Discourse around labor circles in California has, in the past decade, been stung with major shifts in equity. This change has even seen local light on UCLA’s campus, specifically in regards to boycotts from the custodial staff who felt they were victims of severe inequality this past quarter, but the Jewish community has also met the equity paradigm shift in its own confrontations.
One such move came with Tav HaYosher, a program under Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox Jewish social justice organization, which pushes for an “ethical seal” of kashrut. The seal establishes that a food product is only kosher when the workers involved in prepping the food are guaranteed the right to fair pay, fair time, and a safe work environment, according to Uri L’Tzedek’s main website, www.utzedek.org.
Tav HaYosher found itself on several headlines in the late 2000s, but what has happened since then? After almost a decade, with little coverage in recent years, things don’t look great. When peering at the list of compliant restaurants and establishments on Uri L’Tzedek’s website, a large-fonted notice rests atop the page reminding readers, “Due to a lack of consistent volunteers, some restaurants are behind in inspections. We cannot verify with complete accuracy that restaurants listed here are fully compliant to this date.”
It didn’t help either that for California, home to one of the largest populations of Jews in the world, only nine locations were Tav HaYosher certified. It was also very surprising to see that two of those California locations were at UCLA’s Hillel, “Le Shack Bistro,” and “The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf,” respectively. Clicking on the former leads only to a dead Hillel webpage, speaking further to the lack of currency on Uri L’Tzedek’s website. The latter location was particularly striking because barely anybody who frequents the cafe had any clue about Tav HaYosher.
Some might surmise that the cost of an additional seal like this may have scared away food establishments from participating, but according to a PBS interview with a couple of the founders of this program in 2011, the Tav was actually light-weight. Uri L’tzedek’s director at the time, Ari Weiss explained, “We don’t charge anything for this seal. We have a licensing agreement which they sign.”
The director continued to describe how a business achieves the Tav: “The criteria for our certification is, first and foremost, we want to make sure that people get at least minimum wage.” The thought process is that a business earns the seal simply by maintaining a standard for the fair treatment of its workers.
This operation could remain sustainable because “The people who actually go into the restaurants are volunteers, college students, graduate students, young professionals who care deeply about this mission and about this project,” according to Weiss.
It’s evident that the founders’ enthusiasm regarding this program’s growth did not match their outreach, given that so few restaurants uphold the Tav in California today. This also reflects the inefficacy of a kosher seal which depends solely on volunteer work, unlike some of the monoliths in the kosher industry like the Orthodox Union.
Speculation then arises about why such an intriguing, forward-thinking kosher certification seems to have lost its ground. It doesn’t appear too far-fetched to assume that had this ethical seal appeared on the foray today, during the peak of equity politics, it could have flourished. Either Uri L’Tzedek barely jumped the gun on a promising shift in the kosher industry, or perhaps the Jewish community is not invested enough in equity to care for the development of such a system.