Is this Orthodox rabbi a feminist?

When word got out that Rabbi Simcha Krauss was coming to Los Angeles to teach a series of lessons on how to resolve the problem of agunot — women “chained” to their marriages because their husbands refuse to give them a get, or religious divorce — the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC) sent a letter to the Orthodox community discouraging attendance.

Signed by the president of the RCC, the letter called into doubt the legitimacy of the International Beit Din (IBD) Krauss founded in 2014, in Riverdale, N.Y., calling the court’s decisions on agunot “non-halachic” and “invalid.” 

 “Rabbanim are advised to warn prospective applicants to this ‘International Beit Din’ that recognized Batei Din throughout the United States do not accept the IBD piskei din and the gravity of what that implies,” the RCC’s letter stated, referring to judgments of a religious court.

The campaign against Krauss and his Beit Din has played out both in the press and behind closed doors since the court’s inception, and reveals a larger power struggle within the Orthodox community between the prevailing establishment and the emergence of progressive voices and practices. Although not openly stated, the hushed subtext of this internecine conflict has everything to do with the rights and roles of women in Orthodox Judaism.  

Just over two years ago, with the backing of Charedi rabbis in Israel and Orthodox supporters in the U.S., Krauss founded the International Beit Din in order to help women circumvent a legal system in which only men have the power to grant a divorce. 

“The way Jewish law is established, because the husband is the one who creates the marriage, he is the one who has the final word about giving a get. And that can lead to a terrible misuse of Jewish law, because the get can sometimes become a whip that the husband uses over his wife,” Krauss, 79, said when I met him last week at Kehillat Yitzchak on Beverly Boulevard.

According to halachah, if a husband refuses to give a get, his wife remains anchored to the marriage and cannot remarry or have legitimate Jewish children. This imbalance of power has led to legal manipulations on the part of the husband that Krauss plainly calls “extortion” — situations in which husbands demand lump sums of money from their wives, or pressure them to surrender spousal support and/or parental rights, in exchange for a get.

 “Extortion is a falsification, a frustration, a corruption of Jewish law,” Krauss said. 

For the past 40 years, Krauss has served as a pulpit rabbi, a Religious Zionists of America leader and taught at a Jerusalem yeshiva during a decadelong stint in Israel. He speaks with the courage of his convictions, but in person has the presence of a kindly Jewish grandfather — he wears smudged spectacles and has gentle eyes. Born in Romania in the late 1930s, Krauss claims to hail from 17 generations of rabbis, which makes his progressivism even more surprising. But he insists his methods are not modern and that there are ample precedents in the Torah for helping agunot.  

 “The Gemara is full of quotations that, because of the severity of agunot, the rabbis were meikel (“lenient”) so much so with women that they put it in the category of ‘anybody who saves an agunah is involved in pikuach nefesh — saving a life.’ Which means, if I know I can help save a woman from being an agunah, by even desecrating the Shabbat, I am allowed to do it. And rabbis are on record saying that.”

In Krauss’ view, Jewish courts have failed to fairly address divorce cases in which women are held captive by their husbands — sometimes for decades. “Therefore, we came up with an idea that if you look into the history of this marriage, you can sometimes find a few entry points to find a way of permitting the woman to remarry even if [her husband] doesn’t give a get.”

The concept proposed by Krauss’ IBD essentially is the practice of annulment, which is not common in Jewish courts. The IBD will undertake a review of the circumstances of the marriage in order to determine if it is valid or invalid. Perhaps the witnesses at the wedding were not kosher, or the husband deceived his wife during courtship, failing to disclose mental illness, impotence or homosexuality.  

 “I’m not speaking to you of cases that may happen once in a million years,” Krauss said. “I’m speaking about things that are known in the literature, with precedent, that other rabbis have done — the g’dolim, the greats of the generations have done — for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years.” 

So why is Krauss being treated as some rogue rabbi, out to upend Jewish tradition? Though he has the endorsement of some prominent rabbis in Israel, not a single Orthodox rabbi in the U.S. has supported him publicly. And even when he “frees” an agunah, not every rabbi will accept his decision and remarry her.

 “Generally, I think that when there is a move to change the status quo, there is always pushback,” said attorney Esther Macner, founder of the nonprofit Get Jewish Divorce. Macner helped coordinate Krauss’ five appearances in L.A. last week. “I think there’s a natural desire on the part of the established batei din to centralize and preserve their power.”

But preserving their power is linked inextricably to limiting the power of women. 

I asked Krauss if he considers himself a feminist.  

 “Would I consider myself a feminist?” he mused, a little off guard. “I don’t know. But I think that feminism has a legitimate message. I don’t think that femininsm is treif. And I don’t think that if you brush me as a feminist, I would get insulted. We have a lot to learn from all kinds of people.”

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

How to Shmita in California

Shmita, the Torah-mandated break that refreshes every seven years, and which is observed in the coming new year, 5775, is being reinterpreted in Los Angeles.

The key concepts of shmita, which means “release,” are found in the Torah portion Mishpatim in Exodus (“Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow)” and in the portion Re’eh in Deuteronomy (“Every seventh year you shall practice remission of debts”). Though the first commandment is believed to apply only in Israel, the second can have an impact on Jews anywhere.

In modern Israel, though some working in agriculture strictly observe, others use a sale permit called heter mechira, which allows Jewish landowners to temporarily sell their fields and orchards to a non-Jewish party so that the land can continue to be cultivated during the shmita year. A similar legal instrument for debt, called a pruzbol, makes it possible for lenders to continue collecting on loans.

In the United States, because the farming restrictions of shmita do not apply, other than in study, shmita has not received much attention. But this year, Hazon, an nonprofit whose goal is to create healthy and sustainable communities within a Jewish context, has initiated a Shmita Project, which asks: “What might this shmita year look like in a modern context? In Israel and beyond?”

In area synagogues, schools and Jewish summer camps, the seeds of an answer are beginning to push up from California’s drought-parched soil.

“We want to revitalize the ideas of shmita,” said Devorah Brous, founding executive director of Netiya, a Los Angeles Jewish nonprofit that promotes urban agriculture through a network of interfaith partners. Brous sees in shmita “the broad connections between land and people,” and she wants to apply that connection “to advance notions of sustainability” as well as to “promote resilience,” she said.

Brous, a gardener whose backyard garden in Sherman Oaks is filled with trees yielding pears, oranges, pomegranates and apples, vegetable beds green with kale, chard, tomatoes, herbs and even chickens, sees the system of food production in America as “having broken parts,” and the year of shmita as a time to begin fixing it.

To begin that process, a recent Netiya leadership retreat in San Diego featured Rabbi Yedida Sinclair, who translated and wrote an introduction for “Rav Kook’s Introduction to Shabbat Ha’Aretz” (Sabbath of the Land). First published in 1909 as a preface to “Shabbat Ha’Aretz,” the book presents new halachic approaches to shmita. “The old will be made new, and the new made holy,” Kook wrote.

“Shmita affords us an opportunity to take a break from what we are doing day-to-day,” said Brous, who sees shmita as a metaphor for slowing down and trying to see if “our reactions to problems are actually holistic and comprehensive,” she said.

The retreat gave her time to rethink the model of food justice, Brous said. “We need to step outside of the current model of doing canned food drives and move toward teaching people how to grow their own food,” said the community organizer, who lived in Israel for 15 years.

In rethinking how to help the city’s hungry, Brous has been asking congregations of all faiths to open up 10 percent of their land to grow food, she said.

“We need to help the folks who come to every one of our congregations,” she said, including those she has seen after Shabbat services putting food “into plastic containers and sticking it into their purses so they can have dinner that night.”

