In a major reversal of policy, the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Washington has announced that it will allow any kosher food that is certified by specific outside Orthodox organizations to be served in its synagogues, even if the food did not bear its own Capitol-K hechsher.
For decades, the Vaad has required its own Capitol-K certification for restaurants, caterers and other food providers to sell their products in the Washington-area market.
Earlier this year, the Vaad turned to Star-K, the kosher certification of the Vaad Hakashrus of Baltimore, for its kosher supervision and agreed that only meat from suppliers on the Star-K’s approved list would be permitted by the Vaad in Greater Washington. But the new policy, which went into effect May 8, means food and packaged products “under the supervision of the major certifications with whom we have worked extensively over the years,” such as the Orthodox Union of New York and the Star-K, are approved for serving at Vaad-certified functions.
Other kosher-certifying organizations that are Orthodox can apply to be on the approved list, the policy notes.
The new policy, announced Friday, also leaves it up to individual rabbis to decide what food will be allowed inside their synagogues.
“It’s a big change,” said Benny Berkowitz, president of Kemp Mill Synagogue. “For a long time, the Vaad has always been in charge of our kitchen.”
There are at least 11 Vaad-affiliated synagogues in Montgomery County and one in Washington, D.C.
Jay Lehman, a member of the Vaad-affiliated Kemp Mill Synagogue, called the new policy “extremely significant.” Prior to the policy change, kosher meant “the Vaad or nobody,” he said.
The Orthodox Union, a national organization whose mission is to engage, strengthen and lead the Orthodox Jewish community, was not accepted by synagogues affiliated with the local Vaad even though its OU hechsher is widely sought by kosher travelers outside of Washington. Until Friday, the Vaad would not certify any product bearing only the OU hechsher; another accepted hechsher also had to be on the product.
Lehman is excited that the policy change may lead to more competition in the Greater Washington area, resulting in more kosher restaurants and lower prices.
“It will create a more welcoming environment for those who want to open [a restaurant] here,” he said.
The new policy will both weaken and strengthen the Vaad, Lehman believes. The Vaad will no longer be a monopoly, he pointed out. However, “more people will respect it” and that should strengthen it. “The community would look up to them in a more positive way,” he said.
Jules Polonetsy, a member of Beth Sholom Congregation and the former consumer affairs commissioner in New York City, is pleased. “It’s great to see the Vaad responding to the desire of consumers to have greater access to reliable kosher kitchens. More competition and more options should lead to more access to kosher food and better prices,” he said.
Criticism of the Vaad and kosher dining in Greater Washington, already disparaged for its dearth of restaurants, kicked up a notch recently after two kosher restaurants walked out from under the Vaad’s umbrella, and a new, competing organization — the Beltway Vaad — was established.
Char Bar Restaurant, its accompanying Eli’s Market in Washington and Blue Star Restaurant in Bethesda, all owned by Sina Soumekhian and Marc Zweben, switched to the OU supervision last month.
“It was strictly a business decision,” said Zweben.
Earlier this year, those under Vaad supervision were informed that, as per the Star-K, certain meats and tuna were no longer acceptable. That many OU-certified meats were not allowed incensed Char Bar’s owners, said Zweben, pointing out that the decision only took effect after Pesach.
With the Char Bar family moving over to the OU, the Vaad removed the eateries from its list of approved restaurants. It also banned its food from being served in any Vaad-affiliated synagogues. The Vaad’s updated policy reverses the ban.
With Zweben’s restaurants outside of the Vaad’s umbrella, the organization now supervises kashrut mostly for Montgomery County restaurants, including Ben Yehuda Cafe, Max’s Place, Moti’s Grill, Siena Pizzeria and Royal Dragon as well as three Goldberg’s New York Bagels. In D.C. itself, the RC supervises Silver Crust in the D.C. Jewish Community Center and Souper Girl, which has locations in Washington and Takoma Park.
Although those restaurants carry the Capitol-K hechsher, the Vaad has little to do with kosher supervision at all. Several months ago, it entered into an agreement with Star-K for that work.
In an email, the Vaad said it contracted with Star-K “after a careful review of the growing needs of the local kosher community.”
The move to Star-K “represents a significant achievement and benefit to the Washington, D.C., kosher community, as it enables the [Vaad] to meet the growing demands of the community and leverage the considerable local, national and international resources, experience and expertise of the Star-K to provide training and standardization protocols to further professionalize and improve the [Vaad’s] kashrus operations.”
Star-K president Avrom Pollak emphasized that the Vaad approached his organization, not the other way around.
“We would never, ever consider coming into a community” that has its own hechsher, he said.
Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the OU’s kosher division, explained that the OU has a policy of not going into a city that has its own certifying agency.
“What changed,” he said, was that the Vaad was “no longer giving its own certification.” Rather, it was using Star-K, “a direct competitor” of the Orthodox Union. Further, Genack said, Star-K was “going to exclude some OU products. That’s what makes this different.”
Still, Genack said, he respects the rabbis in the Greater Washington’s Vaad and is “looking forward to working with the Vaad.”