By: L. Mizrahi

A pained voice at the other end of the phone line asked to meet in private. The head of the respected oversight organization agreed and arranged a time and place. At the rendezvous, the caller produced the shocking evidence – documentation that proved the existence of a scandalous conspiracy affecting the Jewish community.

It started innocently enough. Senior citizens milling about greeting each other in the large room of a well known facility in the heart of the Syrian/Sephardic community. Then a succulent meal was served with all the Middle Eastern delights they enjoy so much: tasty salads, delicious kibbe (fried bulgur pockets stuffed with meat) and lahmagine (thin crusts topped with chopped meat), superb yebra (grape leaves with meat stuffing)  prepared especially for elderly women and men who appreciate authentic Middle Eastern cooking. Some chat with each other, argue about politics and current events, bemoan the economy. Others share photos of the latest grandchild and wistful memories. Slowly the event winds down as people say goodbye, leaving with a warm feeling after a lovely afternoon of friendship and entertainment. Another gathering at one of the centers that serve the older members of the Sephardic community appears to be a smashing success. But was it?

Unfortunately for those who participated, the event held a dark and disturbing secret. A secret which was soon revealed to Rabbi Moshe Y. Weiner, the Rabbinic Administrator of the KIC (Kashrut Information Center). Shortly after this get-together, Rabbi Weiner relates that he received the ominous phone call described above from a mashgiah of his acquaintance. When the two met, the mashgiah put his hand in his pocket and handed the rabbi a few slips of paper.

“This is what I took from the place,” he said quietly, referring to the unnamed senior center mentioned earlier. Rabbi Weiner was dismayed to find in his hand the packing slip from a local Keyfood supermarket delivery of meat to the facility, and a label for several pounds of chopped meat at $1.49 a pound, both of which had been found in the kitchen of the institution.

Anyone who shops in the New York area knows that the cheapest kosher chopped meat sells for around $4.50 a pound. As the primary ingredient in kibbe, lahmagine and yebra, the idea of buying chopped meat for a third of the price would undoubtedly have been a great temptation from a financial perspective. The implication was as obvious as it was troubling: a senior citizens center servicing our community that claims to be completely kosher had likely fed the unsuspecting elderly guests taref (non-kosher food).

Who’s in Charge?

The mashgiah who found the incriminating packing slips was not hired by the senior citizens center in question. The center, like the majority of such institutions that service the Jewish Flatbush community, has no mashgiah, and is “self-supervised.” By chance, this mashgiah happened to in the center’s kitchen. While looking around, he happened upon evidence that non-kosher meat had been brought into the supposedly kosher facility. However, lacking any official position or the clout, his instinctive recourse was to turn to the KIC.

What is the KIC?

Consisting of close to 100 member rabbis from all factions of our community, the Kashrut Information Center is headed by Honorary Chairman Rabbi Eliezer Ginzburg, the Rosh Kollel of the Mirrer Yeshiva and Rabbi of the Agudat Yisrael shul on Coney Island Avenue, and co-chaired by Rabbi Shlomo Mandel, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva of Brooklyn, and Rabbi Aharon Gulkowitz of Congregation Ahavat Shalom of Flatbush. The executive board consists of various Rosh Yeshivas and Hassidic Rebbes, with the Sephardic community represented by Rabbi David Ozeri and Rabbi Moshe Harari-Raful.

The center aims to service the New York community of all stripes and colors, from Ashkenaz to Sepharadic to Hassidim, in the area of kashrut. One of the most crucial jobs they perform is overseeing the conglomeration of hashgahot in New York to ensure that the establishments under supervision are following the guidelines set by the hashgahot. They achieve this by running periodic spot-checks that monitor over 150 shomer Shabbat institutions in the New York area.

“They thank us for it,” Rabbi Weiner says. “In fact, some hashgahot want us to come even more often to their places.” The KIC makes a point of maintaining warm relations with all parties involved, from those running the hashgahot to the business owners and mashgihim down to the gentile workers, who hail the KIC representative warmly as “the chief rabbi” when he shows up. (The July 2006 issue of Community featured the KIC and detailed at length the important work they do under the title, “Who Supervises the Supervisors?”)

When it comes to institutions that are self-regulated, however, the KIC have their hands tied. Technically, these places do not fall under their purview, or under anyone else’s, for that matter. To understand why, it is necessary to examine New York State law and its impact on kashrut today.

Kosher in the Courts

Being that kashrut organizations have only limited authority, only with government backing can kosher consumers be assured that claims as to the kosher status of an establishment are reliable. For over a century, only Orthodox kosher standards were recognized by New York State. But when the law was struck down by the courts after being challenged in 2000 by two Commack, L.I., butchers who claimed kosher status under Conservative certification, a new law was needed in New York. With the introduction of the Kosher Law Protection Act of 2004, New York State established that “consumers of food represented as kosher in New York be provided with information identifying the person or organization certifying that food as kosher.”

