Schwartz Bakery leaves RCC for Kehilla

Schwartz Bakery, a kosher bakery and caterer with six retail locations across Los Angeles, has dropped the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC) as its kosher certifier. The 59-year-old family-owned business announced the news on May 20, posting on its Facebook page a photograph of a Kehilla Kosher sign hanging in the window of one of its shops.

“All Schwartz Bakery locations are now under Kehilla supervision,” the Facebook post stated, referring to Los Angeles’ other prominent Orthodox kosher agency. 

According to its Web site, Schwartz is “the first kosher bakery in Los Angeles.” It is the third kosher establishment to leave the RCC in the wake of the recent scandal that has tarnished the certifier’s reputation, and the largest to do so thus far. 

The move was announced almost exactly eight weeks after the RCC revoked its certification from Doheny Glatt Kosher Meats, which had been the largest distributor of meat under its supervision. In March, Doheny’s owner was videotaped allegedly bringing unidentified animal products into his store at a time when the RCC’s kosher overseer was absent. The breach was discovered by a private investigator not affiliated with the RCC; the agency revoked its certification on the eve of Passover and has been trying to mitigate the damage to its reputation ever since. 

Speaking to the Journal at his store on Pico Boulevard on May 23, Marc Hecht, whose family has owned Schwartz Bakery since 1979, confirmed the change in supervision but declined to comment further about the decision to leave the RCC, which had supervised the bakery for decades. 

In addition to its retail business, Schwartz Bakery caters events, sells packaged baked goods to retailers across the Southland and runs the lunch program at Yeshivat Yavneh, an Orthodox day school near Hancock Park. 

RCC President Rabbi Meyer May also declined to speak about Schwartz’s departure. In an e-mail to the Journal on May 26, May said he was “much more interested in speaking about the unilateral decisions the RCC has taken to elevate our community’s kashrus.” 

May and Rabbi Jonathan Rosenberg, chairman of the RCC’s committee overseeing kosher certification, outlined those “unilateral decisions” in a letter May sent to the Journal on May 27. 

According to the two-page letter, the RCC has hired or appointed at least eight different rabbis to oversee various aspects of its kosher operations. 

What impact, if any, the described changes will have is hard to predict. The letter says the RCC has “addressed the issues raised” during its own internal review of the establishments under its supervision, and noted that the RCC had also received recommendations from the Orthodox Union’s kosher agency. 

But the letter does not list specific changes to RCC policies, beyond a pledge from May and Rosenberg that the RCC “will adhere to universally accepted kashrus standards recommended by the Association of Kashrus Organizations,” a Chicago-based umbrella organization for kosher certifiers.

May declined to answer any follow-up questions about the letter, including whether the higher standard of kosher the RCC says it is aiming for will cost merchants — and consumers — more money. 

“The RCC Update statement is all we have to say at this time,” May wrote in an e-mail on May 28. 

With neither the RCC nor Schwartz’s owner speaking about the bakery’s move, individuals have been left to speculate on what may have motivated the switch. 

“RCC is not as good for the bottom line as the other hechshers,” Rabbi Eliyahu Fink, the rabbi of the Pacific Jewish Center, wrote on his blog, FinkOrSwim. “The only real reason a restaurant will switch is to increase business,” Fink suggested.

In the wake of the Doheny scandal, Fink writes, even merchants who have never been certified by the RCC are going to notable lengths to put their customers at ease. Fink reported that Shiloh’s, a steakhouse on Pico Boulevard, has put up a “splash page” on its Web site that assures customers that they are and always have been “under the supervision of Kehilla Kosher.”

“A significant number of people have been spooked by the kashrus scandal,” Fink wrote, to the point that they are effectively rejecting the ruling by Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, a noted halachic authority with the OU. 

When the Doheny scandal broke, Belsky declared that all meat purchased from Doheny before 3 p.m. on March 24 was kosher according to religious law. Furthermore, individuals and businesses that had bought and used Doheny meat before that time did not, according to Belsky, have to kasher their utensils or kitchens afterward. 

But while the RCC relied on Belsky’s ruling, Kehilla, its chief competitor, has so far declined to either affirm or reject it. The May 20 post on Schwartz Bakery’s Facebook page, however, made explicit mention that Kehilla, in taking over the Schwartz Bakery hechsher, also “kashered” the Schwartz deli on Fairfax Avenue.

