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'Ecokosher' is finding a place at the table

New dietary standards commit to treating workers, animals, and Earth with care.

Volunteers Larry Oxenberg and Miriam Moss arrange fresh vegetables for a CSA stand at an Elkins Park synagogue. Some are wondering whether the Jewish dietary laws go far enough. (Akira Suwa / Staff)
Volunteers Larry Oxenberg and Miriam Moss arrange fresh vegetables for a CSA stand at an Elkins Park synagogue. Some are wondering whether the Jewish dietary laws go far enough. (Akira Suwa / Staff)Read more

For centuries, rabbis have taught that the kitchen table is an altar.

By this they mean that drawing food from the Earth, preparing it for the table, and eating it is part of a covenant with God - an understanding that we must not defile the Earth or ourselves.

But a growing number of Jews are questioning whether the traditional Jewish dietary laws go far enough and are spawning a national, distinctly Jewish, food movement, with roots in Philadelphia, known as ecokosher.

"The kosher laws actually have nothing to do with sustainable agriculture, treating workers fairly, protecting the air and the water - any of that," says Robin Rifkin, a member of Kol Ami Congregation in Elkins Park. "And that's what we're concerned about."

A small but increasing number of Jews across the usual denominational lines of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform are feeling an obligation to confront these ethical issues in a variety of ways.

And, in a revolutionary effort, like-minded Jews nationwide are launching a new uber-kosher symbol that could appear on food products as early as next year - a symbol of ethical responsibility demonstrating a manufacturer's commitment to treating workers, animals, and the Earth with care.

"The emphasis now is on what it really means for a particular food to be fit to eat," says Mark Kaplan, a Reform Jew who does not keep kosher but who helped Rifkin start a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program with weekly produce deliveries from local farms to their synagogue in Elkins Park.

Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood hopes to form a CSA with its neighbor Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, and Rabbi David Straus recently told his congregants that they face a moral and spiritual responsibility to be proper stewards of the environment - an idea he calls eco-theology.

As the Jewish community marks the new year 5770 with a 24-hour fast that begins at sunset, the People of the Book are sounding more like the People of the Land.

Rooted in the '70s

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi coined the term ecokosher - building on the significance of Jewish dietary laws - in the 1970s. A quirky rabbi who started his career as an ultra-Orthodox, he had become versed in Jewish mysticism, the American Indian Shundahai Network, and Chinese feng shui by the time he retired to Boulder, Colo.

All that only served to make him more respected, and now Rabbi Arthur Waskow carries on at the Shalom Center in Mount Airy, bringing spiritual-based ecological teachings to the masses.

The message has resonated much more widely in recent years as it has played off the secular fresh-food movement heralded by Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food).

Estimating the size of the Jewish food movement is nearly impossible, Waskow says. But it is likely to expand on or after Oct. 24, which is designated worldwide as Climate-Healing Sabbath, a day of prayer and education devoted to ecological issues on the day the Torah portion concerns Noah and the flood.

That event, too, is Philadelphia-centric, as the idea sprang from the Germantown Jewish Center on Lincoln Drive.

In recent years, ecokosher thinking has sprouted at least a half-dozen national programs, among them the Jewish Farm School in West Philadelphia, which has classes for adults and Philadelphia schools on organic gardening and sustainability.

Some people in the movement are members of synagogues and some are not, Waskow says. But all seem to agree that the adage "you are what you eat" has never been more accurate, more essential, or more in need of a faith-based perspective.

Shamu Fenyvesi Sadeh, director of Adamah, a three-month Jewish farming fellowship in Connecticut for college grads, says food and agriculture are entry points, "a gateway to Jewish values."

That's the driving force, too, behind Hazon, which hosts an annual Jewish food conference and a blog called "The Jew and the Carrot" (, and supports CSA programs.

John Edgar belongs to the Hazon-affiliated CSA at Temple Kol Ami, which is in its third year. (CSAs - in which members prepay for the growing season and get weekly baskets of fruits and vegetables from a local farm - help ensure survival for small farms.)

Every Thursday evening, Edgar, with his 2-year-old son, William, in tow, collects his share. One week, his baskets are filled with corn, tomatoes, and spaghetti squash; another week, carrots, beets, red peppers, and lettuce.

While this CSA sees itself as part of the Jewish food movement, it does not necessarily promote keeping kosher. And Edgar, who is pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Elkins Park, is proof that one need not be Jewish to join.

Founded by Kol Ami members Kaplan, Rifkin, and Shelley Chamberlain, this CSA distributes recipes in weekly newsletters, holds cooking demonstrations on the use of unusual vegetables, and hosts free education sessions.

"These [ecokosher] issues are relevant to us as Jews because so much of our heritage is based on the fact that Jews were originally farmers and shepherds," Rifkin says. "So many of our holidays are based on the agricultural season."

'Shield of Justice'

The most tangible and perhaps controversial element to come out of the Jewish food movement was revealed Sept. 9. It is a seal of ethical responsibility - a Magen Tzedek, which translates as "Shield of Justice" - for kosher products that meet additional standards of workplace and environmental responsibility.

Project developer Rabbi Morris Allen of Mendota Heights, Minn., says he was motivated by the May 2008 raid on the nation's largest kosher meatpacking plant, in Postville, Iowa, where federal officials found that untrained illegal immigrants made up almost half the workforce.

Technically, kosher certification refers to how meat is slaughtered and prepared and has nothing to do with workplace practices. Still, Postville was an embarrassment.

Shira Dicker, a spokeswoman for the Magen Tzedek project, calls it "the God-Housekeeping Seal of Approval." The symbol is a stylized Star of David, designed "not to look too Jewishy."

Thousands of non-Jews buy kosher products. Some do so because they are Muslims, Buddhists, or vegetarians; have food allergies; or, in an era of E. coli and salmonella outbreaks, have come to trust a kosher symbol on a product more than, perhaps, FDA or USDA approval. Others buy unintentionally, because, in the $225 billion kosher-food business, even Coke and Oreos are kosher-certified.

The Magen Tzedek project is in its infancy; guidelines were released Sept. 9, and it is unclear how many companies will apply for approval.

Still, Nati Passow, founder of the Jewish Farm School, says this effort and others are necessary:

"We need to raise the level of awareness in the Jewish community and beyond to issues of food justice."