The Vegan Mashgiach: An Interview with IKC’s Rabbi Zev Schwartz, Part 1

Introduction

The number of vegan restaurants continues to grow. Few are, however, kosher. I see this as a missed opportunity, especially in smaller communities with few kosher options. And this is even true in communities with a larger selection of kosher options. Vegan restaurants offer more variety of foods than the typical kosher restaurant and expand the number of places and neighborhoods to enjoy a meal out. Since they compete with regular restaurants that offer vegan options, many go the extra mile to provide an attractive atmosphere and service at a fair price. Given how easy it is for a vegan place to become kosher, one might wonder why so few are certified.

In a few markets, one kosher agency has been making inroads into certifying vegan restaurants. The International Kosher Council (IKC), founded and led by Rabbi Zev Schwartz, certifies a number of restaurants in New York City and Philadelphia (among other places), most of them vegan, including the only national kosher chain, Beatnic (formerly, by Chloe), Beyond Sushi, and many others. A search of the Internet for IKC shows a number of blog discussions asking about the reliability of the IKC and its standards, which some assert depart from the major national and regional kashrut agencies. The IKC does not appear on the common lists of approved hashgachas (kosher certification agencies), and its restaurants are not found on the approved lists of many synagogues. Yet, there is scant information about why this is so.

I have included IKC restaurants in my listing of vegan eateries and profiled a unique product unavailable under any other hashgacha. While Mipikale takes no official position on hechshers (that is a matter of personal conscience between the eater and their Rav), this blog is all about increased transparency in kashrut, and I believe that informed decisions are better than uninformed ones. In that context, I had a chance to interview Rabbi Schwartz at length. The questions and his responses have been condensed, consolidated and edited for clarity (and verified with Rabbi Schwartz). Parenthetical notes are by the editor. Due to the length, I split the interview in half. While respectful comments are always welcome, please reserve judgment until you have read the entire interview. 

Interview, Part 1

What is your background in kashruth?

I did not intend to go into kashruth. I was a talmid (student) at the Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland and at Brisk with Rabbi Dovid Soloveitchik. [I moved to Los Angeles] and after about 7 or 8 years of being a rebbe in yeshiva there, a colleague where I was teaching, who was the representative for the OU in Los Angeles, asked me if I wanted to do some work in kashrus. Later, I was in Chicago and worked for the OU.

I moved back to Los Angeles and worked for the KSA (a Los Angeles-based kosher certification agency). I ended up as a Rav in Santa Barbara, California, and my brother who was also in Los Angeles doing work in hashgacha decided we should open a kosher consulting agency. The idea would be not to do hashgacha, but because there were so many hashgachas out there and we were familiar with a lot of them, we would be able to advise businesses to find the right hashgacha for them. 

We advised Campbells and Del Monte as to where they should go for whatever their particular needs were and to help them get through…the maze of the world of kashrus. In the course of that, some of the people that we spoke to asked us if we would certify them. And so, we started to do that. I started to certify some establishments and some small factories [in Santa Barbara where there was no active hashgacha] and that is how I got into kashrus.

Why did you start IKC?

IKC LogoI moved back to New York, and I thought that there would be no reason to do hashgacha in New York because there [were already many certifying agencies], but after being there for a time, I realized that there was a big need for a fair hashgacha, reasonable in price and in the way they treated [businesses], in what they demanded of their customers. Plus, by being so many years in kashrus, I realized that unfortunately the role of hashgacha was veering away from halacha (Jewish law). And emotion and unnecessary strictness were prevalent that were not necessarily based on halacha.

So what about your approach is less burdensome?

[My approach is to actually follow the halacha and respect the delicate balance between maintaining kashrus and imposing unnecessary requirements]. For example, if you demand that a restaurant pay for hashgacha temidis (a full time kosher supervisor), which is not found anywhere in halacha, then you are actually taking away their hard earned money by demanding that they pay for something that is completely unnecessary. Or if you demand a business kasher in a way that is not necessary in halacha, an extra chumrah (stringency), and because of that they have to shut down which is a big loss of money, you’re taking away money from a company because of an unnecessary chumrah. That’s why the Torah says lo sosifu al hadovor asher onochi m’tza’veh es’chem v’lo sig’r’u mi’menu, you shouldn’t add, and you shouldn’t take away…if HaKadosh Baruch Hu (God) made it a certain way, what right does anyone have to say that God didn’t do it right and just add another [requirement].

Are you saying that there is no room for being machmir?

I am not talking about following a stricter opinion because there is a reason and there are halachically different opinions and you can be more makel (lenient) like one or more machmir (strict) like another; rather to create something that doesn’t exist at all like hashgacha temidis and demand that, when it is not mentioned in halacha whatsoever, and there is no opinion that says it’s necessary. Or when halacha says to kasher something you need either [to wait] 24 hours, pogem (make any remaining flavor undesirable, such as by washing with detergent), or k’balo kach palto (to make it kosher the way it became non-kosher, such as using boiling water on equipment that handled hot liquid or fire on grill grates) , that is, one of the three, and you are going to demand ALL three, there is no shita (line of reasoning) you are basing it on. That is not halacha

And more than that, if you decide that you want to cover your bases, and you think that is a good idea to go ahead and require these 3 things or to require hashgacha temidis then it should not be instituted as a requirement but as a good idea. And if an agency decides they don’t want to do that, they shouldn’t be vilified as being on a lower level.

Are there valid chumras in kashrus?

