There has been a relatively robust debate going on in the DC area on the topic of Kosher supervision. The proximate cause of the discussion is the supervision of the sixth & rye food truck. The arguments reached a sufficient pitch that a thoroughly garbled interpretation made it to the Washington Post.
I have a background which is different than many of my peers – I have (a) worked in restaurants for years, (b) been personally, directly involved with kosher supervision, and (c) keep strictly kosher – meaning, I don’t eat in non-kosher restaurants, and if the supervision of an item is questionable I will not eat it until the question is resolved to my satisfaction (sigh). Further, my management degree program focused on the restaurant industry, and I spent a lot of time analyzing what works and what doesn’t. Additionally, my day-to-day professional work is spent designing and analyzing complex system interactions. Finally, as a convert, I have had to look at the rabbinic sausage-making process from the inside, and have seen some of the (legitimate and illegitimate) personality conflicts and ugliness that would be far better left both unseen and unheard.
So, with that preamble, my perspective on this particular topic is quite different than many: I think that the community is better served on the whole by an inept and uncommunicative monopoly than it would be by competing groups. Now, this is pretty counterintuitive – most people prefer competition: they’d rather have Verizon and AT&T rather than just AT&T, and the argument “let people make their own informed choices” certainly has a visceral appeal. However, I find these arguments insufficiently compelling when applied in this particular case, and here are my reasons:
Competition will be better than a monopoly
Sometimes, yes, but it depends on what you mean by “better” – for instance, during the telecom deregulation boom of the 90s, some cities were continually torn up by construction as lots of companies laid brand-new fiber. Most went bankrupt, and the fiber was briefly useful, but was quickly outdated – a substantial portion of this has had to be completely written off and the financial waste, combined with the environmental waste and damage to people’s quality of life should not be overlooked. In the case we’re discussing, for competition to improve the va’ad or to improve the experience of the kosher consumer, the competitors would need to distinguish themselves based on something – this is straightforward differentiation, a standard marketing concept. Given that the consumers in question are not va’ad customers directly, on what basis can a consumer differentiate between a restaurant supervised by the va’ad versus a different supervision? Are new supervisors doing a better job of being more transparent? To which community are they responsible or beholden? Are they publishing their policies or standards to allow consumers to make informed decisions? Up until now, the various attempts at setting up competing supervisions in the DC area have not done these things.
New York has lots of kosher supervisions, and it does fine
Again, sort of – in New York, there are several dozens of supervising agencies supporting many hundreds of restaurants. However, New York is an unfair comparison – ~13% of the population of New York is Jewish, and if the 10% Orthodox percentage can be used as a proxy for “number of people who will preferentially and nearly exclusively eat in kosher restaurants,” you’re left with something north of 100,000 people. In the metropolitan DC area, if you add up the capacity of the Orthodox synagogues, you’ll find that there are under about 5000 people in Orthodox synagogues on Kol Nidre night. One and a half orders of magnitude is a huge, huge difference. If there’s one thing I’ve had pounded into me by Thompson it’s scale matters. In New York, if a given supervisor is not accepted by 3000 people, the net effect can’t be measured. In DC, that would be more than half of the community. I believe that a notable input to the drive for non-va’ad supervision is the transience of the DC community, and specifically, the number of folks who are transplants here from New York – it’s easy to forget that DC is much more demographically comparable to, say, Seattle, than it is to New York.
The va’ad takes unreasonable stringencies
I do not agree here – there are a few things the DC va’ad is strict on (e.g. “a single owner can’t own a kosher and non-kosher business”) but when confronted with specifics, I don’t find many folks who think that that principle is a good one on which to be lenient. When I’ve engaged people regarding which particular stringencies they find unreasonable, I tend not to get much of an answer; certainly, when compared to other agencies their approach seems pretty fair (for instance, the Star-K insisted that Stacks not be open for eat-in dining on fast days).
Now, there are benefits to having a monopoly provider too – for instance, when there is a violation of kashrut standards, the mashgiah can pull the supervision, and this effectively shuts the place down. If there were two or more supervision agencies which were well established, an unscrupulous businessman could, after having his supervision pulled by the va’ad, go to the other agency and claim that the problem was merely financial. This would give more power to the business owner, and would incentivize him or her to cheat on kashrut by weakening the financial consequences of deliberate malfeasance. Another benefit: catering for communal functions is straightforward – there isn’t either the “race to the bottom” (embracing the “pay-us-K” where you pay us and you get the K) or a “race to the top” (where the stringency of the week becomes the basis for supervision decisions).
Of course, the va’ad does not help themselves with their thoroughly inept communication: they could be routinely rescuing orphans from burning buildings, and they’d get accused of setting the fires. It’s my hope that they begin to recognize that in the last 40 years, there has been a tremendous shift in the desire of the populace toward transparency – if they adapt, they will thrive. If they don’t, they’ll make themselves vulnerable to whatever populist demagoguery turns up next.