(RNS) — On Saturday night, hours after Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel that left more than 1,300 Israelis dead and more than 120 detained in the Gaza Strip, “mashgihim” — kosher certifiers — working in restaurant kitchens across Tel Aviv, firing up ovens, boiling pots and pans and brushing table tops with vinegar to prepare them for kosher use.
“We felt like we needed to do something, and what we know how to do is cook,” said Yuval Ben Neriah, owner of Taizu, a chic Asian fusion restaurant in downtown Tel Aviv. eat. “We made the decision late on Saturday after this attack started that we were going to do everything we could. First of all supporting our soldiers and secondly supporting our staff, which is very stressful and clearly they need to do something.”
“First, I decided I would cook everything we had on hand and then we wanted to offer as much as we could,” Ben Neriah said.
Unlike Jerusalem, where many Jewish-owned restaurants are certified as kosher by Israel’s state rabbis, in famously secular Tel Aviv, kosher is not the norm. Taizu, like many other restaurants in the city, boasts non-kosher staples like shrimp on their menu.
That’s a problem for restaurant owners hoping to help feed the Israeli army, which is made up of soldiers from almost every walk of life, religious and secular, demanding all the food they distributed to their troops had to be certified kosher.
In normal times, the Israeli army has fewer than 200,000 active soldiers, but since the outbreak of hostilities on Saturday it has more than doubled the number of mouths it needs to feed. More than 300,000 reservists have been called up as generals continue to consider a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip.
Many displaced residents from southern Israel, whose town was among the first attacks on Saturday and who continued to face fire throughout the week, are also from religious communities. teacher. Feeding them requires hundreds of kosher meals. Ben Neriah said in the two restaurants he manages, his staff and volunteers are producing between 4,000 and 5,000 meals a day.
To help with the switch to kosher, Ben Neriah got on the phone with Tzohar, an Israeli nonprofit dedicated to bridging the gap between religious and secular communities in the Jewish state, to see what could be done.
Kashrut, the dietary laws of Judaism, is a complex system that goes far beyond banning pork or shellfish. For example, meat and dairy can never mix, and most kosher restaurants serve one or the other. Utensils and cookware previously used to prepare non-kosher foods need to be refined to make them suitable for kosher use. In commercial settings, kosher-trained supervisors are often present to ensure everything meets requirements.
At many Tel Aviv restaurants, kosher certification has long been considered a tedious, expensive and unnecessary expense. But in recent years, Tzohar has begun offering an alternative kashrut certification program that, while still rigorous, is considered less financially strenuous for restaurants than the clerics run by the state of Israel.
“Some restaurants have called us and asked us to make their restaurants more kosher,” said Rabbi Ohad Tzadok of Tzohar. “We came with some people and we made it more kosher; it takes two to three hours and then every day we go to these non-kosher restaurants, from the time they open until they close, checking everything.”
He said his staff mainly monitors food donations, making sure they are all kosher-certified products.
“Restaurants are partnering with us; they really care about every soldier being able to eat the food they produce,” Tzadok said.
Sharon Cohen, who runs Shila, another trendy eatery in Tel Aviv that specializes in seafood, asked witnesses from the Israeli rabbi to come on Sunday to turn over his kitchen.
“I never thought I would have a kosher restaurant,” said Cohen, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family. “In the past, I had received many offers to open a kosher restaurant, but I always said, I would never let the rabbis get between my legs like that; I’m a bit of an anarchist, not suited to people telling me what to do.”
Cohen was in London when the attack broke out on Saturday but returned to Israel on Sunday morning.
Like Ben Neriah, the first thing he did was donate whatever his kitchen had on hand. He then continued cooking with donated food for the next week. However, he kept receiving feedback that kosher meals were needed.
“Now you need to decide whether you want to live with your ego, be stubborn, or do the right thing and do it for the people,” Cohen said. “If we need to diet a little more, we will diet a little more.”
Although they are receiving donations in the form of products and funds, both restaurant owners said the donations do not cover the money they spend. Cohen estimates his current production costs to produce 2,500 meals daily at $15,000 a day.
Cohen noted that he feels rabbis are being more lenient amid the crisis than they have been in the past.
The cleric also challenged Tzohar’s competing and alternative certification before this week, but Tzadok said it has received no such complaints since the attack began. He noted that they are already working with six restaurants including Taizu and will likely expand to more restaurants in the coming weeks.
As for whether they will maintain their kosher certification if and when the war ends, Ben Neriah said he is taking it one step at a time. Cohen was more certain: “Never again,” he said.
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