Kosher consumers reeling after Doheny scandal


[UPDATE, MARCH 29] The Rabbinical Council of California (RCC) responds to the Doheny Meats scandal.

[MARCH 28] Trust lies at the center of the business of kosher food, and earlier this week, in what is certainly the biggest kosher scandal to hit Los Angeles in 20 years, the trust many kosher consumers placed in Doheny Glatt Kosher Meats, a market on Pico Boulevard in the heart of L.A.’s most prominent Orthodox neighborhood, was shattered.

“I used to go to Doheny because I like their meat better; I’m so mad that I can’t shop there anymore,” said Shahnaz Benjy of Beverly Hills on Thursday, March 28.

Benjy had just finished buying groceries at Pico Glatt Mart, a kosher-certified market located a few blocks west of the disgraced shop. “I pay too much for meat as it is, and to know I can’t trust [Doheny] anymore is really sad,” she said.

[EXCLUSIVE: Surveillance video of Doheny Meat scandal]

After 28 years doing business in that location, Doheny’s owner, Mike Engelman, was videotaped on March 12 instructing his employees to bring boxes into his shop at a time when the kosher overseer, or mashgiach, who had been overseeing a delivery, had walked away. The video, which was shot by Eric Agaki, an independent private investigator, led the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC) to revoke its certification from Doheny on March 24, the day before Passover.

That decision has not been taken lightly.

On Sunday, just hours before a portion of the footage from the investigator’s tape was shown on the KTLA 10 p.m. news show, staff members from the RCC as well as a handful of other rabbis and lay leaders from the Orthodox community gathered in the office of Rabbi Kalman Topp, the spiritual leader of Beth Jacob, the largest Orthodox synagogue in Pico-Robertson. Also present were Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City and Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea.

Together they watched the video.

“You see him [Engelman] talking to the mashgiach; you see him waiting until the mashgiach leaves,” said Muskin of the 30-minute segment of video shown at the meeting. “And the damaging evidence is that once the mashgiach leaves, that’s when he has his helpers empty out his SUV, bringing the boxes into his establishment.”

After the group finished watching the video, the meeting continued, and Engelman himself was brought into the room. The shopkeeper – believed to be one of the largest distributors of kosher meat products on the West Coast — initially denied the allegations. But eventually, according to two people present at the meeting, Engelman admitted that he had brought boxes of unsupervised food into the store.

“He did claim that it was kosher – I think that the way he put it was that he ‘never brought non-kosher meat into the store,’ and that he ‘never sold something not kosher,’” an individual who attended the meeting told the Journal on March 28. “But he did acknowledge bringing in boxes – he claimed it was poultry — into the store.”

Before the meeting ended, the assembled rabbis composed an email stating that the RCC had “removed its kosher supervision, for cause, from Doheny Kosher Meats,” adding that all meat purchased before 3 p.m. that day was still considered kosher.

(The local rabbis, who consulted with another rabbinic authority, relied on a concept known as “rov” which allows rabbis — in cases when a majority of a set of items are known to be kosher – to declare the entire set to be kosher.)

Each of the synagogues and the RCC sent that message out to their mailing lists that night.

Agaki, who said he did the investigation over the course of several months after hearing rumors of problems with the market, did the  surveillance without the cooperation of the RCC. He said he had also obtained on Sunday from a relative of Engleman 5,000 fraudulent stickers that could be used to label the contents of any bag or container as “glatt kosher.”

For the rabbis in that meeting, however, Engelman’s actions captured in the video were enough to justify revoking his store’s certification.

“He lost the trust of the community,” Muskin said in an interview. The rabbi also spoke about the Doheny scandal from his pulpit on the first day of Passover. “If you’re a kosher butcher, then you’ve got to be a kosher butcher, and you’ve got to play by the rules. You don’t bring boxes of unidentified items into your establishment behind the back of your mashgiach.”

Engelman said that on the advice of his attorney he could not comment on the allegations or the actions taken by the RCC, and, according to Engelman, his attorney would not take calls from the press either.

Despite the situation, Doheny Market was open for business on Thursday and its front window displayed a new kosher certificate  — valid only until April 1.

The name and signature of Rabbi Meshulom Dov Weiss appear on the certificate, and the rabbi’s son, Rabbi Menachem Weiss, told the Journal that he and his father are working with Engelman to ensure that everything sold by Doheny is certified kosher. Weiss said that any opened meat packages had been removed from the store, and that two mashgiachs will now be on site at all times, and seven video cameras were to be installed throughout the premises, allowing the father to monitor the store via the web from his home in North Hollywood.

