Breaking the Orthodox Kosher Monopoly

One Rabbi’s mission to clean up Kosher Meat. Masorti Rabbi Gustavo Katzuni slaughters kosher chicken for his community for no cost to encourage Jews to keep kosher and remove the price and politics from kosher supervision.

“Growing up in Argentina, I constantly thought about kashrut and the high cost of keeping kosher. In Argentina, if you only eat food that’s under supervision, the prices are astronomical. It’s simply insane” he says, throwing his hands in the air for added effect. “You simply cannot comprehend how much they charge for kosher food. It’s a basic mitzvah—and the prices just make you want to die. And I began to think there must be another way. I didn’t want people to feel that they were being ripped-off.” He decided that if he were to become a rabbi, he would provide free Shechita to his community as one of the basic services of his position.ews who don’t normally eat kosher meat usually cite one of two reasons—either they don’t have access to kosher meat or else it’s too expensive. This is according to Rabbi Gustavo Katzuni who heads the small Jewish community in El Salvador. Since arriving in the capital four months ago, Rabbi Gustavo Katzuni has had two big missions: to make keeping kosher the norm in this remote Central American community and to shake up the flawed model of Kosher slaughter and certification—all around the world.  “If we make kosher meat accessible and offer it at the same price as non-kosher, people are going to choose to go with the kosher option” says Rabbi Katzuni “So that is exactly what we are doing.”

In 2016, as a young seminarian in Jerusalem studying at the Schechter Institutes, he enrolled for a Shechita class with Rabbi Shlomo Zacharow at the Conservative Yeshiva. For five months, his class (consisting of himself and two colleagues) met for 90 minutes each week, studying the halachot of Kashrut and practicing with the chalif—the special knife that every shochet must use—learning the intricacies of sharpening and honing the blade to ensure that it is entirely free of any possible imperfection that would render the meat not kosher.

“When I was taking that class, I showed my knife to several friends, and they flipped out” he chuckles. “Some people were really scared, and others told me to take it away from them—they might be okay with eating chicken, but they don’t want to think about where their meat comes from. In their minds, chicken comes from the store and belongs on the plate, and that’s that.” He readily admits that the job of a shochet is not suitable for everyone. He even wondered towards the beginning of the course whether he was cut out for it, but eventually he felt convinced that if he approached shechita with a respectful mindset he would feel okay with it.

The integral idea behind Shechita is to avoid causing unnecessary suffering to the animal in the slaughter process—both during the slaughter itself and also in the period preceding it. One crucial moment he recalls was when the class was learning how to hold the chicken prior to slaughter, and he performed the hold incorrectly. It was one of the few times he saw Rabbi Zacharow get really upset—it was then that he realized the importance of minimizing the suffering of an animal—even if you are in the process of killing it.

Still, there was nothing to prepare him for the shock following his first time of actually killing a living animal. He recalls the long car ride back from the slaughterhouse with his fellow students and his teacher travelling together in silence. After a while, Rabbi Zacharow turned to him and asked how he felt. He thought about it for a minute and replied that he actually felt good about it—he was learning an important skill and had performed his work with honor.

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The city of San Salvador is covered in Israeli flags, menorahs and Stars of David. Suburban school

busses find a second life here. Daubed in psychedelic colors and dubbed with Hebrew names like “Adonai Jr.” and “Ben-El” they ply the streets, their interiors filled with biblical quotations in Spanish and Jewish religious icons. While this is the footprint of pro-Israel evangelical Christians, whose influence in El Salvador is among the strongest in Latin America, the actual numbers of Jews in the country is miniscule.

The Jewish Community of El Salvador today numbers around 40 to 50 families, all of whom are located in the capital city of San Salvador. Numbers were higher before the destructive civil war which lasted from 1982-1990, sending millions of Salvadorians into exile. Today there are more Salvadorians abroad than in El Salvador itself, and the majority of the Jewish community now lives in either the US, France or Israel. Nonetheless, the Comunidad Israelita de El Salvador has maintained its synagogue all these years and is probably the only country in the world today served only by an active Masorti rabbi with no presence from Chabad.

