Two restaurants drop RCC after Doheny scandal

Less than two months after a private investigator videotaped the owner of Doheny Glatt Kosher Meat Market allegedly bringing unsupervised animal products into his store, two local kosher restaurants have dropped the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC) as their glatt kosher certifier. 

The RCC, a nonprofit consortium of local Orthodox rabbis, had certified as kosher the now-disgraced retailer and distributor’s meat, and RCC President Rabbi Meyer May confirmed in an interview on May 20 that other restaurants under the group’s certification are also considering an exit. 

“Two have left,” May said, “and it depends on some negotiations going on now whether there are more, or are not allowed to be more.” 

Asked how the RCC can prevent privately owned businesses from dropping their kosher certification, which can cost a business hundreds or thousands of dollars a month to maintain — mostly for the kosher supervision of a mashgiach, but also in fees paid to the RCC — May said his organization is currently in talks with Kehilla Kosher, the other major Orthodox kosher certifier in Los Angeles. May said he hopes the two agencies can agree on a common set of standards to apply to kosher restaurants citywide, which, he said, might dissuade businesses from fleeing the RCC. 

“Will it be successful? I don’t know,” May said. 

May confirmed that Elite Cuisine, a restaurant and catering company located on Beverly Boulevard near La Brea Avenue that had been under the RCC’s certification, is now certified by Kehilla. An advertisement for Elite that appeared in the May 19 edition of the Hillygram, a community e-mail newsletter, featured Kehilla’s logo.

May declined to name the other restaurant that has left the RCC. Habayit Restaurant in West Los Angeles, which had been listed on the RCC’s Web site in early April, no longer appears on the certifier’s site. 

Reached by phone, Amir Simyonov, Habayit’s owner, confirmed on May 17 that he had dropped the RCC’s certification and is now solely under the supervision of Rabbi Yehuda Bukspan. 

Meanwhile, the glass front door of Doheny’s retail outlet on Pico Boulevard remains covered with white butcher paper. If the initial reaction to the scandal, which broke on March 24, was rapid, progress toward reopening the store has slowed more recently. 

Shlomo Rechnitz, a local businessman and philanthropist, bought the shop and its distribution arm on March 31 and then transferred the agreement to David Kagan, owner of Western Kosher, the competing kosher retailer, on April 8.

The main obstacle to reopening Doheny is the question of which kosher agency will oversee the reopened shop. Western Kosher is certified by Kehilla, but Rechnitz told the RCC’s May at the time he purchased the shop that he intended to reopen Doheny under RCC certification.

Reached by phone on May 21, Kagan declined to comment. On Tuesday, Rechnitz declined to comment about the negotiations on the record, other than to say that they are ongoing.

On that same day, May said he isn’t sure exactly who currently owns the shop, but he appeared to be expecting Rechnitz to make good on his promise that the reopened Doheny would remain under the RCC’s certification. 

“We won’t accept that Doheny will open up under Kehilla,” May said.

Whether the RCC would, in fact, be able to stop that from happening is unclear. 

In what he called an effort to improve the standards of kashrut in Los Angeles, May said the RCC recently underwent internal and external audits of its operations. Rabbi Gershon Bess, the RCC’s chief rabbinic authority, in an open letter to the Jewish community sent on May 3, said that the auditor, “a senior representative of the [Orthodox Union],” found that despite the RCC’s “general high standards and excellent staff, [the RCC] needed to improve and upgrade in many areas.” 

May told the Journal in April that results of audits would be made public, but declined to discuss them on Monday. He said he hopes to implement higher kosher standards in Los Angeles, and that, ideally, such standards would be implemented by Kehilla’s certified businesses as well. 

Kehilla’s rabbinic administrator, Rabbi Avrohom Teichman, declined to be interviewed on May 21. In response to a message left for Teichman on Tuesday, a Kehilla employee who identified himself only as Noah, told the Journal that the agency is “not aware of any obstacles” that would prevent Doheny from reopening its doors. The employee declined to respond to follow-up questions by phone. 

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.

Dutch withdraw bill banning ritual slaughter

A bill to ban ritual slaughter was withdrawn by the Dutch Senate days before a scheduled vote.

Animal Rights Party leader Marianne Thieme withdrew the bill late Tuesday after a majority of senators expressed their objection to the ban on kosher slaughter, or shechitah. The measure had passed the lower house of the Dutch parliament in June.

The bill had required that animals be stunned before slaughter. Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughter must be performed with the animal fully conscious.

A slaughterhouse that could prove the animal did not suffer more pain than when stunned would have been exempted from the prohibition.

Under a compromise presented by Agriculture Minister Henk Bleker, an agreement could be made with Jewish and Muslim slaughterhouses regarding the length of time that an animal is conscious before dying and the number of animals to be ritually slaughtered.

