Washington area Jewish community, but kashrut (kosher certification) is by far the Vaad’s most visible function. Their Capitol-K symbol appears on kosher foods and certificates throughout the area.
For the past several years, the Vaad’s kashrut division has been expanding. The Jewish community in the Greater Washington area is flourishing, and more conference planners in DC are seeking kosher food for their Jewish attendees. By 2014, the Vaad’s executive director, Rabbi Moshe Walter, found himself working overtime to certify and support new mashgichim(kosher supervisors) for local restaurants and caterers.
This growth placed Rabbi Walter in a predicament. On one hand, the Vaad needed a dedicated staff member to properly support their roughly 50 mashgichim. However, they still didn’t have enough kosher-related work to justify hiring a full-time professional — and part-time kashrut managers are hard to come by.
Finally, the Vaad found the solution: a partnership with the Baltimore-based Star-K kashrut agency. In addition to certifying Baltimore restaurants and caterers, the Star-K is one of the four largest industrial kosher certification agencies in the world. The other three are the Orthodox Union (OU), Organized Kashrut Laboratories (OK), and the KOF-K.
Under the deal, the Star-K supplies a kashrut management professional — Rabbi Zvi Holland, director of special projects for the Star-K. In return, the Vaad pays a portion of Rabbi Holland’s salary. Now, the Vaad receives world-class kashrut management support in the form of Rabbi Holland, and the Star-K advances its mission to expand kosher options nationwide.
Before the partnership could be formed, however, the Star-K’s senior rabbinic administrator, Rabbi Moshe Heinemann, insisted that the Vaad maintain complete control over all kashrut law and policy decisions. The reason, Rabbi Holland explained, is that Rabbi Heinemann believes local rabbis must be pre-eminent in their communities rather than taking orders from another authority.
The Vaad Harabanim of Greater Washington agreed to this condition, and the partnership formally began in February 2015. Since then, the Vaad has continued making its own kashrut policies and decisions, which Rabbi Holland faithfully executes.
Rabbi Holland and Rabbi Walter work closely together, speaking at least once a day about strategy, management, policy, and Jewish law. According to Rabbi Walter, Rabbi Holland has added a new level of professionalism and responsiveness to the Vaad’s kashrut operation. The kashrut team now collaborates using email, texting, and Google Docs. When a mashgiach texts them with practical questions, they usually respond within minutes. They said that the Vaad’s customer service and kosher standards have both improved considerably thanks to the partnership between the Vaad and the Star-K. Both organizations are pleased with the partnership and plan to continue it.
Kosher establishments are also happy with the partnership. For example, the owner of Moti’s Market and Al Ha’esh Israeli Grill in Rockville, Maryland, Gideon Sasson, said that thanks to the partnership the Vaad has clearer processes, immediate response times, and a detailed explanation for every kashrut decision.
The full size of the Vaad’s kashrut operation is hidden to most DC-area kosher consumers. The 17 kosher restaurants certified under the Vaad are just the tip of the iceberg (the Capitol-K website has a full list of kosher-certified food establishments in the DC area). The Vaad also certifies 10 kosher caterers and four high-end DC hotels that host hundreds of kosher events per year. One such event is the annual AIPAC policy conference, billed as the largest kosher event outside Israel. Although the conference takes place in a venue overseen by the Capitol-K, the food generally comes from Foremost RAM Caterers — which is based in New Jersey and certified by the Star-K.
Additionally, there are several bakeries, markets, and other miscellaneous establishments under the Vaad’s oversight. Rabbi Holland said the Vaad also provides kosher certification to several community institutions at no charge, including the Hebrew Home, Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School (CESJDS), Berman Hebrew Academy, and Hillel at the University of Maryland, College Park.
The Vaad is always looking to add more kosher establishments. Despite what some cynics say, political and anti-competition factors play no role in the Vaad’s decision making, according to Rabbi Walter. “There is one factor that determines whether we grant certification to an establishment,” he said, “and that is whether they are willing to meet the Vaad’s kashrut standards.”
The choice to go kosher is a simple question of economics, he said: Will business from new consumers offset the costs of going kosher? The biggest cost for a restaurant isn’t the Vaad’s fees or the price to hire a mashgiach. (Under the Vaad’s model, mashgichim are certified by the Vaad, but they are directly hired and paid by the business owner. However, to ensure that the mashgiach feels secure to speak up and issue violations, the mashgiach reports directly to Rabbi Holland and not to the business owner.) The Vaad’s administrative fee for certification is generally $50 to $100 per week and the cost of a mashgiach is generally $18+ per hour.
Rather, Rabbi Walter said, the main cost of kosher certification is the lost money from being closed on 60+ of the most profitable days of the year. The Vaad requires its kosher-certified establishments to close every week from Friday night to Saturday night — generally a busy time for non-kosher restaurants — because it's forbidden to cook or conduct business on the Sabbath. The same applies for Jewish holidays.
Shalom Group owner Justin Dekelbaum, who runs a restaurant, catering company, bakery, and meat market in Silver Spring, confirmed that this is indeed a significant cost for his restaurant but less so for his catering business. He and Sasson both said that checking certain vegetables, such as broccoli, for bugs (which are not kosher) also adds to the cost of being kosher.
Rabbi Walter said the Vaad is currently in talks with a few restaurants considering becoming kosher. This doesn’t necessarily mean that more kosher options are on the way — the Vaad regularly speaks with restauranteurs exploring kosher certification — but they do whatever they can to facilitate the process. Since the main barrier to going kosher is economics, Rabbi Walter and Rabbi Holland said that calling up a non-kosher restaurant’s owner and asking “Why aren’t you kosher?” can be a very effective tactic to expanding the kosher offerings in a community.
If enough people call, it shows the owners just how many new customers they can get.
By Gabe Aaronson