Though she has yet to find any takers for the 10 percent plan in the Jewish community — where she has been told even a parking spot is too valuable to give up —  11 congregations and Jewish groups have already devoted parts of their acreage to community gardens, including Temple Judea, Stephen S. Wise Temple, Temple Israel of Hollywood and IKAR, as well as camps Ramah and JCA Shalom.  

A garden in Highland Park, Brous said, is a product of a combined effort of All Saints Episcopal Church, which supplied the land, and neighbor Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, which contributed the funding via a grant from the Jewish Federation of the San Gabriel & Pomona Valleys, with members from both congregations supplying labor.

In a few weeks, Netiya also plans to help install a “shmita-ready” garden at the New Community Jewish High School in West Hills.

“During a shmita year, you cannot plant in the ground, but you can plant in raised beds,” Brous said. “In the garden, they are going to practice shmita. Three of the beds will be for planting and one fallow.”

Others in L.A.’s Jewish community want to get in on the planting, too.

All Saints Episcopal Church collaborated on a communal garden with neighbor Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock on a plot of land in Highland Park in 2014. Photo by Lisa Friedman

Among some in the Orthodox community, there’s a rush to plant — in Israel. On the website, which is run by Zo Artzeinu — complete with a shmita countdown clock — there’s a rush to plant thousands of fruit trees in Israel. 

“Next Opportunity in 7 Years!” the site reminds.

In the field of kosher food supervision, the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), which also provides assistance with personal matters including marriage, divorce and conversion, the coming shmita presents an atmosphere of business as usual and nothing rushed.

For Rabbi Avrohom Union, rabbinic administrator of the RCC, the impact of products coming to Los Angeles from Israel will not hit until later this year, he said. In the coming months, the RCC will be watching to make sure that producers have adhered to the laws of shmita. “It’s highly technical and depends on the crop,” Union said, whose organization also “watches the wines.”

On the RCC site, there is also a pruzbol form. Pruzbol is a halachic innovation — today under rabbinic authority — from the time of Hillel the Elder that allows those holding loans to turn them over to a rabbinical court for a year.

Intended to help the poor, Hillel created the contract because he observed that in the time before the shmita year, potential lenders, fearing they would not be paid back, were reluctant to make loans.

According to Union, the forms can be completed any time before the end of the shmita year. Chabad interprets the deadline differently, he said, calling for the pruzbol to be completed before shmita begins.

Though acknowledging that shmita can make some Jews feel “more aware of ecology,” for Union, shmita is more about the “holiness of the land of Israel.”

Brous, however, feels that in her new interpretation she is not acting in “total disregard for shmita,” pointing out that after three years of drought in California, “The land is thirsty, but it’s also hungry for compost.

“This shmita year, we can restore,” she said.

Doheny Meats reopens, remade as Beverly Hills Kosher

The storefront on Pico Boulevard that for decades was known as Doheny Kosher Meat Market reopened on Aug. 20 under new ownership and new management and with a new name: Beverly Hills Kosher. 

Doheny Kosher shut its doors amid scandal in late March, after the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), the consortium of local Orthodox rabbis that had certified Doheny as kosher, revoked its seal of approval from the market. 

Since then, ownership of the business — including its distribution arm, which once commanded a significant share of the wholesale market for kosher meat in Southern California — has changed hands three times, most recently to Rabbi Shlomo Bistritsky, a Chabad rabbi in the Conejo Valley. Rabbi Berel Cohen, who until recently was the program director of the Chabad Jewish Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, has been hired to manage the shop and serve as one of its two on-site kosher overseers. 

Some changes have been made to the shop: Outside, its green awning is gone, and the new name is painted directly onto the brick façade along with the words “Artisan Butcher.” But inside, it all looks familiar. Indeed, many of the employees who worked for Doheny are back behind the counter.

Beverly Hills Kosher’s certification may be the same as Doheny’s was — a certificate taped to the store’s front window states that the RCC certifies all meats sold there as “glatt kosher” — but according to Rabbi Meyer May, president of the RCC, certain aspects of the supervision have changed. 

Doheny had just one on-site supervisor, or mashgiach, who was assigned to watch its operations. That supervisor was told to remain at the store at all times, but in a surveillance video shot in March 2013, he was seen leaving Doheny’s parking lot, reportedly on his way to morning prayers. Moments later, the video showed the store’s longtime owner, Mike Engelman, instructing an employee to bring boxes of unidentified meat products into the store. 

The RCC now requires two on-site kosher supervisors at Beverly Hills Kosher, May said.

“We have protocols in place, and I think that we have served the community appropriately, and will continue to serve the community appropriately,” May told the Journal on Aug. 23. 

Other such protocols are easy to spot. On Aug. 23, a reporter observed some wrapped cuts of meat in the store’s refrigerated display cases bearing labels that read, “RCC KosherSeal. Tamper Evident Seal. Assures Kashrut Integrity,” which prevent kosher meats from being tampered with between the time they are packaged and when they are placed on the shelves.

Inside the shop on a Friday afternoon, a few patrons were doing some last-minute shopping for Shabbat. Esther Renzer, who described herself as a regular at the former Doheny Meats, came to pick up a box of meat she had preordered. 

Over the past four months, she said, she had been purchasing her meat at Glatt Mart on Pico, a few blocks east of Beverly Hills Kosher; she returned because she appreciated the level of service Doheny had provided, and was not disappointed by the new owners. 

“It’s the only personalized butcher shop in town where they really know you and service you,” Renzer said as she loaded a box with flanken-cut beef short ribs, lamb chops and chicken into the trunk of her car parked on Pico, just outside the store. 

But where Doheny was the largest distributor of kosher animal products under RCC supervision, the new owner said Beverly Hills Kosher is doing only retail business right now. 

“We’re getting the retail set up well — as you can imagine, it’s been closed for a few months, and there are a lot of kinks that you need to get out of the startup,” Bistritsky told the Journal on Aug. 25. “The wholesale will come after.”

Bistritsky is the third owner of the shop in the past five months. In the immediate aftermath of the Doheny scandal, the RCC helped facilitate a quick sale of the shop to Shlomo Rechnitz, a local businessman and philanthropist. 

At the time, Rechnitz and the RCC’s May both described the purchase as a community-minded one. By keeping Doheny from going out of business, Rechnitz would help ensure that at least one large distributor of kosher meat would be certified by the RCC. Kehilla Kosher, a competing agency, oversees the city’s two other large distributors — City Glatt and Western Kosher — and May and Rechnitz said that consolidation in the market for kosher meat would not be good for consumers. 

As it happened, the disappearance of Doheny from the scene did not appear to have any impact on the prices of kosher meat in Los Angeles. 

Two weeks after he bought the shop, Rechnitz told the Journal he had sold it to David Kagan, who owns Western Kosher. Kagan declined to speak with the Journal at the time, or even confirm that he had in fact bought the store — but over the weeks that followed, multiple individuals with knowledge of the situation told the Journal that Kagan did own the shop at that time. (Kagan had hired a handful of the workers who had been employed at Doheny to work at Western Kosher’s Pico Boulevard location. Now that Beverly Hills Kosher is back in business, those workers are back at their old place of employment.) 

Bistritsky told the Journal on Aug. 25 that Kagan, a longtime friend, had sold the shop to him about eight weeks earlier, around the beginning of July — but only after trying and failing to come up with a solution acceptable to both the RCC, which certified Doheny, and Kehilla, which oversees Western Kosher’s two retail locations.