Rabbi Katzuni (Second from right) poses with community members at a Tu B’Shvat Seder in San Salvador’s Synagogue

As a young rabbi in search of a new pulpit, his interest was piqued when heard about the position in El Salvador. Here was a small but dedicated community, very committed to ensuring its future and willing to invest in a rabbi who would lead it. They were willing to provide him with the setting and tools to develop and educate the community there. He interviewed for the position and both he and the community soon realized it was a good match. Along with his wife and two children, he said goodbye to his native Argentina, attracted by the promise and challenge of leading a community is one of the most challenging cities in Latin America.

Rabbi Katzuni is completely serious about kosher food—he only buys products bearing a kosher symbol, and does not eat out in restaurants. While this might be an insurmountable problem in other countries, luckily for him El Salvador is on the US Dollar and Salvadorian supermarkets are well-stocked with imported American products under Hashgacha. Still, the country had no access whatsoever to kosher meat—with the possible exception of the occasional imported hot dog. But this was no problem for him because in addition to his congregational duties as a rabbi and educator, one of the main services that Rabbi Katzuni provides to the community is Shechita—Jewish Ritual slaughter.

When he arrived, most people in the community didn’t keep kosher, as kosher meat was simply not available in the country. One of his first goals was to impress upon his community the centrality of kashrut to Jewish observance. “We live in the 21st century” he says, “you can’t just go up to people and tell them that they have to keep Kosher because that’s what God wants. It doesn’t work that way. People have to realize that kashrut is essentially a system of boundaries, and we have had boundaries since the Garden of Eden.”

Another reason that many people are skeptical of kashrut is because of the politics involved. People hear stories about arguments between various kashrut agencies and arrive at the conclusion that kashrut is all about business and politics, and not about spirituality. This is why he is determined to provide this service to his community for free. People can see that it is all about the mitzvah of kashrut, and it’s not about someone making a profit off of them.

Early in his Shechita career, Rabbi Katzuni became a vegetarian—but not because he was disgusted by the blood or gruesome details of his work—but out of disgust with the Orthodox kashrut monopoly. Upon returning from his studies in Israel, he consulted an Orthodox colleague in Buenos Aires to apply for use of their facilities to perform his own Shechita. He was told that it was impossible—Argentina’s kosher meat monopoly is run by a mafia, and if he attempted to break it, they would mess him up.

This dovetailed into his experience with the kashrut industry in Israel. Speaking to restaurant owners, they freely told him that their experience with the rabbinate is limited to making a payment to an absentee mashgiach, or kosher supervisor. Nobody ever actually comes by to supervise the restaurant. It is no wonder so many Jews are skeptical of the kashrut establishment—arguments over various rabbi’s certifications combined with rampant stories of corruption have led many to the conclusion that kosher certification is primarily about profit and politics, with the actual Mitzvot involved low on the totem pole of concerns. Rabbi Katzuni realized that becoming a vegetarian would not solve the problems with the kashrut industry, but that there must be another way—a way to restore trust in Kashrut and to move the focus from profitability to spirituality.

“The time has come for us to realize that our Judaism is ours and ours alone—we don’t depend on anyone else. If we are responsible for our own Avodat HaKodesh (sacred work), the whole situation will change” says Rabbi Katzuni. Increasing aware that the only way to avoid subservience to Orthodox whims is for Conservative Jews to assert control of their own religious practice, he set about to bring these changes into action in his communities. Firstly, he sent out a clear message that eating kosher is not just something that rabbis do—it is a central part of everyone’s lives. And to enable this, all barriers preventing people from eating kosher need to be torn down.

Rabbi Katzuni wants to make it clear to his congregants that kashrut is about the Mitzvah—not the business. He performs Shechita at no additional cost—it as a basic religious service that he provides to the community as their rabbi. If he can provide kosher meat for the price of non-kosher meat in the supermarket, what reason do people have to buy non-kosher meat from the grocery store? He says that while change is never immediate, there was great interest within the community for the idea of kosher meat, and the community celebrated its Pesach Seder this year with kosher chicken for the first time.

So far he has only learned how to slaughter chickens, but fully intends to expand his product line and is seeking further training to expand to beef in the coming year. He will continue his courses with Rabbi Zacharow via Skype to learn the laws of slaughtering and examining behemoth—kosher mammals including cattle and sheep. Following the online portion, he will travel to Israel towards the end of the course to study the aspects involving the knife and checking the internal organs for treifot—physical injuries or deformations that would render animal non-kosher, hence the word “treif”. At the end of this practicum he would go on to take his practical test.