European Jewish Congress President Dr. Moshe Kantor praised the suggestion of a compromise.

“This compromise is befitting Holland’s long history of freedom of religion and specifically, tolerance towards its Jewish community,” Kantor said in a statement. “While the details have to be worked out, we hope the spirit of the compromise will be embraced by all sides of the debate.”

The European Jewish Congress, along with the Dutch Jewish Community and Shechita UK, led a campaign against the proposed ban. The campaign has included presenting the case to leading Dutch politicians and ensuring that the Jewish voice was heard in the public arena.

The European Union requires animals to be stunned before slaughter but makes exceptions for religiously mandated ritual slaughter. Nevertheless, ritual slaughter is banned in Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.

New Zealand schechitah ban to go to court

The case against New Zealand’s ban on kosher animal slaughter will be heard in the High Court in Wellington later this month.

New Zealand Jewish Council President Stephen Goodman said the case on Nov. 29 would be watched closely around the Jewish world.

“We believe that this is, or will be interpreted as, a worldwide test case,” he said. “The animal rights lobby will be applying pressure to governments around the world. We have heard rumors of the issue being raised in France, Ireland and even Australia.

“Denying us a fundamental tenant of our religion is a direct challenge to our existence. It is unintentional anti-Semitism,” Goodman said.

Goodman issued a plea to Jewish communities worldwide to assist financially in arguing for shechitah, or kosher slaughter. The cost of the case is estimated at $123,000, but less than half that has been raised, he said. The community, which numbers less than 7,000 Jews, has set up a Facebook page and a PayPal account to encourage support. “We have a very good case and a high probability of winning,” Goodman said.

In May, Agriculture Minister David Carter rejected a recommendation that shechitah be exempt from the new animal welfare code, which mandates that all commercially slaughtered animals must first be stunned, thus rendering kosher slaughtering illegal. The community filed legal action in August after negotiations with Carter broke down.

The case pits the Jewish community against the Conservative government of Prime Minister John Key, whose mother, Ruth Lazar, was a Jewish refugee who escaped Austria on the eve of the Holocaust.

Shechitah has been carried out in New Zealand since 1843.

Washington, D. C.: Progress on both sides of the aisle

The partisan atmosphere surrounding the president’s State of the Union address will only get nastier as we approach the 2008 presidential race. So now might be the best time to take a
moment and reflect on the greater good that is served by Jewish activism in all political parties.

For me, that message hit home in a very special place this year: the White House.

For reasons both complicated and simple, last December, my wife, Betsy, and I were invited by the President and Mrs. Bush to the White House to attend their annual Chanukah party. Something unexpected and amazing happened to us there, but not where you might think.

It wasn’t speaking with the president and Laura Bush; it wasn’t wandering the White House staring at portraits of Washington and Lincoln while nibbling on kreplach. It wasn’t the Marine Corps Band playing Chanukah songs or even stepping out on to the balcony overlooking the Rose Garden, spending a moment alone where so many have stood with the world on their shoulders. Nope — amazing as all of that was, none of it stacked up to what was next.

There we were, sharing a brief word or two with the president and his wife while waiting for the White House photographer to take our picture, when Betsy leaned over to the president and asked, “Can I see the kitchen?”

Betsy is a talented cook with a fair amount of training. A TV special on the White House kitchen and its head chef intrigued her months ago, and she figured this was her shot.

“Huh?” the president responded. “The kitchen? Here? Ours?”

You could tell that despite all these years standing in line greeting people, taking pictures and answering questions, this was a first for the president. He looked at me with a sort of husband-to-husband smile on his face and said, “The kitchen? I’ve never seen it.”

After seeing how stunned the president was by the question, Laura. Bush stepped in.

“Well of course you can see the kitchen. Charles,” she politely requested while pointing to one of her aides, “would you please show Rabbi and Mrs. Leder to the kitchen?”

Next thing you know, there we were, smack dab in front of the steam table and the stove.

And that’s when I saw him — the mashgiach. A mashgiach is a rabbi specially trained in the laws of keeping kosher. There he was, beard, kippah, payes, tzitzit and all, watching over the White House kitchen to be sure the food was strictly kosher. A Chanukah miracle if I ever saw one.

“Rabbi,” the head chef shouted from across the kitchen, addressing the mashgiach, “can I put the fish in this oven after I take the chicken out, or is that not OK?”

“Fish after chicken?” the mashgiach responded. “No problem.”

To some this would seem a comical moment — to me it was deadly serious. A little more than 60 years ago, the American Jewish community was so politically impotent that we could not get Franklin Delano Roosevelt to do anything to stop the slaughter of 6 million Jews. Roosevelt’s record on Jewish refugees and their rescue is “very poor” — one of the worst failures of his presidency — according to historian David Wyman. On this point, at least, there appears to be some measure of agreement among historians.