“He [Kagan] was running into issues with the RCC and Kehilla, and he was getting very frustrated,” Bistritsky said. “He got to a point where he called me up and said, ‘Look, if you want this opportunity, it’s available.’ ”

Reached by phone at Western Kosher on Friday afternoon, Kagan confirmed that he no longer has an ownership stake in the store formerly known as Doheny; he said his only involvement in the shop is now “as a vendor.” 

For his part, Bistritsky, 43, is no stranger to the business of kosher food; his father ran a kosher specialty food store for 30 years on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In addition to his role as a director of the Chabad of Oak Park in the Conejo Valley, Bistritsky also owns a finance company. 

While Bistritsky said he hopes Beverly Hills Kosher will be financially successful, he said he also recognizes the symbolic aspects of this investment. 

“I think this whole debacle gave kosher food in our city a very bad name, and I’d like to believe that if the right people put the right heart and soul into it, good things can come of it,” Bistritsky said. 

Introducing … kosher lube!

With the Jewish Valentine’s Day fast approaching, kosher romantics have some new options thanks to Trigg Labs, which announced this week that its line of Wet personal lubricants and intimacy products are now kosher.

After a two-year process to gain certification, all ingredients and equipment at Trigg Labs’ 52,000 square-foot Valencia, Calif., facility are now under the supervision of the Rabbinical Council of California and 95 percent of its products will carry the K symbol. The change makes Wet the only kosher certified personal lubricant in the U.S. and Canada.

The company plans to introduce its products in Israel in the coming months and supervision will help support that market as well as the Orthodox market in the United States, said company spokesman Dean Draznin.

He added that the key issues in the two-year koshering process of the company’s plant were determining the sources of ingredients. Kosher certification ensures that any animal-derived ingredients in Wet’s products came from kosher animals and that the animals were not mistreated, Draznin said.

Kosher Wet products should start appearing on the market within 90 days, he said.

According to Wet founder Michael Trigg, kosher certification is another milestone in the company’s commitment to growth and innovation. “We’ve always maintained the highest standards of production and quality control for our entire line of premium products,” said Trigg in a statement.

Menachem Lubinsky, president of Lubicom, the marketing company that hosts the annual Kosherfest trade show, said he wasn’t sure if certification was necessary from the standpoint of Jewish law.

“I usually deal with supply and demand,” he said. “I’m not aware of any large demand for this. I’m more aware of people looking for kosher-for-Passover dog food. Having said that, there’s been a trend in recent years to make more over-the-counter drugs and cosmetics with certification for people that don’t want to bring anything into the house that isn’t kosher certified.”

Future sales will determine how much demand there actually is, but for Trigg, kosher certification means quality. “The ‘K’ imprint on our packages says that we maintain the highest standards of purity and answer to a higher authority,” said Trigg.

Kosher food is on the roll

In a way, Michele Grant’s unfortunate Hollywood ending — she experienced an injury on a movie set while serving as an assistant director — turned into a beautiful beginning for the Los Angeles kosher community.

While she had been passionate about cooking since her childhood, when she learned the art from her grandmothers — one who taught her to bake rugelach, cakes and cookies and the other who first showed her how to debone a chicken — it wasn’t until after the injury that she took on cooking professionally. Grant served as a private chef for people in the entertainment industry, particularly those with special diets, and picked up other cooking gigs on the side.

Today, she is the owner and founder of The Kosher Palate, which serves up kosher sandwiches, soups, desserts and side dishes at farmers markets across the city every week. The mobile food station opened last fall and makes appearances at the Sunset Strip, Mar Vista and La Cienega farmers markets, doling out pareve food cooked on the spot. 

A truck that has both pareve and fleishig items launched in April. Grant said it has stopped in Santa Clarita, Burbank, West Los Angeles, Pico-Robertson and many places in between. There are plans to expand to places like Long Beach and the South Bay as well, she said. 

The next stage will be turning the truck into a hybrid of a gourmet food truck with made-to-order cuisine and a mobile epicurean shop carrying a line of prepared food items and specialty kosher products, according to Grant.

The menu includes shakshuka, an African and Middle Eastern stew with tomatoes, red peppers, onion and turkey meatballs that she serves in a mamaliga (polenta) bowl; tomato bisque and butternut squash soup; roasted beluga lentil salad; lemongrass almond pudding; a baked tempeh sandwich; and tuna Nicoise. The food is sourced from the farmers themselves, and is all-natural. 

“We’re using extraordinary ingredients,” Grant said. “It’s from local farmers who love what they do and know their products.”

“When something has just come from the ground or the tree, it’s at its height in nutritional value and flavor,” she said. “It’s reflected in the food we make.”

Earlier in her culinary career, Grant, 46, learned the ins and outs of the mobile food business as a partner in the popular Grilled Cheese Truck and doing cooking demonstrations at the Hollywood Farmers Market. Then she decided to combine her interest in cooking with her reverence for kosher standards. (A secular Jew, Grant grew up attending an Orthodox school and learned about kashrut, or Jewish dietary laws.) 

“It was always so curious to me that I never saw a lot of the frum community at the farmers markets,” she said. “At the farmers markets, you go to buy your fruits and vegetables. It’s social, and you get a nosh along the way. There was never anything for [observant people] to nosh on. We solve that problem.”

Certified by the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), the Kosher Palate, which is run by Grant and three full-time workers, follows strict standards of kashrut. For example, the booth cannot be located next to another booth that is also cooking food because of possible cross-contamination with treif vapor.

Michele Grant. Photo by Martin Cohen Photography

Cindy Szerlip, chief financial officer of the Kosher Palate, also is Jewish and interested in the sustainable, artisan food movement. When she had kids and started going to the local Jewish center, she found the kosher food everywhere to be disappointing. 

“It was unimaginative, and it was the same food over and over again,” she said. “I ate food at gourmet restaurants that could absolutely be prepared in a kosher style without losing quality or excitement.” 

Szerlip said that it’s important for everyone, Jewish or not, to understand the level of quality involved in kosher food.

“It’s clear, and more regulated than foods you get on the street or in supermarkets. It’s highly inspected, and there are rigorous standards,” she said. “The time has come, considering the food problems in our system. It’s another level of security and quality that most people should really have in their lives.”

Since Kosher Palate kicked off with a latke party last fall at the Mar Vista Farmers Market, manager Diana Rodgers said it has struck a chord with patrons. 

“People assume it’s just kosher food and not their food, but when they taste it, they change their mind. It’s an offering for everyone. It’s a learning curve for people. They’re very happy when they taste it,” Rodgers said. 

Grant said that the experience of running a kosher food booth has, so far, been a positive one, even if it’s not always easy. 

“I love being able to get back to my own roots in terms of food,” she said. “To be able to cook the food of my history and to celebrate my own culture through food is amazing. I can honor my grandmothers because I feel them with me in the kitchen every day.”

Doheny to reopen keeping RCC hechsher

Here’s a bit of good news for anyone looking for kosher steak to grill on the Fourth of July: Doheny Glatt Kosher Meat Market may reopen within weeks.

Rabbi Yakov Vann, director of the Rabbinical Council of California’s (RCC) kosher services arm, said on June 18 that Doheny, a distributor and retailer of kosher animal products on Pico Boulevard, has been sold to an unnamed individual and will reopen under RCC supervision. 

Renovations are already under way at the Pico Boulevard outlet. On June 13, two workers were assembling brand-new stainless steel shelving units in the parking lot behind the store. A nearby dumpster was filled with chunks of asphalt; an employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said new pipes had been laid connecting the decades-old storefront with the sewage system. 

