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Michigan Prisoners’ Attorney Objects to Conservative Kosher Certification Agency

Michigan Prisoners’ Attorney Objects to Conservative Kosher Certification Agency


Attorney Daniel Manville says an Orthodox agency must provide kosher certification to prison kitchens.

A Conservative rabbi cannot certify Michigan prisoners’ meals as kosher, according to an attorney representing incarcerated Jews who sued the state corrections department.

Two weeks after observant Jewish prisoners in Michigan won the right to eat meat and dairy kosher meals in the U.S. District Court of Eastern Michigan, the plaintiff’s counsel, Daniel Manville, claims the Michigan Department of Corrections is violating the terms of the settlement by contracting with a Conservative-run kosher-certification agency instead of an Orthodox one.

As part of the settlement, MDOC either had to provide prisoners with pre-packaged and wrapped meat or dairy kosher meals or have their kitchens certified as kosher. MDOC decided to certify its kitchens.

“To plaintiffs’ dismay, the defendant has obtained illegitimate kosher certification of its prison kitchens by a Conservative rabbi,” Manville wrote Feb. 25 in a motion to enforce the settlement agreement. Kosher Michigan, which won the MDOC contract, is owned and operated by local Conservative Rabbi Jason Miller.

Prior to the settlement, MDOC provided its kosher-observant prisoners with vegan meals, as well as the option to purchase prepackaged kosher meat and dairy products in the commissaries.

According to Chris Gautz, spokesman for MDOC, the settlement agreement that requires prisoners to be provided with kosher meals does not cover meat and dairy kosher meals. “That issue was litigated by the parties separately,” he said, adding that MDOC offered to arrange loans for prisoners who could not afford to purchase the kosher meals through the commissaries.

“Plaintiffs claimed that making them buy the meat and dairy at the commissary created a substantial burden on their ability to exercise their religion,” Gautz said. “After a trial, the court sided with plaintiffs. MDOC plans to appeal this decision.”

MDOC and Kosher Michigan

According to Gautz, Miller has certified four of MDOC’s kitchens as kosher and notice was given to plaintiffs’ counsel as required. The Michigan Attorney General’s office had learned about Kosher Michigan during the legal proceedings and passed it along as an option for MDOC to contract with.

“After receiving notice, plaintiffs have an opportunity to inspect the kitchens with their own expert. Instead of coming out to inspect the kitchens, plaintiffs’ counsel filed a motion to enforce the settlement agreement,” Gautz said.

But Manville argued in the motion that kosher certification from a Conservative rabbi does not comply with the settlement agreement because the plaintiffs are Orthodox Jews.

Manville is asking the court to issue an order that “certification from a Conservative rabbi will not accommodate plaintiffs’ sincere, Orthodox Jewish beliefs and continues to impose a substantial burden on their beliefs.”

Manville argues that the plaintiffs’ Orthodox beliefs rely exclusively on the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) and require a qualified mashgiach tmidi (continuous kosher supervisor) during kosher-sensitive production, rather than the Magen Tzedek protocols established by prominent leaders of Conservative Judaism. Kosher Michigan follows Magen Tzedek in its certification process, according to its website.

Miller objected to Manville’s argument.

“The claim that a non-Orthodox rabbi cannot establish a facility or product as certified kosher is completely unfounded in Jewish law and is used as an unfair business practice to maintain a monopoly in the kosher-certification industry by a handful of established kosher-certification agencies,” Miller told the JN. He declined further comment due to the pending litigation. (Miller is also a JN contributor.)

MDOC maintains it has held up its end of the settlement. “The word ‘Orthodox’ does not appear anywhere in the document and was not negotiated by the parties,” Gautz said.

But Manville said that when he received notice from MDOC that several of its facilities had been certified by Kosher Michigan, the plaintiffs’ expert, an Orthodox rabbi, said it would be futile to inspect a kitchen that had not been certified by an Orthodox rabbi.

What Comes Next?

MDOC has until March 5 to file its response to the motion. Plaintiffs then have five days to reply, after which a hearing will be scheduled, Manville said.

Manville wrote in the motion that he realizes on-site supervision would be a daunting (and expensive) task for Michigan’s prisons. But he believes the problem could easily be solved with pre-packaged kosher meals. He said he’s willing to provide MDOC with a list of potential Orthodox food providers.

“But if [MDOC] insists on certifying its kitchens, it must do so to Orthodox standards,” he wrote.

MDOC has until March 28 to appeal the court’s decision that Jewish prisoners should be provided meat and dairy kosher meals, Manville said.