“We’re not going into it naïve,” Menachem Weiss told the Journal on Thursday. “These are the precautions that we’re putting into place to allow him to stay in business from now until April 1. What happens after that, we’ll have to see.”

The Weisses have acted as supervisors for Doheny before, for about 18 months starting in 2007 or 2008. Menachem Weiss did not remember the exact years, but said that Engelman brought them in after the RCC informed him – along with the rest of the shops they certified – that from then on, all meat sold under RCC kosher supervision had to be not just kosher, but glatt kosher.

For meat to be considered kosher, it must be from the right kind of animal and must be slaughtered and prepared properly. For large animals – not poultry – the animal’s innards must be checked to ensure that there are no signs of disease. If, for instance, a cow has a hole in its lung, the animal is not considered kosher by any standard.

But to be kosher under the higher “glatt” standard – the word means “smooth” in Yiddish – the animal’s lungs must have no signs of ever having had any ulcers. If the ulcers have healed, the meat is considered kosher – but not glatt kosher.

When the RCC began to insist upon the higher standard, it brought with it higher prices. Engelman, Weiss said, initially decided to drop the RCC’s certification and to continue selling kosher meat that did not meet the glatt standard under the Weisses’ supervision.

However without the RCC certification, Weiss said, Doheny’s business suffered, and Engelman decided to adhere to the glatt standard and return to the RCC.

“Our intent is not to replace the RCC,” Menachem Weiss said. “Our hope is that the RCC will take Mike back; we’re trying to help Mike earn back the trust of the community.”

Whether that’s possible remains to be seen, but it may not only be Doheny that needs to win back the trust of kosher consumers in Los Angeles. The RCC’s reputation may have sustained some damage as well.

“I have no clue who to trust anymore,” said another woman shopping at Pico Glatt Mart on Thursday said, asking to be identified only as Friede. “I don’t trust RCC.”

Suspicions about Doheny Meats practices were brought to the RCC's attention repeatedly over the last three years, according to Daryl Schwarz, the owner of the now-closed Kosher Club.

Schwartz also said that, as early as 2010, he reported seeing the empty boxes, fraudulent labels and fraudulent tape to Rabbi Nissim Davidi, the RCC’s kashrut administrator.

“It was numerous times over the years,” Schwartz said.

[See story on RCC's prior warning]

The RCC did not respond to requests for comment on this story; the agency said Thursday that it would release a statement on Friday, March 29.

Told that some customers were worried that the certification of other markets might also come into question, Muskin, who served as president of the RCC from 1992 to 1997, said that such broad skepticism is not appropriate.

“The rabbis have to review the entire process of the supervision, and what fell apart, and how this happened, that’s clear,” Muskin said. “But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that a man did something that he should not have done. He still tried to beat the system.”

“If there’s anger and disgust,” Muskin added, “it has to be at the owner of Doheny Kosher.”

Rubashkin Revenge: Ethical Certificates at Center of Dispute


About eight months ago, when Katsuji Tanabe agreed to display the Tav HaYosher certificate in the window of his one-year-old restaurant on Pico Boulevard, the head chef and owner of Mexikosher knew that the “ethical seal,” issued by the Modern Orthodox social justice organization Uri L’Tzedek, would inform customers that he treats his workers with respect and in accordance with California labor laws.

Tanabe didn’t know that in displaying the certificate he was also, in effect, choosing a side in a mostly covert battle between two segments of the Orthodox Jewish community.

On one side is Uri L’Tzedek, a four-year old nonprofit promoting social justice causes that has been supported by a handful of prominent Jewish foundations, including the Joshua Venture Group, Bikkurim, and the Jewish Federations of North America. On the other are an unknown number of individuals who are acting independently and largely anonymously.

At Mexikosher, the certificate hung in the window for between four and six weeks; during that time, Tanabe said he received phone calls from individuals identifying themselves as being from “different Chabads,” and threatening to boycott his restaurant if he didn’t take the certificate down.

Tanabe, who said he hadn’t changed any of his policies to earn the Tav, decided to remove it.

“I don’t talk about politics or religion in the restaurant,” said Tanabe, 31, who describes himself as “Mexican-Japanese-Catholic.” “We only talk about food.”

