Presbyterian Church committee advances divestment resolution

A committee of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) passed a resolution endorsing divestment from three U.S. companies that “profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands.”

The Middle East Issues Committee, in a 45-20 vote on June 17 at the church’s 221st General Assembly, advanced the measure to divest from Caterpillar Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Motorola Solutions. The resolution likely will be voted on during a plenary session of the full assembly later this week.

At the 2012 church assembly, delegates rejected a divestment initiative by a vote of 333-331. Jewish-Presbyterian relations already were strained following the publication in January of a study guide created by the church’s Israel/Palestine Mission Network. The document, “Zionism Unsettled,” depicted Zionism as a false theology.

Meanwhile, a letter opposing divestment signed by more than 1,700 rabbis, cantors and Jewish seminary students is being circulated at the assembly. The open letter, which has signers from all 50 states and the major streams of Judaism, urges commissioners to reject divestment from companies operating in Israel and other anti-Israel resolutions.

“We are deeply concerned that the PCUSA is considering several overtures that would threaten the prospects for future peace,” the letter says. “Oversimplifying a complex conflict and placing all the blame on one party, when both bear responsibility, increases conflict and division instead of promoting peace, reconciliation and mutual understanding.”

The letter goes on to say, “If we truly want to help both parties, we should encourage reconciliation, investment and a negotiated solution, instead of boycotts and divestments.” 

Hebrew National’s owner rejects suit’s claim that products are not up to kosher standards

Hebrew National boasts of “answering to a higher authority,” but several class-action lawyers are hoping to take one of the country’s largest kosher meat producers to an earthly court.

A class-action lawsuit filed recently alleges that Hebrew National’s iconic hot dogs and other meats do not comport with the brand’s claim to be kosher “as defined by the most stringent Jews who follow Orthodox Jewish law.” The suit filed May 18 in a Minnesota state court accuses ConAgra Foods, Inc., which owns the Hebrew National brand, of consumer fraud.

ConAgra, which has rejected the claims unequivocally, asked on June 6 that the suit be moved to the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota. The company has until July 13 to respond to the complaint.

Lawyers from firms in Scottsdale, Ariz.; Long Beach, Calif.; and Minneapolis, Minn., submitted the complaint on behalf of 11 named plaintiffs.

The lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Hart L. Robinovitch of Zimmerman Reed, is based in Scottsdale but his firm has offices in Minnesota. Robinovitch would not say how the suit was initiated.

Zimmerman Reed, however, solicited consumers through its website, where a page until recently announced a Hebrew National investigation.

“Our firm has received troubling reports that some slaughterhouse plants supplying Hebrew National with its beef may not be upholding the strict kosher standards Hebrew National promises,” the page stated. “Workers are threatened with losing their job, or demotion, if they speak up and try to point out violations of the kosher food laws.”

The firm advertised a free case review for anyone who purchased Hebrew National hot dogs in the past two years or had information about the preparation of the products.

“The lawsuit contends that ConAgra marketed, labeled and sold Hebrew National according to the strictest standards defined by Orthodox Jews. We allege that it does not meet those standards,” Robinovitch said. “We’re certainly not alleging that they’re using pork products, or anything as blatant as that.”

The lawsuit’s 11 named plaintiffs live in various states, including California, Minnesota, New York and Arizona. JTA was unable to reach any of the individuals.

The suit, which was reported originally by the American Jewish World newspaper, is seeking monetary damages equal to the total amount of monies that consumers in the class paid for Hebrew National meat products.

Triangle-K, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based supervising agency that certifies Hebrew National products as kosher and the company that processes the kosher meat, also unequivocally rejected the allegations and contended that disgruntled former employees might be behind them.

Rabbi Aryeh Ralbag, who owns Triangle-K, said in a statement that the claims in the lawsuit were “outrageously false and defamatory.”

He added, “Those who make the false allegations know full well that because their identities are concealed and their false statements are made in a court pleading, Triangle-K and its principals cannot sue them for defamation.”