The market has been closed since late March, when a video was revealed in the media of the owner and workers bringing unidentified products into the store while the RCC’s kosher supervisor was absent. Within a week of those damning revelations, the store was sold to a local Orthodox businessman and philanthropist, Shlomo Rechnitz. 

In April, Rechnitz told the Journal that he had sold Doheny to David Kagan, the owner of Western Kosher, another local kosher meat retailer and distributor. That agreement fell apart after Kehilla Kosher, the local agency that supervises Kagan’s two existing retail locations, declined to co-certify the reopened Doheny with the RCC. 

While Kagan won’t have an ownership stake, he may still have a role in running Doheny, possibly as a consultant or contractor. Speaking to a reporter at Western Kosher’s retail location on Pico Boulevard on June 17, Kagan declined to comment, saying that he’d be willing to speak “when the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed.”

Vann declined to name the new owner or owners and said no specific date has been set for the reopening; however he estimated the store will likely reopen in the next two weeks. 

Vann said all parties have agreed that the RCC would certify the business when it does open. “That part we have shalom on,” Vann said. 

Kosher oversight welcomed

The Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), a local nonprofit consortium of Orthodox rabbis, has brought in two national kosher organizations to review the restaurants in Los Angeles under its supervision.

The out-of-town rabbis visited three local RCC-certified restaurants last month, and on May 24, Rabbi Yaakov Luban, executive rabbinic coordinator of the Orthodox Union (OU), endorsed the RCC’s supervision. 

“These facilities are supervised in accordance with the standards of mainstream kashrus organizations,” Luban wrote after visiting Abba’s on La Brea, Pita Way and Meshuga 4 Sushi, all of which are certified by the RCC, “and I am comfortable endorsing the supervision which is currently in place.” 

The RCC’s reputation was damaged by a scandal revealed in March at Doheny Glatt Kosher Meat Market, and as a result two of the RCC’s client businesses last month moved to a competing kosher agency, Kehilla Kosher. By bringing in independent local and out-of-town rabbis to assess their work, the RCC hopes to reassure consumers that it is doing its job. The increased rabbinic attention clearly pleased the owners of the restaurants mentioned in Luban’s letter. 

At Abba’s on La Brea, a copy of Luban’s letter, written on OU letterhead, was posted on the glass front door. Kelly Benarroch, who owns the restaurant and catering hall with her husband, Shimon, said that various rabbis have been visiting Abba’s frequently since early May.

“It’s a lot of checking, coming in without notice and checking all the items — everything we do, the fact that we are frum [observant] people and that we are constantly here,” Benarroch said. 

“I think that today the RCC is a good kashrut, because all the rabbis are taking responsibility and they [the RCC] want to change,” said David Sharabi, the owner of Pita Way, a 30-seat falafel and shawarma joint on Melrose Avenue. 

In March, the owner of Doheny Meats, the largest RCC-certified meat distributor, was videotaped transporting unidentified products into his store when his on-site supervisor was absent. Since then, the RCC has enlisted at least a half-dozen local and out-of-town rabbis to oversee its operations. Representatives from the OU and the Chicago-based Association of Kashrus Organizations (AKO) have been part of the ongoing effort. 

Rabbi Moshe Elefant, OU chief operating officer for kashrut, said that since his New York-based agency got involved in April, he has visited Los Angeles once and Luban has visited twice. The OU is the largest kosher certifying agency in the country, but its policy is to leave supervision of local kosher businesses in the hands of local boards of rabbis. In this case, Elefant said, the OU’s intent is to support the RCC, not to supplant it. 

“To a degree, we’re competitors,” he said. “But as much as we’re competitors, we all understand that we have a higher mission here, and we’re happy to learn from each other.”

At least some of the rabbis brought in by the RCC are working on a volunteer basis; Elefant said that the OU has so far declined the RCC’s offers to pay its staff for their services.

The RCC asked AKO, an umbrella organization for kosher certifiers, to devise a set of standards for kosher certifiers in Los Angeles. In a May 27 letter, RCC President Rabbi Meyer May and Rabbi Jonathan Rosenberg, who heads the RCC’s committee on kashrus, wrote that “the RCC will adhere to universally accepted kashrus standards recommended by AKO, of which the RCC is a member.” 

AKO has minimum global standards for its members and has also developed standards that apply to certifiers overseeing particular industries, Rabbi Sholem Fishbane, executive director of AKO, said. But kosher standards for local businesses necessarily vary by community.

“What might work in Borough Park might not work in Omaha,” Fishbane said, explaining why kosher laws could not be applied across the world in the same way. 

Kehilla and the RCC, the two most prominent Los Angeles-area kosher certifiers, are both AKO members, and Fishbane said AKO had discussed the plan to develop community-wide standards with the leadership of both organizations. Fishbane wasn’t sure whether either organization had firmly committed to apply the standards, which have yet to be written. 

Both the RCC and Kehilla declined requests for interviews for this story. 

Should such standards be implemented, the impact that they will have on consumers is hard to predict. Elefant, who guessed that Los Angeles has more kosher restaurants per capita than any other city — including New York — speculated that the cost of increased rabbinic oversight could force businesses to raise prices for consumers. That might, in turn, force some of the scores of kosher restaurants in L.A. to shut their doors. 

“I feel bad for the people that will have to close, but at the end of the day the first person that will have to be satisfied is the consumer,” Elefant said. “The person who is paying for a kosher meal is entitled to a truly kosher meal.”

On June 3, Pita Way owner Sharabi said he was happy to see the rabbis coming by his shop — almost every day in recent weeks — and urged kosher consumers to have patience with the RCC.

“The customers are going to see it soon,” Sharabi said. “To break takes a second. To build takes more time.”

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.

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. 

Jewish conversion 101

Conversion to Judaism is not easy. It requires a change in beliefs, actions and lifestyle. It involves extensive study, practice, a leap of faith, a shift in perception and some sacrifice. However, for those who feel it’s the right decision, it can be an exciting and rewarding experience. 

Before stepping into the mikveh — the ritual of immersion in water that is the culmination of the conversion process — prospective converts to Judaism must choose a movement, which will determine what kind of observance they want to follow and how they want to live their life as a Jew. 

“It’s cliché, but it’s true that converts make the very best Jews, because they are people that have chosen to be Jewish,” said Rabbi Adam Greenwald, executive director of the Louis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University (AJU). “It wasn’t an accident of birth.”

Most prospective Jews by Choice go through a Reform, Conservative or Orthodox conversion, and the rules vary for each. Anyone considering conversion must find a sponsoring rabbi as the first step, then participate in a period of study, which might mean organized classes or individual study with a rabbi or tutor. Who guides the convert will determine which beit din — a rabbinical court consisting of three rabbis — is the best one to complete the conversion. 

AJU offers an 18-week course for those considering conversion — as well as anyone wanting to learn more about the faith — that takes place at venues throughout Los Angeles. Students at AJU’s program learn about Jewish values, traditions and history, including Conservative traditions and observance. The Reconstructionist and Reform movements also approve these classes.

In addition to the classes, a Holocaust survivor speaks to the students. All candidates learn to read prayers in Hebrew and participate in a Shabbaton and in a scavenger hunt at Whole Foods for kosher products. Since the program got its start in 1986, more than 4,000 participants have converted to Judaism, Greenwald said. 

Although Greenwald does not himself give approval for prospective converts to go before the beit din, he said he meets with all of his students and helps them to connect with a sponsoring rabbi: “It’s a great challenge to give a person the tools and information that they need in only a few months to be able to feel genuinely a part of the Jewish community,” he said. 