Obviously, there are valid chumras (stringencies), but they are valid because the halacha deals with them and includes them as such. Of course, I am not saying that there is no valid reason for cholov Yisrael (dairy products under continuous supervision from the time of milking). There is room to say, ‘I don’t want to rely on the USDA’ and that is not an unnecessary chumrah. Maybe there are some cases where it is carried too far, but it is not an unnecessary chumrah

The same thing, for example, with bishul akum (certain foods that are cooked by non-Jews). If certain chassidic groups don’t consider potato chips or beans to be [acceptable] unless they are bishul yisrael (cooked by or with the direct involvement of a Jew), whereas the OU and the OK and all the others say it is [acceptable], that is a valid chumrah, because there are mamash (definitely) different opinions regarding that. It is not like you are going against the Shulchan Aruch (16th century code of Jewish law that is largely authoritative). There is also a need to keep the structure of halacha without crossing any lines.

What distinguishes you from the major national hechshers or local vaads?

I try to keep the proper perspective of what is considered halachically necessary and what is an extra chumrah. And I try to keep it very, very clear. I try not to make unreasonable demands on a restaurant, and I try to be very sensitive to what it costs them. I am less expensive than [some of the larger, nationally recognized hashgachas]. I do try to stay out of territory of the vaads (local rabbinical councils). The reason I am in Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn is because there are no vaads that claim those as their territory. 

Photo of Charlie was a Sinner in Philly
Charlie Was a Sinner, Philadelphia

I do not go into Borough Park or Flatbush and in the areas of Queens where the va’ads flourish. I do my best to avoid [those areas]. In Philadelphia, before I went in, I spoke with the head of the va’ad there and I told him what we were planning on doing, and I told him that we were pretty much going to stay in Center City [where there were no kosher restaurants at the time] and will not go to Main Line and I did that. I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes. 

But aside from that, the other thing that I feel that I do, and I am not saying that other agencies don’t do, but I understand that they don’t do it as much. I view my customers as my customers. I view them as necessary for me, rather than I am necessary for them. The attitude of [some] other agencies is that they are doing a favor for businesses and [they approach businesses] accordingly. I try to think the opposite way. Yes, I am doing them a service, but like anything else, they are my customers. We try to cut through all the extra, unnecessary stuff, and present it as not scary or devastating experience, but never taking any shortcuts in halacha.

Any extra cost is a challenge. But if a restaurant wants to become kosher, I don’t want money to be a reason why they are not going to be kosher. So we try to figure out a … an amount per month that is going to be acceptable for them.

Would you describe your standards as relying on leniencies not used by others or rather that others enforce stringencies that are not normative)?

The latter. We do not rely on kulas (leniencies) We rely on halachas that are not used by others. There are enough [leniencies, like] gelatin, out there. We do not use kulas that are not used by [mainstream hashgachot] We [just] do not buy into chumrahs that are used by other agencies.

Most, though not all, of your restaurants are vegetarian or vegan. Is this just by chance/word of mouth? Or is it something you targeted deliberately?

photo of ext Blossom on Columbus
Blossom on Columbus, UWS Manhattan

Initially it was easiest. The main thing that drove that, is that there were many places [where] I was rabbi in or visiting as a tourist, and I noticed that they didn’t have kosher restaurants, but they did have vegan restaurants, and it is so easy to go to a vegan restaurant and impress upon them and ask them if they are interested in becoming kosher. Not every vegan restaurant is possible, but many of them are. So why not give the community a kosher restaurant? My main intention was to offer an alternative that is easily able to do, because it is already 98% of the way there as a vegan restaurant. So, it started like that. I will be able to offer the community kosher without a jacked-up price. They could pretty much use what they were using, keep the same prices, and just be kosher.

When people ask about eating in vegan restaurants, there are three issues that are typically raised: grape derivatives (wine and wine vinegar in particular), insects, and bishul akum. Let’s talk about each of these.

The only [time an] ingredient that is vegan but not [inherently] kosher is where if they want to cook with wine or wine vinegars. They can’t use any non-kosher wine vinegar or non-kosher wine in their cooking, none of that obviously. We make sure of that. Most [of my] restaurants do not cook with wine. We had some issues where some restaurants we could not certify them because they wanted to cook with these types of wine specific wines, and we just could not do it.

Even if they only cook with kosher wines, some IKC restaurants serve non-kosher wines from the bar.

We will not allow them to have a recipe that requires [a specific wine that they have kosher and non-kosher]. What we do is, the restaurants that do cook with wine they [typically] use large containers of kosher cooking wines and there is no reason for them to use very expensive front of the house wines for the cooking. They don’t. If there is a particular place that makes a particular dish that uses such a thing they either would remove the dish or remove the [non-kosher front of the house] wine. They know that never is there allowed to be a bottle of non-kosher wine in the back of the house. Whenever we certify a restaurant the serves kosher and non-kosher wine, it is all done for the front of the house. Never the back.

photo of beyond sushi, a restaurant in NYC
Beyond Sushi, Midtown Manhattan

If it doesn’t affect the status of the food, why can’t they do it? I didn’t make this up on my own. In Los Angeles, Rabbi Yehudah Bukspan, one of the great geniuses in hashgacha [who also] used to work for the OU allowed restaurants in Beverly Hills to serve non-kosher wine.

Many of these places have a certain status of wine that they want to present. We do try to encourage them more and more to make them aware of all the tremendous options that there are in kosher wine. By the way, we prefer that they not sell non-mevushal wines (wines that have not been heated and thus cannot be handled by non-Jews once the bottle is opened) because it is a lot more complicated, and they therefore have to sell the whole bottle. But I will not demand of a restaurant to do something they don’t have to do. If there is absolutely no problem with it, I don’t care about optics, that is not my problem.

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