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An Unkosher Affair

Why some organizations make their banquetskosher and some don't.


by Gaby Wenig

January 22, 2004 | 7:00 pm

"Enjoy your dessert," Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra Maestro Zubin Mehta told benefactors at a dinner following a performance at Disney Concert Hall last month, "although I'm sure it will be pareve." Mehta assumed that after a meal serving meat, a non-dairy dessert would follow, according to the laws of kashrut.

"It's not pareve!" someone called out from the audience.

"It's not?" Mehta said.

Mehta might not have been so surprised if he had attended more Jewish functions in Los Angeles, where many Jewish organizations are inconsistent at making their official functions adhere to the laws of kashrut.

Just this week, at the Anti-Defamation League's (ADL) luncheon for combating hate, held at the Skirball Cultural Center, a reporter was told the luncheon was kosher and later found out it might not have been.

To go kosher or not to go kosher -- it doesn't seem to be a major question for Jewish organizations here in Los Angeles.

While there are plenty of Jewish groups in the city that have a policy to only serve kosher food at their events -- the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Jewish Home for the Aging, the Los Angles Hillel Council and American Red Magen David for Israel, to name a few -- there are others whose policy regarding kosher is an irresolute one. The ADL, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, B'nai B'rith and Hadassah all say they endeavor to make the majority of their events kosher, but they will still hold events in venues that do not have kosher caterers and will not accommodate outside food being brought in. At such events these organizations serve dairy, or kosher-style food -- in other words, no pork or shellfish, but nothing that a rabbi supervises.

Why not serve kosher at a Jewish event? Some organization leaders cite cost as a factor. In some venues, like the Millennium Biltmore Hotel where The Federation is going to be holding its "The Return to Passion: A Call to Action" young leadership conference this weekend, kosher food is available, but it costs significantly more than the kosher-style continental breakfast and lunch that the conference organizers chose to keep the cost down.

At the Skirball Center, events with rabbinical supervision, which need to be specially requested, cost $8 more per head. Nevertheless, these organizations will provide a strictly kosher meal at a non-kosher event if someone requests it.

Others cite venue as a factor. For example, country clubs -- which are not kosher -- do not allow outside catering.

Community leaders say that this inconsistent approach to kashrut marginalizes those who are strictly kosher.

"Serving 'kosher style' is like serving a Hindu a hamburger with an OU on it. It means absolutely nothing," said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein of Project Next Step. While serving non-kosher food might be expedient or cost-effective, it also may backfire in the face of organizations that hope to attract and serve the entire Jewish community.

"I was seriously considering going to the 'Return to Passion' conference until someone told me that it was not going to be kosher," said Yechiel Hoffman, 25, an entertainment consultant who lives in Pico-Robertson. "By not arranging kosher food to be available for the entire conference, The Federation is telling the Orthodox community that they are outside of Federation interests, that we are not their constituency. For a leadership conference, it is very sad that they seem to be saying that they don't want our future leaders to come from the Orthodox community."

Craig Prizant, the senior vice president for financial resource development at The Federation, said that The Federation tries to be inclusive.

"We always strive for our events to be kosher; we always try to be inclusive of everybody," he said, "but those [events] that aren't kosher are dairy."

Many organizers of the events say that they have little incentive to change their policy and make everything kosher because their constituents do not demand it. In Los Angeles, some American Jewish Committee (AJC) events are kosher style, because that is all their constituents require. In New York, however, all AJC events are glatt kosher, because those members call for it.

In Los Angeles, spokespeople from B'nai B'rith and the ADL told The Journal that they would reconsider their kosher-style policy if enough people complained about it.

"We would hope that [our kashrut policy] would not prevent strictly kosher Jews from joining the ADL," said Alison Mayersohn, associate director of the ADL's Pacific Southwest Region. "But if kosher was becoming a consistent issue, then we would re-address our policy."

Still, many say that for Jewish organizations to be truly inclusive, kosher needs to be a necessity, not an adjunct.

"If you go to these [nonkosher] events and receive a different meal, you feel like a second-class citizen, an afterthought," said Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City. "There are many Jews who keep kosher and they are not all strictly Orthodox-observant Jews, and you are excluding them as soon as you serve nonkosher. You are making a statement that the dietary laws of our faith are not important.

"I promote and encourage [my congregants] to be totally committed and involved with the [wider] community," he continued. "But if the community doesn't want to accommodate them -- then what should they do? Not everyone can eat nonkosher, but everyone can eat kosher."

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