“It’s cliché, but it’s true that converts make the very best Jews, because they are people that have chosen to be Jewish.” — Rabbi Adam Greenwald, executive director of the Louis and Judith Miller, Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University (AJU)

Rabbi Neal Weinberg, the former director of the AJU program, has led Judaism by Choice, another educational offering for those wishing to convert, since 2009. Weinberg’s classes include about 300 students each year and cover Jewish history, holidays, rituals, Zionism and the Torah. Classes, which instruct students for a Conservative conversion (see sidebar for more on Weinberg’s Judaism by Choice program), are offered either once or twice per week, for an average of three months. 

Since most students have busy lives, Weinberg acknowledged, he said he tries to make his classes entertaining. He demonstrates a brit milah (ritual circumcision) using a Cabbage Patch doll, holds a mock wedding with a chuppah (wedding canopy) and goes over the prayers. His classes are offered at synagogues in Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Venice and the San Fernando Valley. “Anybody can take the program,” said Miri Weinberg, the rabbi’s wife, who helps run Judaism by Choice. “We don’t turn anyone away.”

The Weinbergs’ program includes Shabbat dinners and holiday-themed events for both current students and program graduates. He said that he expects students wishing to convert to attend synagogue consistently and keep a level of kosher. “I think there has to be a certain behavior,” Neal said. “I’d rather I be the one [teaching them] than having them go through the beit din and not passing. That could be painful. I’m a coach that prepares people for it.”

Most of the time, the participants in the Judaism by Choice classes undergo either a Conservative conversion or go before the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, a pluralistic beit din that is endorsed by Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform rabbis. 

The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) also offers an 18-week Introduction to Judaism course for prospective converts. This class, too, covers lifecycle events, history, holidays, prayer, Israel and theology. Many of the URJ’s candidates end up going through the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, as well.

Rabbi Sabine Meyer, director of the URJ’s conversion program, said about 15 classes per year are offered throughout Los Angeles, all of them both rigorous and comprehensive. “Reform conversion is not conversion light. We do not convert people to Reform Judaism. We convert them to Judaism,” she said.

URJ has offered its introduction class for more than three decades, and Meyer has seen classes where up to 80 percent of the people have continued on to convert, but she emphasized that the class is not meant just for prospective Jews by Choice. “It’s for anybody who is interested in learning more about Judaism and the important tools that they need [to practice], if that’s what they want to do.”

Candidates for conversion in Los Angeles who would like to connect to a more traditional lifestyle can also prepare to go before an Orthodox beit din. The requirements for an Orthodox conversion typically require that the candidate observe kosher laws both inside and outside of the home, live within an Orthodox community, observe the Sabbath and study with a tutor. 

Rabbi Avrohom Union, the rabbinic administrator of the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), which features an Orthodox beit din, said candidates must be sincere and “want to be part of the [Orthodox] community and adopt that lifestyle. We look to see that people approach this with a certain maturity and a solid [reason as to] why they want to do this.”

Applicants accepted to the RCC’s program are assigned a private tutor, and a candidate should expect to spend 18 to 24 months studying and participating fully in Jewish life before the process of conversion is complete, Union said. The most important aspect of the conversion, he said, is establishing oneself in a community. “Orthodox Jewish life tends to revolve around Shabbat. We want people working with us to be a part of that community. We don’t want them to feel different from someone who was born Jewish.”

Since entering into an Orthodox lifestyle can be a huge change for most candidates, Union said that he and the rabbis on his beit din “want people to get personal attention. For someone to make a transition from gentile to Orthodox Jew is a significant transition, and it’s not like a university course, where you simply learn the material, take the test and pass. It’s a process of personal growth.”

Any candidate who chooses to convert — whether through an Orthodox, Reform or Conservative program — should know their goals and understand the process as they enter into it. They also need to realize that being immersed in the mikveh is not the culmination of the learning — it’s just the beginning. 

“Becoming a Jew is not an event,” Miri Weinberg said. “It’s a process.”

Doheny Meats buyer Shlomo Rechnitz on business, philanthropy

Fifteen years ago, Shlomo Rechnitz co-founded TwinMed, a wholesaler of medical supplies serving nursing homes. Since then, Rechnitz has founded, or bought, and grown a number of other businesses, including Brius Healthcare, now the largest operator of nursing homes in California. 

Along the way, Rechnitz, 41, also became a major philanthropist, giving away millions of dollars  — to Jewish charities and also directly to people in need. On more than one occasion he’s come to the aid of a major Orthodox organization, offering gifts or loans in times of crisis. 

It was a combination of these two attributes — business expertise and an expansive view of philanthropy — that led Rechnitz to buy Doheny Glatt Kosher Meat Market, the scandal-ridden Los Angeles kosher meat distributor and retailer that closed its doors last month. 

“The Rabbinical Council of California [RCC] approached me and said, ‘Shlomo, could this be one of your charity things?’ ” Rechnitz recalled in an interview with the Journal earlier this month. “Kosher meat is expensive enough.”

Rechnitz took less than a week to close the deal with Doheny’s former owner, Mike Engelman, who was caught on video bringing unidentified meat products into his store at a time when the RCC’s supervisor had left the scene. Then he only held onto the purchase agreement for about a week before arranging to transfer it to a third party, David Kagan, the owner of the glatt kosher retailer Western Kosher, which also does some distribution to local businesses. Doheny Meats hadn’t reopened as of press time earlier this week, and Kagan declined to be interviewed for this article, saying then that the deal had not yet been finalized. 

“I love the rush of a deal. It’s like a coke addiction,” Rechnitz, said, a tall glass of caffeine-free Coca-Cola on the coffee table in front of him. “Not that I know what coke addiction is.” 

Whether he’s in the hunt to acquire a new long-term care facility — through Brius, Rechnitz owns 62 across the state — or some other business or property, he enjoys the challenge of outsmarting, outbidding or outmaneuvering the competition. 

“That is salesmanship,” said Rechnitz, a native Angeleno who said he inherited a peddler’s instinct from his grandfather, who sold women’s apparel, and his father, a closeout salesman. “You’re selling your business, you’re selling your service. You’re telling them why you should be the one that should be chosen.”

In his first big venture, Rechnitz and his twin brother, Steve, founded TwinMed, which offered nursing homes the ability to buy supplies not on an item-by-item basis — ordering this many boxes of latex gloves or that many cases of gauze — but by paying TwinMed a set daily rate for all supplies for each patient in their care. 

This “per patient day” system helped TwinMed grow to become one of the largest distributors of medical supplies to nursing homes in the country, and has attracted attention and accolades within the business world. 

In each of the past two years, the brothers have presented their business as a case study for students in the MBA program at Stanford, and, in 2011, Ernst & Young named Steve Rechnitz “Entrepreneur of the Year” in the health care category.

The Rechnitz twins have some clear business advantages. They can stand in for one another in a way that only identical twins can; their employees, associates and even their 5-year-old sons occasionally get them confused. 

And the Rechnitzes are, in a word, big. 

“It never hurts when you have two 6-foot-8, 300-plus-pound people walking into your office and strongly suggesting that you buy their product,” Steve Rechnitz said in accepting the entrepreneur award in 2011.

“His business is a front for his charity. Because he lives his charity.” — Rabbi Chaim Cunin, CEO of Chabad of California

Steve is the active CEO of TwinMed, while Shlomo has moved into other businesses. He started by buying nursing homes and then began to get involved in businesses that nursing homes contract to, including a pharmacy, a pest control firm and an ambulance company. 

Shlomo Rechnitz pursues similarly varied interests in his philanthropic work. 

Within Orthodox circles, he is almost always called by his first and middle names, Shlomo Yehuda, and he has become known for his aid to prominent nonprofits at times of crisis. 

