Tuesday, October 31, 2006

"Eco Kashrut" Gains Momentum

Eco-kashrut, which includes notions of sustainable agriculture, fair labor practices and ethical treatment of animals in its definition of what is kosher, or fit to eat, has been a staple of Jewish Renewal since Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi began promoting the term decades ago.

As environmentalism itself entered the American mainstream, eco-kashrut has slowly gained currency in more mainstream Jewish circles.

Now a handful of Jewish groups are poised to take eco-kashrut to the next step, creating a symbiotic food-production chain whereby synagogues and other Jewish institutions buy their food from local organic farms.

Hazon, a New York-based nonprofit, pioneered the idea two summers ago with its Tuv Ha’aretz program. This growing season, five synagogues and Jewish community centers in New York, New Jersey, Washington and Texas contracted with local farmers for all or a significant part of their harvest, giving the farmers financial support while encouraging their own members to eat locally grown, organic produce. Five more cities will be added to the program next year.

“We want to reframe the question of kashrut, not to abandon it, but to ask what it means to keep kosher in the 21st century,” project coordinator Leah Koenig says. “Is it kosher to eat food sprayed with chemicals? Is it kosher to eat eggs from chickens kept in tiny, cramped cages?”

There has been “a groundswell of energy” these past two years in the field of eco-kashrut, Manela says.

“People realize it’s a way of supporting Israel and ourselves, to not be energy-dependent. The halachah is right there: Don’t reap the corners of your field, share your harvest. In Judaism you create social justice by the way you take care of the earth. This is kashrut in a big way.”

Not everyone is buying in, however.

“The Orthodox Union has had this discussion, in terms of animal welfare and healthful foods,” but ultimately decided that its mandate is simply to provide certification of what’s kosher according to halachah, not decide what’s “healthy” or “ethical” food, says Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of the organization’s kashrut division.

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