“Knowing that one mistake means feeding your community non-kosher food is the hardest part of the job” Katzuni says. As every shochet must be a deeply religious person, he must always keep this on his mind, and it is a very serious responsibility. Furthermore, the shochet must concentrate on quite a few things simultaneously, though in terms of learning the trade, the greatest challenge is learning the precise method with which to prepare the knife which must be perfectly sharp.

Practically speaking, however, what is potentially the most time-consuming process in producing kosher chicken is actually plucking the feathers. While non-kosher industrial slaughterhouses dunk the birds in a bath of hot water to assist in removing the feathers, this is prohibited by halacha, as the hot water sets the blood and makes it impossible to remove, as is required for all kosher meat. Without professional equipment on hand, he wondered how he could do this when he moved to El Salvador, but his community helped him buy a chicken plucking machine—a type of rotating barrel containing dozens of plastic fingers which can pluck a bird clean in under a minute.

Word of his trade got about and at one point he was even approached by a representative of a local chicken packing plant enquiring if he would consider expanding his business and providing kosher chicken to El Salvador’s exploding Evangelical community—a group thirsty to lap up anything related to Israel or Jews. He admits that although the prospect carries amazing business potential and could indeed be lucrative, yet somehow it doesn’t feel right—preparing chicken for Evangelical Christians was not the reason he trained to become a shochet.

Kosher slaughter faces an uncertain future. It is currently banned in Sweden and Denmark where all kosher meat must be imported and faces opposition in other European countries. While opponents of kosher slaughter claim that the process is cruel as it does not involve stunning the animal before slaughter, proponents of Shechita insist that as the method involves immediate loss of consciousness rendering it more humane than stunning the birds in an electrical water bath prior to slaughter and that proposed legislation banning Shechita is therefore motivated more by anti-Semitic motives rather than altruistic concern for animal rights. Meanwhile in El Salvador, despite a leftist government which is not friendly to Israel as well as a huge Palestinian community, has seen no restrictions on shechita. Neither does Rabbi Katzuni see any restrictions on kosher slaughter anywhere on the horizon. He sees El Salvador as a very pro-Jewish country, and with Evangelicalism on the rise, it would be political suicide to propose any such legislation.

Despite the challenges of uprooting his life and moving to one of the remotest Jewish communities is Central America, Rabbis Katzuni felt attracted to the community in El Salvador because it was a small community that was very dedicated to its Judaism and to its future. He explains “we rabbis need to understand that we are the servants of the Jewish people, not servants of our own egos. My job here is to provide a Jewish way of life for everyone in the community, because our future depends on it. We do our work to teach kids and adults alike, and provide them with kosher food, and that is what I strive to do. Here in El Salvador I found a group of people who really want their community to survive. They have provided me with everything I need, from a place to live to the tools for Shechita in order to ensure that we can do our work for the community. This is not to be taken for granted, and I am glad that they want our help. It is very important to be able to work with people who want to help out and feel the need to prepare for the future.”

Meanwhile, Rabbi Katzuni seems satisfied to see the movement slowly taking more control over its religious work. He remembers a time where all kashrut supervision in Latin America was in the hand of the Orthodox, but times are changing. Many communities in Latin America now supervise their own schools, including the communities of Cordova and Tucuman in Argentina which now supervise their own schools, as does the community in Curitiba, Brazil. And Chile now has their own Shechita apparatus—and even their own chicken plucking machine.

Gustavo Katzuni begun his rabbinic studies at the Abarbanel Institute of the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano “Marshall T. Meyer” and was later admitted to the Seminario’s A.J. Heschel Rabbinical School where he combined his rabbinical studies with a degree in Industrial Safety. He spent his last year of rabbinical studies along with his cohort at the Israeli Program of the Seminario, where he focused on Talmud and Halacha at The Schechter Institute and enrolled for a Shechita class with Rabbi Shlomo Zacharow at the Conservative Yeshiva. He received his rabbinic ordination in 2016 from the Beit Din of the Seminario.