In November 2011, when the head of the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem died suddenly, leaving the 7,500-student institution $15 million in debt, Rechnitz, who had spent nearly five years studying there, donated $5 million. Others followed, Rechnitz said, and Mir’s debt was paid in full within three months. 

In December of that year, Rechnitz purchased a creditor’s note against Chabad of California’s headquarters in Westwood for $2.35 million, helping the organization avoid foreclosure. Rechnitz, who also donates to Chabad in more conventional ways, said he still holds the note, adding that he’s hoping to be paid back “one day.” 

And after Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on the East Coast, Rechnitz gave $1 million to aid in the rebuilding of Orthodox Jewish day schools and to assist the families whose children attend those schools. 

“His business is a front for his charity,” said Rabbi Chaim Cunin, CEO of Chabad of California, who went to school with Rechnitz for a few years when they were boys growing up in Los Angeles. “Because he lives his charity.” 

Many people seek Rechnitz’s help these days. Over the course of an hour-long conversation, his cellphone rang a dozen times and three people knocked on his door. 

Rechnitz hasn’t maintained an office for many years, preferring to do business either from his home or over the phone while driving around the neighborhood around La Brea Avenue, so it’s possible those calls were business-related. But it’s equally plausible that Rechnitz was ignoring, temporarily, people soliciting his assistance. 

Rechnitz calls himself “a nondenominational giver”  and said that at times he reaches out to those who aren’t coming to him. Last year, Diana Aulger, a pregnant woman in Texas, decided to have her doctors induce labor so that her husband, Mark, who was dying of cancer, could meet their child. Mark got to hold their daughter, Savannah, for 45 minutes before he died. 

Rechnitz saw the story online and sent Aulger a check for $20,000. 

He also sends $10,000 checks to the families of police officers who are shot while on duty in Southern California. Those gifts are inspired in part by an urge to assist individuals who put themselves into harm’s way for the public good, but Rechnitz said he’s also driven by another motive. 

“I don’t think that [non-Jews] should ever look back at the Jewish people and say, ‘You only care about your own,’ ” he said. 

Scandal-plagued Doheny Meats might change hands, again

For the second time in two weeks, the ownership of Doheny Glatt Kosher Meat Market might be changing hands. 

Shlomo Rechnitz, the local Orthodox businessman and philanthropist who purchased the scandal-plagued retailer and distributor of kosher meat and poultry products on March 31, told the Jewish Journal that he transferred the agreement he had made with Doheny’s previous owner to David Kagan, the owner of Western Kosher on Fairfax Avenue, on April 8. 

“David approached me and said to me, ‘I’ll take over the business, and I’ll therefore have enough volume to be another distributor myself,’ ” Rechnitz said in an exclusive interview with the Journal on April 11. 

Reached that same day, an employee of Western Kosher told the Journal that Kagan had no comment.

Western Kosher has had a retail outlet on Fairfax since 1979; in 2012, Kagan opened a second, larger retail location on Pico Boulevard, just east of La Cienega Boulevard, taking over a space that had been occupied by another kosher retailer that closed its doors in 2011. Western Kosher also distributes some kosher animal products to local businesses. 

Rechnitz said that Doheny, which had its certification revoked on March 24, could reopen as early as this week under its new owner. But there are some hurdles that still stand in the way of the deal, including the challenge of determining which of the two leading local Orthodox kosher certification agencies would oversee the reopened shop.

Western Kosher’s retail and distribution businesses are certified by Kehilla Kosher. Doheny was certified by the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), which had encouraged Rechnitz to buy the scandal-plagued shop and had pledged to certify it once it reopened. 

Rechnitz’s involvement in the Doheny affair began on March 24, just hours after rabbis from the RCC viewed video of the market’s previous owner, Mike Engelman, helping a Doheny employee move boxes of unidentified products into his store at a time when the RCC’s mashgiach (rabbinic supervisor) was absent. 

The RCC revoked Engelman’s kosher certification that afternoon, and on the evening of March 24 — 24 hours before the start of Passover — Rechnitz was in the room when Engelman reportedly admitted to having brought unsupervised animal products into his store. 

Starting the following day, RCC President Meyer May and others urged Rechnitz to buy the shop and its distribution arm. The RCC, a nonprofit consortium of nearly 100 local Orthodox rabbis, pledged to recertify the shop under Rechnitz’s ownership. 

Rechnitz finalized a “binding” agreement with Engelman on March 31. May said that Rechnitz called him on April 9 to inform him about the transfer of the agreement to Kagan. 

“If the new owner asks for certification, we’ll be happy to seriously consider the implications,” May told the Journal in an April 11 interview. 

May sounded skeptical about how involved the RCC would be, because of Kagan’s prior relationship with Kehilla. 

“He’s under Kehilla and I don’t see him moving over unless he decided to leave Kehilla, which I don’t expect him to do,” May said. “I don’t encourage people to leave other people’s hechsherim [kosher certification agencies]. It’s not my style.”

In an e-mail to the Journal, Rabbi Avrohom Teichman, Kehilla’s rabbinic administrator, would not confirm that the sale had been finalized. 

“With reference to your inquiry, we await formal notice from David Kagan,” Teichman wrote on April 11.

Rechnitz, whose involvement in the sale may in fact be over at this point, said he hoped Kehilla and the RCC would jointly certify both the newly reopened Doheny shop as well as Western Kosher’s existing businesses. 

“I would like to see this store and Western Kosher both certified under both certifications,” Rechnitz said, “and David Kagan has assured me that he is willing to take on both stringencies.”

Rechnitz explained that in situations where the RCC had a stricter policy than Kehilla, the jointly certified shop would adhere to that policy. On matters in which Kehilla was more stringent than the RCC, the shop would abide by Kehilla’s standard. 

May said that Rechnitz had spoken with him about the possibility of joint certification. 

“It’s something that the Vaad Hashrus [the RCC committee on kosher law] would certainly consider, but only if it’s meaningful,” May said. 

Kagan grew up in Los Angeles and has been running Western Kosher since 1990; his father, Moshe Kagan, ran the business before him. 

Rechnitz said he was confident that Kagan, who he said had established a great deal of trust with the community and rabbis from both the RCC and Kehilla, could manage to work something out with these two competitors.

“If there’s someone who can bring these two organizations together, it’s him,” Rechnitz said.

Ex-Doheny Market owner being sued in kosher meat scandal

Mike Engelman, who is suspected of selling non-kosher food from his Doheny Glatt Kosher Meat Market in Los Angeles, is being sued.

City News Service, a Los Angeles media outlet, reported Tuesday that at least two lawsuits have been filed in Los Angeles Superior Court for fraud, breach of contract, battery, and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

Last month, the kosher certification of Engelman's store was revoked by the Rabbinical Council of California after Engelman was caught on video shot by a private investigator smuggling in meat of unknown origin into the store while the kosher supervisor was away.

Shlomo Rechnitz, a Los Angeles businessman, has purchased the store from Engelman and vowed to uphold stricter kosher standards.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also is investigating the incident. The provenance of the meat Engelman is suspected to have smuggled is still unknown.

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.

New Doheny Meats owner explains his purchase of scandal-ridden store

Shlomo Rechnitz, a prominent local businessman and philanthropist, has purchased Doheny Glatt Kosher Meat Market, the scandal-plagued kosher meat retailer and distributor.

Rechnitz, who co-founded TwinMed, a large medical supply firm, and owns a number of other businesses, purchased the store and its distribution arm for an undisclosed sum from its former owner, Mike Engelman.