Although the pushback against the Tav appears to be coming primarily, if not exclusively, from individuals affiliated with the Chabad Lubavitch movement, there is no evidence that any official encouragement came from Chabad, according to the organization’s leaders and those involved in the anti-Tav efforts.

The headquarters of Chabad of California is located on Pico Boulevard, within blocks of a dozen Kosher-certified restaurants, including at least one that displays the Tav. In a recent interview, the group’s CEO, Rabbi Chaim Cunin, said he hadn’t heard of the Tav or Uri L’Tzedek until very recently, and that he knew of no coordinated effort to oppose the program.

“If there’s any such conspiracy it’s deep underground,” Cunin said.

The battle between Uri L’Tzedek and the mostly nameless Orthodox Jews threatening to boycott the 100 restaurants nationwide that participate in its signature program may be taking place in the shadows, but it illuminates a rift within American Orthodoxy stemming from the 2008 raid on the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa.

Uri L’Tzedek established the Tav Hayosher in 2009 as a free certification. To qualify, employers must demonstrate that they calculate worker’s hours accurately, pay wages—including overtime – promptly and in full and grant breaks to their employees, as required by law. Studies have shown that many food-service businesses – both kosher and non—fall short of these basic legal requirements.

Over the last few months, multiple owners of kosher-certified businesses who display the Tav have been urged to take it down.

“People are threatening the 100 Tav owners around the country, saying they are going to hurt their business and boycott them,” Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, wrote in an email to The Journal on July 9.

The hardest-hit are in Los Angeles, Yanklowitz said, where Tav-certified businesses have received more complaints than in any other city. Yanklowitz said three local restaurants chose to drop the certification in the face of this controversy. As of July 20, nine Los Angeles-based businesses were listed among the certified restaurants on the Tav’s website.

The issue appears not to be the Tav certification, per se, but rather that in 2008, Uri L’Tzedek was the instigator of a boycott of products from the Agriprocessors meat processing plant in Postville, Iowa, in the wake of the massive immigration raid that closed down the plant.

Aron Markowitz, 31, a self-described “Chabadnik” who has a book of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s teachings on his desk in his Wilshire Boulevard office, is among those who’ve objected to the certificates. He said in an interview that he first heard about the Tav less than a month ago, and, initially, the principle behind the Tav certification sounded to him like a good idea.

Iowa files 9000 charges against Agriprocessors, OU threatens to remove Kosher cert


NEW YORK (JTA)—Following the filing of criminal charges against owners of the kosher meat producer Agriprocessors, the Orthodox Union says it will withdraw its kosher certification of the company within two weeks unless new management is hired.

“Within the coming days, or lets say a week or two, we will suspend our supervision unless there’s new management in place,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, the O.U.‘s head of kosher supervision.

Genack’s comments came just hours after Iowa’s attorney general filed criminal charges against Agriprocessors and its owner, Aaron Rubashkin, for child-labor violations.

On Tuesday, the attorney general’s office charged Rubashkin, his son Sholom, and three human resources employees with more than 9,000 violations of Iowa’s Child Labor law, according to a statement from the attorney general’s office.

Former workers had alleged child labor violations at Agriprocessors almost immediately after a massive immigration raid at the plant in Postville, Iowa, the country’s largest kosher meatpacking plant. The company has denied having knowingly hired underage workers.

“All of the named individual defendants possessed shared knowledge that Agriprocessors employed undocumented aliens,” said the affidavit filed Tuesday in Allamakee County District Court. “It was likewise shared knowledge among the defendants that many of those workers were minors. The company’s hiring practices encouraged job applicants to submit identification documents which were forgeries, and known to contain false information as to resident alien status, age and identity.”

The alleged violations, which date back to September 2007, are each punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine of between $65 and $625, the attorney general’s office said. An initial court appearance is scheduled for Sept. 17.

Agriprocessors has been under the gun since a raid on May 12 resulted in the arrest of nearly 400 employees on illegal immigration charges. Following the raid, employees alleged they were shorted on pay, forced to work long hours and were the targets of sustained sexual harassment.

In May, the company announced that the Postville plant’s manager, Sholom Rubashkin, would be replaced. Months later, Rubashkin is still a regular presence at the plant and no replacement has been named.

The attorney general’s complaint represents the first criminal charges to be brought against the company’s owner and senior management.

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