AER, which provides the kosher slaughtering services at Hebrew National facilities in the Midwest, including in Minnesota, rejected the charges as well.

“The company intends to defend its reputation and good name,” AER’s president, Shlomo Ben-David, said in a statement.

Teresa Paulson, a ConAgra spokesperson, said she could not comment on pending litigation, but that the company stood by Hebrew National’s kosher status.

Neither AER nor Triangle-K is named as a defendant in the suit.

Triangle-K has been supervising Hebrew National products since 2004. The Conservative movement accepts the Triangle-K kashrut certification.

Kosher consumers choose among hundreds of companies nationwide as to which certifications they trust.

There are about 750 Orthodox kosher certifying organizations in the United States, according to Rabbi Yosef Wikler, editor of Kashrus magazine, which also maintains a website for non-Orthodox certifiers.

“Almost no kosher organization accepts 100 percent of any other kosher organization 100 percent of the time,” Wikler said.

The suit, which does not attribute the allegations to anyone by name, alleges that the Hebrew National brand was not, as the company advertises, kosher “as defined by the most stringent Jews who follow Orthodox law.” As result, plaintiffs, who paid a premium price “believing the kosher title and certification made them a higher quality product than other meat products on the market” were “deprived of the value of the goods they purchased,” the complaint states.

Among the suit’s allegations:

* Knives used in the slaughtering process were nicked, preventing a clean cut mandated by kosher law;

* Organ meat was not consistently inspected after slaughter, as required for kashrut;

* The blood of slaughtered animals was not consistently removed within 72 hours, as required by kosher law;

* Managers took certificates that had been issued to trained slaughterers and replaced their names with individuals who had not been trained;

* Kosher meat was not consistently kept separate from non-kosher meat.

In his statement, Ralbag said, point by point, that all the allegations are false.

The suit also alleges that workers at some AER facilities, including in St. Paul, Minn., kept kosher, but would not eat the Hebrew National products. Those workers, according to the complaint, were allowed to purchase meats from “specifically selected cows [that] would be slaughtered and checked in strict accordance with all kosher laws, unlike the cows that routinely slaughtered for sale to Defendant and use in Hebrew National Products.”

AER said the allegation is misleading. According to AER, employees who eat only glatt kosher were provided meat to comply with their personal preferences.

Glatt is a higher standard of kosher and means that the lungs of the slaughtered animal are free of any blemishes. If the lungs are blemished, the meat is still considered kosher, but not glatt. Triangle-K does not claim that the products it certifies are glatt kosher.

Additionally, the suit alleges that employees involved in the kosher slaughtering process complained to AER supervisor Rabbi Moshe Fyzakov and Ralbag, but those officials “did little or nothing to correct the transgressions. Rather, the persons making the complaints were terminated or otherwise threatened with adverse retaliation, such as job transfers to other facilities or states. In turn, non-kosher meat was delivered to ConAgra and packaged, labeled and sold to the public [including the plaintiffs in the lawsuit] as strictly 100 percent kosher.”

A Triangle-K spokesman said, “Every complaint was followed up on, and no one was disciplined for making a complaint.”

The spokesman also said it is “totally false” that non-kosher meat was delivered to ConAgra to be sold as kosher and that “We have clear distinctions in place to prevent such happenings.”

Take a stroll down memoir lane with the family

Somewhere between the frenzied search for that perfect gift, entertaining out-of-town guests and feasting on latkes and soufganiot, perhaps this year we might slow down just long enough to blissfully watch the glow of the chanukiah candles reflected on our children’s faces.

Amid this seasonally induced excitement, if we are lucky, we’ll be spending more time with our families — both nuclear and extended. But since we don’t get to choose our relatives, we not only see a great deal of our nearest and dearest, we also see crazy Uncle Sy, boorish Uncle Boris and, of course, supremely dull Cousin Celia.

According to Loren Stephens, a writer, editor and documentary filmmaker, these get-togethers are a golden opportunity to mine our family’s rich past. Stephens is the president of Write Wisdom, Inc., the company she founded to both guide and assist people in writing memoirs.

