Though packaged kosher food is ubiquitous in supermarkets today, fresh kosher meat and dairy usually fall under the supervision of a local organization composed of rabbis and food-production experts.
The symbol shown at right was posted prominently in businesses selling kosher food throughout the DC area for many years. Below the “KOSHER” in Latin characters, is the word in Hebrew, stylized to represent a menorah.
For decades, the preeminent rabbinical authority overseeing kashrut has been the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington. The Council oversees bakeries, butchers, caterers, hotels, restaurants and other establishments. In the 1960s, the still-young Rabbinical Council created this symbol to be visible in establishments under its supervision. Yet the story of kashrut in DC started much earlier. The evolution of the Rabbinical Council’s kosher supervision reflects the growth of the area’s Jewish community.
Washington was home to as many as six kosher restaurants during the Civil War, but only a few shochets (ritual slaughterers) attended to Washington’s Jewish community by the turn of the twentieth century. Most served a specific congregation: Simon Mundheim, who arrived in Washington with his wife and daughter in 1863, oversaw kosher meat production for Washington Hebrew Congregation and later Adas Israel Congregation. In 1897, Congregation Ohev Sholom, with mostly Russian and Eastern European Jewish immigrants, subsidized its religious school by charging an extra half-cent per pound of kosher meat.
In 1901, there were two shochets on 7th Street, NW, and one in the 4½ Street, SW, neighborhood. Also, in Center Market, where the National Archives stands today, a butcher sold kosher and non-kosher meat from the same table. In 1907, amid an influx of Eastern European Jews, Agudas Hakehilot (Combined Congregations) was founded to oversee all aspects of Orthodox life in Washington, DC, including production of kosher meat.
Within a few years, though, Agudas Hakehilot’s authority came to be contested by the shochets whose work it oversaw. The organization mandated from which companies butchers could buy their meat, which inflated meat prices. Agudas Hakehilot declared any meat from outside of the area—notably cheaper meat from Baltimore—“alien meat” and non-kosher. Additionally, insufficient supervision of shochets led to a series of financial and health department scandals in the 1920s and 1930s.
In the face of high prices for their supplies, several kosher butchers in DC created the Boser Kosher (Kosher Meat) Association to collectively negotiate prices with Agudas Hakehilot. In his memoir, Forty Years in Washington, Moshe Alex describes how the possibility of the Boser Kosher shochets turning to religious authorities in Baltimore to oversee kosher meat in DC convinced Agudas Hakehilot to negotiate with the association to cap meat prices and expand the number of suppliers.
The Growth of the Rabbinical Council’s Kosher Supervision
Rapid expansion of Washington’s Jewish population from the late 1920s to the 1940s led to the establishment of new kosher butcheries, delicatessens and restaurants throughout the city. One of the better-known examples was Hofberg’s, a kosher delicatessen that opened in 1928 on Kennedy Street, NW, and became a popular hangout for Jewish teens.
In the early 1940s, to improve its oversight of the expanding kosher meat production sector, Agudas Hakehilot began employing kosher butchers directly or subsidized their salaries. Usually these butchers worked in small butcher shops located near Orthodox communities in northwest DC. Many of these shops were located on upper Georgia Avenue, NW, as the kosher supervision poster at right illustrates.
Agudas Hakehilot expanded its purview as the Jewish population spread to suburban Maryland and northern Virginia in the 1950s and later. In the early 1960s, the organization changed its name to the Rabbinical Council and Combined Congregations of Greater Washington. The Rabbinical Council supervised only a few stores during this period, most of which were in DC, according to an advertisement (below right) from 1966.
As the DC area’s Jewish community expanded, so, too, did the kosher supervision of the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington. Today, it is the largest organization overseeing kashrut in the area. Since the 1960s, observance of kosher dietary laws has expanded in the Washington area. A 2003 demographic survey of the Washington-area Jewish community found that 12 percent of the area’s Jewish population kept kosher homes, a substantial increase from 20 years earlier. Kosher markets and restaurants developed throughout suburban Maryland and northern Virginia. Most kosher institutions within DC closed as Jewish communities grew outside of the city after the 1950s. The handful of kosher ventures that have appeared in DC in recent years have often struggled to find a regular clientele.
Like most Jewish communities, a variety of independent kashrut organizations and mashgiachs (kosher overseers) offer kosher supervisory services. For example, in February 2015, a council of local Orthodox pulpit clergy from suburban Maryland and northwest DC formed the Beltway Vaad, in part to provide kosher certification to area restaurants. The organization’s website recognizes that the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington “serves as a primary kashrut organization” for the DC region.
Alongside the Rabbinical Council, the Beltway Vaad and similar organizations are part of an evolving story of the Jewish community and Jewish life in the Washington, DC, region. Whenever you see a kashrut symbol, keep in mind its part in the Jewish community’s much longer history.
Learn more about the 1902 kosher meat boycott in New York, which set the stage for Boser Kosher Association.
This is the kind of story that you will encounter in the Society’s future museum showcasing the Washington region’s Jewish life and heritage. Do you have a unique story about Washington’s history of kashrut? Tell us about it at [email protected].