The sale closed late in the day on Sunday, March 31, just one week after its former kosher certifier, the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), revoked the store’s certification and hours before the beginning of a two-day holy period celebrating the end of Passover.

Starting on March 25, the day after the revocation, rabbis from the RCC reached out to Rechnitz, urging him to buy Doheny, and in an interview with The Jewish Journal on April 3, Rechnitz said he initially considered making the purchase as “a favor to the community.”

[Related: After Doheny Kosher scandal, what does the future hold for L.A.’s meat market?]

“Before I came out with the announcement that I was going to purchase [Doheny],” Rechnitz said, “there were already stores calling up different distributors, even being quoted prices 35 to 40 percent higher than their current prices.”

Doheny is believed to supply as much as 50 percent of the kosher meat and poultry in Los Angeles; its disappearance would have significantly reduced competition in the marketplace, which, Rechnitz said, “would have destroyed the kosher market in Los Angeles.”

RCC President Rabbi Meyer H. May said Wednesday morning that he was one of those who personally urged Rechnitz to buy Doheny Meats, and he was cheered by news of the sale.

“It’s really extraordinary,” May said. “He’s going to preserve the richness of the meat supply and preserve the price structure for consumers.”

Rechnitz was involved in the response to the Doheny scandal from its earliest hours. He was one of a handful of non-rabbis who attended a hastily organized meeting on Sunday, March 24, when Engelman spoke to the RCC’s leadership and rabbis from synagogues around the Pico-Robertson neighborhood about what he had done at his store.

Engelman, who had owned the shop for 28 years, was videotaped by a private investigator last month bringing unidentified products into his store at a time when its rabbinic overseer was absent. Engelman did not return repeated calls requesting comment, and has not spoken on the record since the scandal began.

At the March 24 meeting, Engelman reportedly told Rechnitz, May, and the other laypeople and rabbis present, that he had, on two or three occasions, brought unsupervised meat into the store.

According to multiple people who attended the meeting, Engelman claimed all the meat he had brought to Doheny was kosher, but he admitted some was not up to the RCC’s higher “glatt kosher” standard. Glatt kosher meat is more expensive than kosher meat, which itself carries a higher price tag than equivalent non-kosher products.

Rechnitz said that he believes Engelman with “99 percent” confidence.

Rechnitz did add a caveat.  “You can’t rely on someone like me, who got my information from someone who unfortunately has made mistakes, who wasn’t always as truthful as he should have been,” Rechnitz said.

Over the course of a week of negotiations, Rechnitz spent between eight and 10 hours with Engelman; he said he does not believe Engelman brought the unsupervised products into Doheny to respond to specific customers’ requests, as some have suggested.

Rechnitz said Engelman himself couldn’t fully explain why he brought the unsupervised meat into the store, but Rechnitz speculated that it may have been due to anger Engelman felt towards his main supplier, Agri Star, the large kosher meat processor based in Postville, Iowa. In 2009, Agri Star bought the Postville plant from the bankrupt Rubashkin-owned firm AgriProcessors, which had been shut down in the aftermath of the largest immigration raid in American history.

Money may not have been the motivating factor, Rechnitz said, “because it wasn’t that much of a difference, based on the quantity.”

In the private investigator’s video, a Doheny employee was seen unloading eight boxes from Engelman’s SUV and bringing them into the store. Based on additional videos received from the investigator, the May said the RCC estimates Engelman brought a total of approximately 1,200 pounds of animal products into the store over the weeks he was under surveillance.

Although Rechnitz’s initial reason to purchase Doheny was to maintain competing distributors for the city’s kosher-observant community, over the course of the week of negotiations he became a bit more optimistic about the business prospects for the company.

“I didn’t have time to send in a forensic accounting team,” he said, but Engelman told him that Doheny’s gross sales on the retail and distribution sides added up to approximately $8 million a year.

That said, Rechnitz said he hopes to remain a mostly silent investor in Doheny, and won’t aim to build its market share at the expense of other distributors.

Engelman won’t have any role in the business – Rechnitz said the agreement required the former owner to make a “complete” break, and included a non-compete clause – but the rest of the operation should remain mostly the same.

The RCC will once again certify Doheny’s retail and distribution operations, the name will remain the same and every current employee, Rechnitz said, has been offered his job.

The store, which is currently closed, could reopen as early as next Monday; Rechnitz said that the store, the utensils and dishes used there were being kashered — ritually cleansed — “just in case there was non-kosher meat being used.”

Rechnitz is currently Doheny’s sole owner; he said he is in negotiations with another investor who might buy into the business. The deal with Engelman included a non-disclosure agreement about the price, Rechnitz said, but he described the negotiations as “amicable” and described the final selling price as “sizable,” but not as big as it might have been prior to the scandal.

“It definitely came at a major discount due to the fact of what [Engelman] did, or what he tried to get away with,” Rechnitz said. “He definitely was not rewarded for his actions.”

Rechnitz has experience working with organizations at times of crisis. In his role as CEO of one of his companies, Brius Management Co., which manages multiple nursing homes across California, Rechnitz told a reporter in 2011 that his company looked mostly for “distressed facilities.”

In his philanthropic work, Rechnitz has also come to the aid of embattled organizations. Last year, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Rechnitz donated $1 million to an organization that supports Jewish day schools in the New York area. In 2011, Rechnitz donated $5 million to the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, which was struggling under millions in debt following the death of its chief rabbi and fundraiser. That same year, Rechnitz also helped save Chabad of California’s headquarters from foreclosure.

But Rechnitz is also known for charitable giving of a very different sort. Every Saturday night, Jews line up outside his family’s home. Until six months ago, those who came walked away with checks; now they leave with gift cards to one of two kosher markets in the area near Fairfax and La Brea.

Rechnitz announced his purchase of Doheny at his synagogue on Sunday evening, March 31, just hours after the deal closed. He said the reaction there was muted – “It was kind of almost expected,” Rechnitz said, adding that his goal in making the announcement was to change the conversations that observant Jews in Los Angeles were bound to have over the two days that followed, the last two days of Passover, during which work and the use of any electronics is prohibited.

“I wanted to stave off two days of people creating rumors and completely defaming the place,” Rechnitz said.

In that regard, Rechnitz appears to have succeeded already. Just hours after Passover ended on Tuesday, April 2, after sundown, at least one person had reported the news in a comment on Facebook.

Doheny Meats owner said to be involved in previous kosher controversy

Thirty years ago, in 1983, Rabbi Pinchas Gruman, an esteemed scholar of Jewish texts who also holds a doctorate in philosophy, was the chair of the Rabbinical Council of California’s (RCC) committee dedicated to enforcing Jewish dietary law at establishments under its supervision.

On November 3 of that year, acting on a tip, Gruman, who still lives in Los Angeles today, drove to Orange County to visit a kosher retailer, Los Alamitos Kosher Meats and Poultry, where he found kosher meat and poultry in the freezer placed alongside some non-kosher animal products.

In an interview this week, on March 31, Gruman alleged that the person who opened the freezer for him was Mike Engelman, who today is the owner of Doheny Glatt Kosher Meats in Los Angeles. Last week, the RCC withdrew its kosher certification from Doheny after being shown video footage of Engelman and his employees, on multiple occasions, bringing hundreds of pounds of unsupervised products into Doheny Meat’s Pico-Robertson retail and distribution outlet.

Unlike the current scandal, which was sparked by film shot by a private investigator and involves boxes whose contents may have been kosher, Gruman said the situation at Los Alamitos Kosher in the 1980s was rather straightforward.