“Everyone has some extraordinary experiences and stories to tell,” says Stephens, who believes there is great value in both the telling and the hearing of these stories.
She speaks from both professional and personal experience.

Her documentary films have centered on the interplay of history — both specific events and long-standing traditions — and individual lives. Her film “Legacy of the Blacklist,” produced for PBS, described the impact of the Hollywood blacklist on families who survived what Stephens refers to as “that horrific experience.” Another documentary, “Los Pastores: The Shepherd’s Play,” explored Hispanic folk traditions in the Rio Grande Valley and showed “the importance of family, tradition and faith.”

In 1996, Stephens’ experience documenting and contextualizing lives melded with her interest in her own family’s history, when she approached her mother about writing her memoirs. Born in 1915, Stephens’ mother graduated from Smith College and studied to be an opera singer. Her life was, in many ways, “emblematic of the changing role of women during the 20th century,” according to Stephens. Although initially resistant to Stephens’ pleas, her mother eventually relented. For two years, Stephens traveled back and forth to New York to conduct interviews. She researched relevant historical periods in order to add accurate background and detail, and in 2000 she published her mother’s life story through her own imprint, Provenance Press.

“It was an incredibly fulfilling experience,” Stephens says.

The process of working on the memoir deepened her relationship with her mother, and after its publication her mother enjoyed being “a star once again.” When her mother died in February, Stephens delivered the eulogy.

“I took passages from the book, so I was able to give her her voice one more time,” she said. “It was such a beautiful closure to her life.”

Forming Write Wisdom, Inc. seemed a natural next step for Stephens — an outgrowth of her filmmaking, her long-standing interest in personal history and her experience writing her mother’s memoir. Stephens’ company provides a wide array of services, from teaching skills for eliciting and writing memoirs (one’s own or others’), to performing all of the interviews, then writing and publishing the book for a client.

Since completing her mother’s memoir, Stephens has researched, written and published three others, including one for a Holocaust survivor who was in his late 70s. Believing that “each ethnic community has an emblematic story to be told, and that for the Jews it is the Holocaust,” Stephens says her subject was motivated by a number of factors.

He saw his own story as “a cautionary tale, as well as a way of trying to make sense of something that was so completely senseless,” Stephens says. And “the fact that he is alive, that he survived when so many others didn’t, was a very strong motivation for him to tell his story.”

Thankfully, not everyone’s life includes such trauma. Nevertheless, nearly everyone has interesting stories in their family. But how and where do you begin, especially if you’re not a writer, an editor, or a filmmaker — much less all three? According to Stephens, family gatherings are a natural place to start: “We often hear the same fabulous family stories, over and over again, especially during holiday gatherings.”

Some families already have an unofficial keeper of family lore, but many don’t.
“Anyone can bring up the idea,” says Stephens, but “expect to be rebuffed at first.”

As flattering as it is to be asked to recount the details of one’s life, people are often reluctant to open up. Stephens suggests returning to the topic at another time, gently insisting, reminding the person how much everyone enjoys their stories or how important their life experiences are in helping others appreciate the family.

When people protest that they have nothing unique to tell — which they often will — Stephens suggests reminding them that “no one else sees the world quite the way they do.”

Ultimately, what wins many people over is hearing that “the lessons of their lives can affect someone in a positive way, a way that they may not be able to anticipate or to ever even know,” Stephens says.

Stephens recommends using a simple audio tape recorder, rather than a video camera.
“A camera makes most people too self-conscious,” while a tape recorder is less obtrusive and takes virtually no skill to operate. The tapes can then either be kept as final documents, or used as a springboard for writing the memoir.

Once your subject has agreed to tell their story, Stephens says, the biggest hurdle is over. After that, “you simply start with ‘tell me where you were born.'” But she suggests not trying to force a chronological telling, since “people’s minds don’t really work that way.”

Stephens is “amazed at the way memory works: The experiences that are the most emotionally charged are the ones that we remember in the greatest detail.”

They may not be recalled in a linear sequence, but they “are so firmly imprinted on our brain that it takes very little effort for them to be recalled.”