RCC: Don’t Throw Out the Baby With the Bathwater

This past Pesach week has been a horrible one for the Los Angeles Jewish Community.  The butcher it relied on for decades violated his moral, ethical and religious obligations to the public by surreptitiously bringing meat or poultry that was not supervised into his store.  His was a monumental breach of trust and the community should not forgive him for his deceit.

While certainly not a culprit in the scheme, the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC) was responsible to certify the delivery to Doheny of approved meat and poultry.  We failed to do this and we let the community down.  As President of the RCC, I apologize to the community for this monumental failure.

There is no way to sugarcoat this fiasco.  But let’s be certain of the facts, too!  All Pesach long people have asked me, “What did you know and when did you know it?” Here are the facts. 

I was informed at 1:00pm on Sunday March 24, a day and a half before Pesach, that there was credible and damning video surveillance of Doheny’s owner.  I immediately left my office on Pico Blvd. and sped to Fairfax to see the video along with a number of other prominent rabbis.  That Sunday was the first time any RCC Rabbi was informed of the deceit.   Within two hours we studied the material and came to the conclusion that the RCC approval (hechsher) should be summarily removed!

Thus, at 3:00pm, RCC rabbis asked the on-site Mashgiach to remove the official RCC Kashruth seal from the store and stand outside to advise shoppers that the store was no longer under RCC supervision.  Later that afternoon, a larger group of rabbis and some highly respected communal lay-leaders were shown the video and reinforced our decision to remove our hechsher.  We also gave Doheny’s owner an opportunity to come clean or explain the apparent deception. RCC rabbis then called Rav Yisroel Belsky, Rosh Yeshiva of Torah V'Daas and legal authority for the OU Kashrut Division, to help us rule on the complex Halachic (Jewish Law) matter.  Rabbi Belsky unequivocally permitted any meat or poultry that was purchased up until 3pm that day, the time we removed our hechsher. 

The rabbis of the RCC’s immediate and only concern was the spiritual and emotional wellbeing of the community.  Consider the weight of the problem we confronted.  Hundreds, maybe even thousands of families had already cooked their entire Pesach meat and poultry menus.  Pesach programs and caterers were serving thousands of customers in a day’s time.  At stake were the possible disposal of all that meat and poultry and the koshering of dishes and pots!  I don’t wish the burden of that decision on any one! 

Thankfully, the permitting ruling was issued based on complex Jewish Law principles relating to the concept of majority kosher vs. a minority of unsupervised products.  Those knowledgeable of the “Halachic Universe” could get their arms around that concept.  Unfortunately, for the average layperson the ruling was mystifying, almost hocus pocus — for instance, how could the same piece of meat be kosher at 2:59pm but no longer edible at 3:00pm?  Yet, the end of the day, despite the difficult rationale of the ruling, all were able to enjoy the delicious food that was prepared.

So how bad is the RCC and what is the RCC?  The RCC is made up of our community’s pulpit rabbis, heads of yeshivot, community kollels and community outreach organizations.  These distinguished Orthodox rabbis, almost 100 of them, joined the RCC because it serves them and the community.  The RCC supervises the community Eruv, has a highly respected Beit Din dealing with monetary disputes and family law.  The RCC insures that patients at Cedars Sinai Hospital enjoy fresh kosher food.  The RCC partnered with local agencies to create the nationally respected protocol to deal with school and communal pedophiles.  The RCC supervises a local hospice care provider advising on the complex end-of-life issues.

None of these RCC rabbis are paid!  Some of my colleagues are on-call to the community 24/7 and are busy with the weightiest issues of the community for hundreds of hours each year.  I am proud to work along side them and to glean from their wisdom and dedication.  Yes, there are committed and hard-working salaried professional staff members, who give their heart and soul to their supervision duties, but they do not receive one penny more or less based on the volume of work they solicit or supervise.  This is the beauty of and impetus for a community kashruth not vulnerable to any profit motive. 

To be sure, numerous RCC rabbis and administrators have not rested from the moment we were notified about this subterfuge.  While numerous complaints previously leveled at Doheny, mainly by competitors, were thoroughly investigated and found to be false, this time he was caught in violation of our protocols and we were caught flat-footed! 

And so, we know, that our work is just beginning.  Soon after Pesach, we will undergo a top to bottom review of every aspect of our operation to ensure that we not fail in the future.  We will invite disinterested parties to join the review. 

But, please do not confuse Doheny’s owner with the RCC rabbis and the sophisticated kashruth systems in place.  Please, do not throw the baby out with the bath water. 

What the community needs is an even stronger and improved RCC.  The Rabbis of RCC need community support now more than ever.  Let’s learn from this together and go forward for our community’s betterment.