“I’m telling you, he [Engelman] was caught with trayf [non-Kosher] packages, a goyishe [non-Jewish] company,” Gruman said. “I did not do any detective work as I did in other stores. This was, you walked in, he opened up the refrigerator, you opened up the freezer, you pulled it out. It was no difficult clandestine work on my part.”

Gruman, now 82, is not certain of the name of which brand of non-kosher products he saw that day, nor could he recall whether they were poultry or beef. And Gruman was also uncertain whether Engelman was a part-owner of the store or merely an employee.

An article that appeared on the front page of the Orange County Register on Nov. 11, 1983, does not mention Engelman, but describes another individual, Elya Kleinman, as “one of the market’s owners.”

But Gruman said he remembers Engelman, who declined to comment for this article on the advice of his attorney, as the only person he met during the inspection.

Others also said they remember seeing Engelman at the Los Alamitos store, as well.

Rabbi Gershon Schusterman, who served as director of the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, Calif., from 1971 until 1989, said he believes Engelman was a partner in the shop.

“I’d seen him in the store, so I know that he had a role,” Schusterman said in an interview on March 31. “

By the end of November 1983, the Los Alamitos store was sold to another owner. About two years later, Engelman purchased Doheny Meats on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles.

Rabbi Meyer H. May, the RCC’s current president, a post he has held for more than 13 years, said that neither he nor Rabbi Avrohom Union, who has been the RCC’s rabbinic administrator since 1990, knew about the Los Alamitos incident prior to being informed about it by a reporter. May said he is surprised that the RCC, after finding non-kosher products at the Los Alamitos store, allowed a person involved in the running or ownership of that store to take on another RCC-certified kosher establishment.

“It’s hard to imagine that anyone would get two strikes,” May said. 

On March 24, the RCC issued a statement to the community saying that all meat bought from Doheny before the store’s certification was revoked at 3 p.m. that day could be considered kosher. In reaching that decision, May and more than half a dozen other local Orthodox rabbis on the board relied on a concept in Jewish law that allows a mostly kosher set of objects to be considered entirely kosher.

(The timing of the revelation – the eve of Passover – and the fact that the boxes seen in the video being brought through Doheny’s doors had originally come from a strictly kosher slaughterhouse, may have helped shaped that decision. According to attendees present at the meeting on March 24, when the decision was made, Engelman personally spoke to the rabbis, and asserted that all the meat he brought into his shop was kosher, albeit not to the RCC’s higher “glatt kosher” standard.)

But back in the 1980s, after Gruman found non-kosher animal products in the Los Alamitos freezer, community leaders instructed Jews to cleanse their kitchens and cooking utensils.

“We had a kosher-in,” Schusterman recalled. “We had a large vat and we went through a koshering process for many of these people. It was a very unpleasant event.”

Schusterman remembers his reaction, three or four years after the incident at Los Alamitos, to hearing news of Engelman’s purchasing Doheny.

“When I found out that Moishe Engelman has a role, in some manner, in kosher meat, it astounded me, because the type of violation is not just a financial violation,” Schusterman said. “It is a religious violation.

“That that person can be rehabilitated,” he continued, “I don’t believe, in halacha [Jewish law], that there is a rehabilitation for him.”

Gruman himself, as chair of the committee on kosher law, was involved in authorizing the RCC to continue certifying Doheny when Engelman purchased the shop 28 years ago. The RCC’s policy at the time, Gruman said, was to allow an individual whose business had had its certification removed to get back into the good graces of the council by handing over total control to an on-site kosher supervisor.

That supervisor, known as a mashgiach tmidi, is charged with overseeing all operations at the store and is given the only key to the door, so that he is the first to arrive and the last to leave.

“It was under the total supervision of RCC, with the mashgiach, with a key and all that,” Gruman recalled. “The idea was generally to promulgate responsible kashrut in the community, and he [Engelman] fit the picture.”

Gruman also said that the fact that Engelman had not been the sole owner of the Los Alamitos market – and may not have had any ownership stake at all – could have impacted the RCC’s decision to certify Doheny under Engelman’s ownership as kosher.

May said he understood why the RCC decided in 1985 to act as the certifiers of Doheny, when Engelman bought the store. He also said that leading rabbis involved in the kosher industry place great faith in the system of constant supervision.

“When I spoke to [Rabbi] Menachem Genack [about Doheny],” May said, referring to the CEO of the Orthodox Union’s respected kosher operation, “he said, ‘You had a mashgiach tmidi, what else could you do?’”

Nevertheless, May said that even though he believes the primary blame should fall on Engelman, he believes the RCC is responsible for a “monumental failure” in their supervision. Engelman appears to have been given a second chance decades ago, but May said there will surely not be a third, no matter what “bells and whistles” might be put in place.

“I can’t trust him, and I wouldn’t trust him,” May said. “It’s done. And now that I know about Los Alamitos, it’s nauseating.”

Statement from the Rabbinical Council of California on Doheny Meats

On Sunday March 24th, the RCC received video footage alleging kashrus violations at Doheny Kosher Meats, a store under its supervision. Within hours of receiving the information including time stamped surveillance videos, leading members of the Vaad Hakashrus met and, assessing the evidence of policy violations as compelling, ordered the immediate removal of our certification. Later that afternoon, a large group of community Rabbis and lay leaders met to review the known facts and to question the owner of Doheny. After initially denying any wrongdoing, he admitted to bringing unauthorized products to the store on two to three occasions.

After discussion, the meeting’s participants unanimously confirmed the decision to remove the RCC certification from Doheny Kosher Meats. In implementing that decision and determining to immediately publicize the RCC’s decision before Pesach, the Rabbinical authorities for the RCC consulted with Rav Yisroel Belsky, Rosh Yeshiva of Torah V’Daas and Posek for the OU Kashrut Division, and a nationally recognized kashrus authority. At 8pm Pacific time, Rabbi Belsky issued his ruling, based on the application of normative Halachic principles, permitting the use of products purchased from the store prior to the suspension of the certification. This ruling was immediately disseminated to the public.

In recent days, many allegations have surfaced which are factually incorrect. Over past years, the RCC received complaints from competitors of Doheny accusing Doheny of kashrus violations. The RCC investigated each and every one of these complaints at the time they were made but found no evidence of wrongdoing. To the contrary, each investigation showed Doheny in full compliance. In addition to asking these competitors to provide evidence of violations, the RCC took a number of steps to augment the security systems in place, in addition to the Mashgiach Temidi (full-time kosher supervisor) at Doheny.

Among them:

  • The RCC implemented a system whereby all boxes of meat and poultry from Doheny were numbered and logged by the on-site Mashgiach.
  • We also painstakingly reviewed invoices of product received and sold.
  • Only the Mashgiach had keys to the establishment, which were Mul-T-Lock industrial keys that cannot be duplicated.

There are allegations that Doheny possessed fraudulent Agri labels which the RCC is currently investigating. The serious lapse we did discover in the RCC supervisory system was the human error of an otherwise dedicated Mashgiach who absented himself for prayers, contrary toexplicit protocols. The Mashgiach has been suspended and the RCC is exploring ways to ensure this mistake does not repeat itself including better protocols to monitor Mashgiach compliance.

The RCC deeply regrets this circumvention of its kashrus standards. Unfortunately, even the most sophisticated systems can be breeched. The RCC’s dedicated Kashrus staff and full Rabbinic membership share the public’s outrage and sense of betrayal that a vendor schemed to subvert our policies and abused the community’s trust. Legal action is now being considered.

The RCC, a non-profit community kashrus organization, will continue to work diligently to provide our community with quality kashrus.

EXCLUSIVE: Surveillance video of Doheny Meat scandal

More video to follow.