Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld and Maharat Ruth Friedman, who lead Ohev Sholom - The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., recently certified several dining options in the DC area under the “DC Kosher” hechsher, or kosher trademark.
Rabbi Herzfeld is a graduate of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, and Maharat Friedman studied Jewish law and was ordained at Yeshivat Maharat; Rabbi Herzfeld also has several years of experience working as a mashgiach, or kosher supervisor, in both restaurants and factories. They are working independently from the Vaad Harabonim of Greater Washington (Rabbinical Council), whose “Capitol-K” certification is used by most DC-area kosher restaurants.
“[The goal] is to make it easier to observe kosher laws — to expand access to kosher,” Rabbi Herzfeld said. “We view this certification as a service to the broader Jewish community,” Rabbi Herzfeld and Maharat Friedman said in their letter announcing the newly certified restaurants, “and we are not accepting any compensation for our services.”
On April 10, Maharat Ruth Friedman and Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld gave their hechsher to four vegan establishments: Evolve Restaurant and Vegaritos Vegan Restaurant in Washington, D.C., along with Sweet and Natural and Everlasting Life in Maryland. On April 13, they added another — Khepra’s Raw Food Juice Bar — and on April 19 they added two vegetarian options: Indian Delight and Chatpat Truck.
“DC Kosher is an Orthodox kashrut [kosher certification] organization ... with many policies similar to those of well-known kashrut organizations,” according to Ohev Sholom’s website. Restaurant owners certified by DC Kosher said that Rabbi Herzfeld worked with them to ensure all of their ingredients are kosher, that their vegetables with a high potential for infestation are checked for insects (insects are not kosher), and that oven pilot lights are lit by a Jew (to meet a rabbinic requirement that a Jew be involved in kosher cooking).
Unlike most restaurants certified by the Capitol-K, most restaurants under DC Kosher are vegan. Restaurants that don’t serve meat require less supervision, so a mashgiach doesn’t need to be present in the kitchen at all times, said Rabbi Herzfeld. Instead, Maharat Friedman, Rabbi Herzfeld, or a volunteer mashgiach will periodically inspect each restaurant to ensure compliance with Jewish law.
Rabbi Moshe Walter, executive director for the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Washington, also told Kol HaBirah that a permanent mashgiach is not needed for bakeries or vegan restaurants. He added, however, that in practice Capitol-K’s only vegan restaurant — Soupergirl — has a mashgiach present for several hours a day to check vegetables for insects.
“In our smaller kitchen mashgiachs check vegetables two to three hours per day … in our larger facility it’s closer to six to eight hours per day, five days per week,” confirmed Sarah Polon, who owns Soupergirl.
This appears to be one of several differences between the Capitol-K's kosher supervision practices and DC Kosher’s practices. Unlike the Capitol-K, DC Kosher restaurants do not necessarily have a mashgiach checking each batch of vegetables for bugs. Instead, DC Kosher mashgiachs check vegetables whenever they perform inspections and ensure that proper protocols are being followed. Nor does DC Kosher require a mashgiach be present at all times at their dairy restaurant and food truck, whereas the Vaad of Greater Washington does require a permanent mashgiach at dairy restaurants.
These decisions are based on the unique situation — such as which ingredients and vegetables are used — at each restaurant, Rabbi Herzfeld said. “We don’t require a full-time mashgiach at Indian Delight and Chatpat because they only serve soft cheeses and yogurt,” he said, “And when I was providing the hashgacha (certification) for Soupergirl, largely because of the types of vegetable involved, there was a mashgiach checking every vegetable.”
Differences in kosher supervision practices don’t necessarily mean one agency’s hechsher (kosher certification) is valid while another agency’s is not. According to Rabbi Walter, during an audit several years ago an industry expert commented that two of the Vaad’s practices — requiring a mashgiach at all times for dairy and meat restaurants, and only giving the mashgiach a key to the pantry and refrigerator — represent a very high standard of kashrut even among Orthodox certifying agencies.
The Vaad has a very high standard of kashrut, and we are proud of it, said Rabbi Walter.
According to a 2014 article by Rabbi Sholem Fishbane, kashrut administrator for the Chicago Rabbinical Council, the fundamental questions that determine whether a kashrut agency is reliable are: 1. whether it “follows the accepted guidelines in the Shulchan Aruch” (a 16th century code of Jewish law most Orthodox Jews consider authoritative); and 2. “whether it has qualified, trained mashgichim who visit its plants on a regular basis.” Rabbi Herzfeld said the Shulchan Aruch is indeed the basis for their decision-making, and that they do perform regular visits to certified restaurants.
It has only been a couple weeks since DC Kosher announced the newly certified restaurants, but Baruch Ben-Yehuda, owner of Everlasting Life and Evolve Vegan Restaurant, said he has seen several new faces at his restaurants thanks to the new kosher certification. Doler Shah, who runs Indian Delight and Chatpat along with her husband, said she received 10 new customers on Friday (generally a slow day because many federal employees telework). Some of the customers were buying take-out for Shabbat dinner.
Both Ben-Yehuda and Shah said that many of their longtime Jewish customers, who ate there even before the restaurants went kosher, personally thanked them for getting certified. “One longtime customer told me that before, her brother and sister-in-law wouldn’t eat here without a certificate,” said Shah. “Now they plan to come by.”
And some of these restaurants may eventually get Capitol-K certification as well. This is what happened with Soupergirl, which started off several years ago under the supervision of the Beltway Vaad (another local certifying agency) and now is certified by the Vaad of Greater Washington as well.
“Both agencies have been great to work with,” Sara Polon said. “I never even considered not being kosher.” Baruch Ben-Yehuda said he has never heard of the Capitol-K, but that he’s always seeking new ways to improve his restaurants’ quality and standards.
Even the Vaad of Greater Washington might get in on this trending vegan/vegetarian action. According to Rabbi Walter, the Vaad is currently in conversation with a vegan restaurant in the Greater Washington region that expressed interest in going kosher. “The Vaad recognizes and understands that [having] more local kosher restaurants is critical for the growing kosher community,” he said, and they are always looking to add more eateries under their certification.
With any luck, there will soon be even more DC restaurants putting kosher on the table.
By Gabe Aaronson