Group Pushes for Ethics in Kosher Food | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Group Pushes for Ethics in Kosher Food

A group of young, Orthodox Jews from New York wants to change Chicago's Kosher eating scene. Since January, they've been trying to get eating establishments here to go beyond the dietary rules proscribed in the Torah. They want restaurants, bakeries, and the like to guarantee they are treating workers fairly. They say that, too, is ethically mandated by their religion. But they're encountering a good deal of skepticism.

Last week, rabbinical student Dani Passow burned 25 miles on his bike riding from restaurant to restaurant.

PASSOW: A large part of this is trying to keep after the owners. Even places that I've signed, I go back to three or four times.

Passow is a young, bearded fellow who goes everywhere with a satchel filled with informational flyers about the budding program that's taking root in several states across the country.  It's called Tav HaYosher.

PASSOW: Tav means seal. Yosher means righteous, or straight.  So we translate that in English as "Ethical Seal."

Restaurants that want the Tav HaYosher seal have to prove to Passow's group that they are treating workers fairly: paying minimum wage, overtime, and providing a safe work place. So far, about 40 restaurants have the seal, in five states.  Six of those restaurants are in Chicago.   One day last week, Passow was heading out to sign up another restaurant.

It's a Kosher Chinese takeout called Tien Li Chow, selling things like Sesame Chicken and Egg Foo Young.

PASSOW: This place actually contacted us. They heard about us. I was in touch and said I'm coming out to Chicago, we'd love to try to sign you if you meet standards. They seemed very confident that they did.

It's a family business, owned in part by siblings Shani and Dov Shapiro.

DOV SHAPIRO:  As an Orthodox Jew, if we're supposed to be religious, observant, honorable people... it should be compliant with ethical standards too. There should be an expectation we act in business the way we act in other areas of our religion as well.

Passow has come to do a sort of audit of the restaurant, to see if it meets Tav HaYosher's standards.

PASSOW: The restaurant closes at 3 p.m., you said?
PASSOW: So maybe to stay out of your way for the next five or six minutes, and then to interview a couple of the employees?

It's a busy time, Friday, and the place will close early in observance of the Jewish Sabbath, which starts at sundown. A long line of people are waiting to pick up last-minute orders before rushing home to observe the day of rest.

PASSOW: You have a couple Spanish speakers as well?
SHANI SHAPIRO:  I have Carlos, I have one.
PASSOW: Carlos, OK great. I'll talk to him.

In the future, Tav HaYosher volunteers will show up unannounced to do these interviews.

Today Passow speaks to a bagger and a chef.  All these interviews are confidential. After that, he asks owner Shani Shapiro to show him how the business keeps track of worker hours.

SHANI SHAPIRO: They all clock in and out right here, they have their each own password.

Passow told them that they meet the standards. Soon they'll get a laminated certificate in the mail with Tav HaYosher's seal on it: a circle around two shaking hands, symbolizing a mutually respectful relationship between employers and their employees.

Passow hopes they'll display it prominently, to show customers that they're doing the right thing by their workers, and also to get the word out about Tav HaYosher.

But is this the right group to keep Kosher businesses in line?

Rabbi Sholom Fishbane, of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, says no.

FISHBANE: I honestly believe the government and the authorities that are trained in these areas, lawyers, etc., are much more equipped to get to the truth than we are -- anyone without training.

The Council, which certifies that restaurants meet Kosher dietary standards, neither endorses nor opposes Tav HaYosher. But Fishbane says any group that parachutes in every now and then, and relies solely on information that restaurants choose to share, can't really know what's happening in the kitchen.

Passow says he's not trying to be the ethics police.  He tells Shani and Dov Shapiro that Tav HaYosher is a positive campaign. If a business loses the seal or doesn't make the grade, it doesn't get reported. It just loses a marketing edge.

PASSOW: We would never tell someone that "Oh, we found that they were paying $4 an hour," or something like that. There's no negative publicity. We just would remove you from our list, you can no longer use seal, and we would no longer promote you.
The whole idea sprouted from a well-publicized federal raid on the country's largest Kosher meat plant, in 2008. It was in a small Iowa town, and it brought to light alleged worker abuse. As it turned out, those state charges were dropped.  But the owner of the plant was recently given a lengthy sentence on federal charges of financial fraud.

While many agree that worker abuse violates the spirit of Judaism, some say that Tav HaYosher's approach ignores the elephant in the room.
FRANKEL: What they're not looking at is are the people you're hiring able to work in this country?

Laura Frankel is Executive Chef for Spertus Kosher Catering at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago.

FRANKEL: It is mandated by religious law that you follow the law of the land that you're in. And in the United States, this is the law, that these people be legal.

Frankel says Tav HaYosher's standards technically don't require more than local, state, and federal law anyway.  So why don't they also check whether businesses follow federal law that prohibits employing illegal aliens?

Passow says it's because the organization is oriented toward labor rights, and once someone is employed - legal or not - they have the same rights as anyone else.

He thinks the Tav HaYosher effort will feed a growing interest among consumers who have latched on to similar movements, like Fair Trade.  Anat Trace co-owns Taboun Grill in Skokie, which recently joined the program:

TRACE: I got one phone call from this girl who said she's patronizing only businesses that have Tav HaYosher, which is a nice thing.

Trace says she thought it was strange to get a certificate praising her for simply following laws. But she says she did it in the hopes that it will inspire other restaurants to strive for the same, and perhaps more customers to demand it.

Music Button:  Matisyahu, "Close My Eyes", from the CD Shake Off The Dust, (JDub)

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