“This is not an issue on which Roosevelt’s reputation for greatness will rest,” said historian Alan Brinkley in a documentary on the Holocaust. “Quite the contrary — the record is quite poor.”

Sixty years after Roosevelt, thanks to hard work and commitment by generations of American Jews, Betsy and I stood next to a mashgiach in the White House kitchen during a time in America when nearly all politicians of import have a profound respect for the role American Jews play in our society.

I am not a Republican. I am not a Democrat. I make my decisions on people not platforms. I am overjoyed that there are Jewish Democrats with influence in the Democratic Party. I am equally glad that there are Jewish Republicans with influence in the Republican Party.

The Torah speaks of the suffering the Jews in Egypt underwent when “there arose a new king who did not know Joseph.” American Jews can never afford to be anything other than close to the president, whomever he or she may be.

I, for one, am grateful to be an American during a time when the Jewish people is embraced not just in rhetoric and public statements but in the White House, in the room where, like in every house, things are revealed in their truest form — the kitchen.

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the author of “The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things” published by Behrman House.

Supervising Life

Two women shared a room in a major Israeli hospital some
years ago, both awaiting the insemination portion of in vitro fertilization
(IVF) treatment. One of the women, “Mrs. Cohen,” was undergoing the procedure
under the supervision of a mashgiach [religious supervisor] from Machon Puah — 
an Israeli religious fertility institution —  and the other, “Mrs. Rabinovich,”
was not.

Mrs. Cohen was scheduled to be inseminated first, but she
went to use the bathroom moments before the process started, so  the doctor
scheduled Mrs. Rabinovich to go instead. The laboratory assistant, who had
prepared the test tubes, had not been informed of the change, and so he handed
the doctor the syringe for Mrs. Cohen.

The doctor stood there with the syringe in his hand, about
the inject it into the second woman, when the mashgiach stopped the process,
reminding the doctor that the correct procedure before insemination is to ask
the woman’s name. “Is your name Mrs. Cohen?” the doctor asked, reading the name
off the tube in his hand, forgetting that Mrs. Cohen was in the bathroom. The
woman, who was in a state of utter drowsiness, nodded her head. The doctor
repeated the question, and again, she answered in the affirmative. Finally, the
mashgiach said, “What is your name?” and she answered “Mrs. Rabinovich.”

“The tube the doctor was about to inject in her was for Mrs.
Cohen,” said Miriam Ben David a volunteer and fundraiser for Machon Puah. “The
mashgiach really prevented a terrible mistake.”

Preventing terrible, life-altering mistakes is the raison
d’etre of Machon Puah, an institutition named after the midwife who defied
Pharoah’s orders to kill the male Hebrew babies, as well as the Hebrew acronym
for Poriut Urefuah Al Pi Halachah — fertility and medicine in accordance with
Jewish law. The Machon was established in 1990 by Rabbi Menachem Burstein under
the auspices of Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, the chief rabbi of Israel, to address
fertility needs in the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, and to assuage the
consciences of religious Jews who had preconceptions about fertility

“The rabbis were seeing that a lot of infertile religious
couples were unwilling to undergo fertility treatments, for two main reasons,”
said Rabbi Gideon Weitzman, the head of the English-speaking section of Machon
Puah. “The first was that there was really no clear comprehensive guide,
neither written nor verbal about what fertility treatments and testing were
permitted halachically, and the other problem was that there was a serious
concern that there would be mistakes made in the lab resulting in the wrong
embryos being transferred to couples.”

So Burstein started to identify all the available fertility
treatments to ascertain their halachic viability and a “kosher” supervision
service on IVF treatments was established.

Today Machon Puah, which is located in Jerusalem and funded
by donations, offers a number of services to couples that are having difficulty
conceiving. The first is a free counseling service, where couples can meet with
one of eight rabbis well-versed in all matters of gynecology and fertility who
can advise the couples about the different treatments available, and can direct
them to the top doctors in Israel who deal with the problems.

“Many of the doctors who are seeing patients often don’t
have enough time to explain a game plan to the patients,” Weitzman said. “We
have the time to do that, because we are not clinical, so we can explain to a
couple what the process is, and we can build a long-term strategy with them.”

The other service that Machon Puah offers is the
aforementioned supervision, where a religious supervisor checks the artificial
insemination proceedings to ensure that no mistakes happen. This service costs
$30 for an intrauterine insemination, and $80 for IVF. In the 12 years that
Machon Puah has been offering the service, its supervisors have caught 19
errors in the thousands of inseminations they supervised.

“Nineteen is not a huge number, but it is definitely a
significant number” Weitzman said.

So has the terror in Israel dampened the desires of couples
wanting to conceive?

“If anything, just the opposite,” Weitzman said. “We have
seen a baby boom. The answer to the problem that the Jews are having in Israel
is to increase the population. The answer to terrorism is to have more

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