Courses for female kosher supervisors shut down: Up to two years ago, women interested in working as kashrut supervisors in restaurants and different businesses in Israel would receive a permit from the Chief Rabbinate after taking a course in Israel or abroad. Now, that is no longer possible.
An investigative report published recently by the Nashim (women) magazine reveals that women seeking to join kashrut supervision courses these days are told that they are now open to men only "for modesty reasons".
In 2010, the Ministry of Religious Services issued new procedures aimed at regulating the status of supervisors and maintaining transparency and control.
According to the new procedures, a person applying for the job must "undergo proper training in an institution recognized by the Chief Rabbinate" and "take exams and receive authorization from the Rabbinate to serve as a kashrut supervisor."
The practical meaning of the new procedures is that each training course must be approved by the Rabbinate, but the courses opened by the Rabbinate are designed exclusively for men.
Emunah, the national-religious women's organization, decided to open a special course for women. Its representatives turned to the Rabbinate and requested a permit for the new course, but have failed to receive a response for the past six months.
According to Emunah, which has obtained protocols from meetings discussing the issue, the Rabbinate is intentionally delaying its response "for modesty reasons".
Rabbi Amar: Debate not purely halachic
Tziporet Schimmel, Emunah's legal advisor, says the organization had already tried to open a kashrut supervisors' course for women in 2004.
"We had a meeting with officials from the Rabbinate's Kashrut Enforcement Division, and they agreed to allow women to integrate in two fields: Shatnez (cloth containing both wool and linen which Jewish Law prohibits wearing) lab tests and checking supervised leaves for bugs. In both fields the woman does not work at the actual business, but rather in an isolated and hidden place, for modesty reasons.
"They basically conveyed the message that it is immodest for women to serve as full-fledged supervisors."
Emunah turned down the Rabbinate's offer, but budget and technical difficulties forced the organization to shelve the idea of opening the course. In April 2012, Emunah approached the Rabbinate again, asking for a permit to open the course.
"Our request was met with dead silence," says Schimmel. In June they appealed again, complaining that they had yet to receive a response although the Rabbinate should have replied within 45 days, according to procedures.
The organization finally received an answer in late August. In a letter sent to Emunah Chairwoman Liora Minka, Rabbinate representatives said they had yet to make a decision on the matter, enclosing part of the discussion's protocol.
One of the people quoted in the protocol is Rabbi Avraham Yosef, who said: "I once wrote a reasoned letter to one of the country's greatest scholars, who employed a woman in a slaughterhouse, in which I proved that it is against Halacha from many aspects, apart from the many obstacles resulting from the employment of women as supervisors."
Chief Sephardic Rabbi Shlomo Amar raised another fear quoted in the letter: "The discussion on whether a woman can be employed as a supervisor is not purely halachic, but is part of efforts made by different organizations interested in creating a public discussion on the issue of equality for women in public life."
"As far as we are concerned, this was a clear statement," says Schimmel. "We understood that they were trying to wear us out and make us give up on this course. The problem is that this refusal, and the strange letter they sent us, made us fight for this course even more."
'Modesty is just an excuse'
Schimmel says the Rabbinate is attempting to exclude women from the kashrut supervision field, adding that "every normal society would not tolerate such blatant violation of the freedom of occupation under the pretense of modesty.
"They present the modest claim every time they seek to exclude women from positions or presence in different places, but there is no doubt that modesty is just an excuse."
On the other hand, there are several veteran women kashrut supervisors, who are highly appreciated. Yael Dugma, who has been works as a kashrut supervisor on behalf of the Mateh Asher Regional Council for 11 years now, says that "naturally, a woman is familiar with the kitchen. I have thorough knowledge of the menu and I understand how to carry on in a kitchen. When I make kashrut demands I feel that I am always respected because I explain what I do and why."
Rabbi Shlomo Ben Eliyahu, rabbi of the Mateh Asher Regional Council, believes there are places where it is better to have women work as kashrut supervisors rather than men, for modesty reasons too.
"The majority of the staff in kitchens is comprised of female cooks and waitresses," he explains, "and this system of women should be supervised by a woman."
Rabbinate: Issue hasn't been discussed yet
The woman leading the battle on behalf of Emunah is rabbinical pleader Miriam Goldfisher, who is a rabbi's wife. When she was asked to found and run the kashrut supervisors' course for women, she received approval from leading rabbis. Over the years, she has heard complaints from several rabbis objecting to women supervisors.
"They told me that it's a job which requires assertiveness, that the hours are unsuitable for women, that the job entails carrying sacks and boxes which woman cannot do. They even told me that it's unsuitable for women because the pay isn’t good. But the modesty claim is always in the background. The opponents explain that it's immodest for women to work in the kitchen with men."
Rabbi Yaakov Sabag, head of the Rabbinate's Kashrut Enforcement Division, says in response to the claims that "after the Emunah organization appealed to the Chief Rabbinate, an initial discussion was held by the Kashrut Committee. In that meeting the rabbis and committee members were requested to prepare a personal position paper on the matter.
"Recently, Rabbi Chaim Lasri, the Kashrut Committee's coordinator, sent a reminder to each of the members in a bid to discuss the findings as soon as possible and inform the Emunah organization of the committee's stand.
"I must stress that everything said in the Kashrut Committee's protocol (the comments made by Rabbi Yosef and Rabbi Amar) does not reflect the committee's stance or opinion, as the issue has not been subject to a practical discussion yet."
'Rabbinate afraid of its own shadow'
Liora Minka clarifies that the course will be opened – if not with the Rabbinate's help, then with the help of the High Court of Justice.
"The Rabbinate is so afraid of its own shadow that it can't make a decision. At the end of the day there will be women supervisors. And just like women benefitted the field of rabbinical pleading field, they will benefit the field of kashrut supervision.
"As a religious person, I am offended by the fact that that the court – rather than the Rabbinate – will have to open this important channel. They could have taken advantage of this excellent opportunity to lead this process together with the Emunah movement rather than be dragged there by a court ruling and then issue the cry of the 'robbed Cossack.'
"We have overcome greater obstacles and I have no doubt that we'll overcome this one as well so that at the end of the day jobs will be added for women and they will be able to express their personality, skills and specific contribution to this field of kashrut in the public domain.
"As is customary in a democratic country: What common sense won't do will eventually have to be determined by the High Court of Justice," Minka concludes.
The full article was published in Makor Rishon's Nashim magazine