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In Jerusalem, a handful of restaurants and cafes are staging a kind of kosher rebellion. They're defying Jewish religious authorities who claim to be the only ones who can certify restaurants as kosher or in compliance with Jewish dietary laws. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Jerusalem that the dispute is part of a wider debate about how the country should manage the relationship between synagogue and state.
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ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Activists, rabbis and customers recently gathered in support of the Carousela Cafe in West Jerusalem. The city's rabbinate recently threatened to fine the cafe if it claimed to be kosher without the rabbinate's certificate. Cafe manager Jonathan Vadei says the rabbinate's kosher inspectors are not doing their job. And he and some colleagues have decided to form their own association to do it. He says he's determined...
JONATHAN VADEI: To show everybody what happening in this institution. It's not kosher at all. This institution is not kosher at all.
KUHN: It takes some chutzpah to call the rabbinate unkosher. And some rabbis have rallied to Vadei's support for doing so. Conservative movement Rabbi Andrew Sacks says the kosher inspection system has become corrupt.
RABBI ANDREW SACKS: There are many restaurants and institutions where the inspector comes in once a month simply to collect a check and does not appear the rest of the month. But beyond that, a serious problem is that the inspectors themselves are paid directly by the restaurateur, so there can be no sense of objectivity.
KUHN: But Rabbi Eliyahu Schlesinger of the Jerusalem Religious Council says any restaurant that calls itself kosher without a certificate is breaking the law.
RABBI ELIYAHU SCHLESINGER: (Through translator) To become a doctor, you need certification. To become a lawyer, you need certification. To be kosher, you need certification. I don't know who is behind this. Probably interest groups, maybe with political interests in mind. The result will be anarchy.
KUHN: Conservative movement Rabbi Ehud Bandel points out that for centuries before the modern state of Israel was established in 1948, there was no central authority over kosher inspections. They were done by private groups of rabbis, as they are in the U.S.
RABBI EHUD BANDEL: It was based on trust, and that's what we need to install again: the trust between the customer and the owner of the restaurant, and without a monopoly and without all the other commercial interests of the chief rabbinate.
KUHN: But the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, gave the rabbinate and ultra-Orthodox Jews a monopoly, not just over kosher inspections but over weddings and funerals too. It also granted the ultra-Orthodox special privileges such as exemption from military service. But Israelis are now questioning all of these monopolies and privileges. Rabbi Bandel says it's time to reclaim Judaism from the religious establishment.
BANDEL: It's up to us to make sure that the Knesset will change this legislation and enable freedom of religion and free market of religion, which will be only good for religious life here in Israel.
KUHN: Some see this issue as part of a larger culture war between Orthodox and secular Jews. But Jerusalem City Council member Rachel Azaria says that the two sides are just trying to find ways to live together and improve the city.
RACHEL AZARIA: For 15 years, the ultra-Orthodox were taking over, and the regular Orthodox and the liberal and the secular were leaving the city. And what happened over the past few years is that we got a secular mayor, and that kind of changed something. And we also got our self-confidence back and we're campaigning again to make sure that the city will be the way we want it to be.
KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Jerusalem.