Kosher consumers reeling after Doheny scandal

Trust lies at the center of the business of kosher food, and earlier this week, in what is certainly the biggest kosher scandal to hit Los Angeles in 20 years, the trust many kosher consumers placed in Doheny Glatt Kosher Meats, a market on Pico Boulevard in the heart of L.A.’s most prominent Orthodox neighborhood, was shattered.
March 28, 2013

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

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

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

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

[EXCLUSIVE: Surveillance video of Doheny Meat scandal]

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

That decision has not been taken lightly.

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

Together they watched the video.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[See story on RCC's prior warning]

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

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

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

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

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