This basically meant that that a food establishment may choose Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or self-certification so long the certifier and type of certification are clearly identified.

“There was a time,” Rabbi Weiner says, “when the law had teeth.” But the New York courts, he explained, blunted legal authority when they permitted kashrut supervision to be undertaken by whoever claimed to be in charge. This means, an institution that prefers not to hire a supervising agency can simply vouch for its own kashrut, despite the lack of any serious rabbinic supervision. Law enforcement will only step in when a blatant violation of kashrut is actually found by a state inspector, which happens rarely, if at all, when there is no mashgiah to keep a close eye on what is going on.

The changed law opened the door for innocent mistakes and not-so-innocent incidents to take place without the knowledge of those who, unfortunately, wind up eating food that is, to say it plainly, taref.

Clams in a “Kosher” Kitchen?

When Rabbi Weiner was given the evidence of taref meat, he immediately placed a call to the New York State Kosher Enforcement Law Division. Following an early morning meeting at the KIC office during which evidence was turned over to inspectors, law enforcement officials were inspecting the facility within eighteen hours of the initial report – an impressive response time for a government agency and a testament to the high esteem in which the KIC is held. However, in the world of kashrut supervision where violations can be covered up in minutes, and even seconds, the inspection came too late. Inspectors reported finding nothing noteworthy that hinted at non-kosher food being brought into the kitchen in question.

Even more frustrating is the mashgiah’s eyewitness account that kashrut violations are commonplace at the establishment. According to his testimony the gentile cook of this senior citizens center was often found to have cooked clams and other non-kosher shellfish in the very same pots used to prepare the traditional Middle Eastern dishes the seniors enjoy.

For the kosher consumer, the situation is both disturbing and tragic. There is simply no way to ensure the most minimal levels of kashrut at those institutions which claim to observe kosher laws, but fail to secure independent supervision. With a powerful economic temptation to cut corners, the once or twice yearly kosher inspections by New York State agents are not nearly enough to keep such institutions in check.

Could it be that similar breaches have taken place in other facilities that serve our community? “One hundred percent,” Rabbi Moshe Weiner emphatically affirmed based on previous investigations. Indeed, once the complex halachot of maintaining a basic kosher kitchen are taken into account, it is easy to imagine things going awry in the absence of proper supervision. Mix-ups between meat and milk utensils happen even when there is strict supervision, not to mention issues of bishul akum (the prohibition against eating food cooked by gentile) and the unique care that must be taken to inspect greens for bugs when salads are prepared. Even uglier is the real possibility that unkosherfood will deliberately be used in place of the more expensive kosher variety, as indeed happened in the case above.

A Kosher Solution

The predicament represents a serious concern for the community at large and particularly for those who, either themselves participate or have relatives who attend, catered events at community centers. In an ideal world, all of the various institutions that claim to serve kosher food in our community would place themselves under a competent hashgaha with a mashgiah temidi (a supervisor that is present daily). Practically speaking, however, in light of the financial cost involved and the current economic climate, it would be naive to expect all such facilities to commit to such an initiative. Sadly, kosher supervision is often the first thing to be cut from the budget when it comes time to try to balance the books.

But that doesn’t mean that these institutions should go completely unsupervised. A practical idea suggested by Rabbi Weiner, is to install a roving mashgiah. While the price tag for a dedicated supervisor may be too much for a single institution, it should be within reach if a number of facilities banded together and split the expense. Under the proposal, community centers that are not under independent hashgacha would share the burden of payment, and the mashgiah would visit each of them on a regular basis.

While Rabbi Weiner continues to work behind the scenes to ensure that the implicated senior center improved its kosher standards, he admits that the problems uncovered are likely only the tip of the iceberg. “We found out about this serious violation by chance,” Rabbi Weiner concedes, “who knows what’s going on at other locations which are claiming ‘self certification.’” 

“Real action to protect our seniors will only come about if the people demand it,” contends Sam Levy whose elderly uncle often enjoys meals at senior centers in the community. In Jewish tradition, the importance of maintaining kashrut goes beyond the biblical prohibition. The rabbis teach that  unkosher food has the immediate spiritual effect of causing timtum ha-lev, blocking the heart from receiving messages of the Torah. This is why many rabbis recommend kashrut as the “first missva” for those who are beginning Torah observance.

“If you or a family member or friend have anything to do with a community center that does not have a recognized kosher supervision, call them to request that they establish an acceptable standard of kashrut that provides accountability and transparency,” urges Levy. “And don’t just call one time. Keep calling until you see results.”

Rabbi Weiner recommends that interested and affected parties should get rabbis and community leaders involved to help bring about a solution that can be wide-ranging enough to help all – or at least most – of the community centers, maintain minimum levels of kashrut. But until such an initiative gets underway, Rabbi Weiner cautions that any food served at establishments which don’t have independent kosher supervision, shouldn’t be trusted to be any more kosher than the $1.49 a pound chopped meat sold at Keyfood.