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April 10, 2013

RCC still faces questions after sale of Doheny shop

http://www.jewishjournal.com/community/article/rcc_still_faces_questions_after_sale_of_doheny_shop

Aaron Nourollah, a part-owner of the RCC-certified Glatt Mart on Pico Boulevard, displays the contents of a sealed bag of chicken parts received from Doheny Glatt Kosher Meat Market before news of the scandal broke. Nourollah, who oversees all meat purchases for Glatt Mart and Cambridge Farms in the San Fernando Valley, said sealed boxes like this one, which were not processed by Doheny, presented no concern for him or kosher certification authorities. Photo by Jonah Lowenfeld

Aaron Nourollah, a part-owner of the RCC-certified Glatt Mart on Pico Boulevard, displays the contents of a sealed bag of chicken parts received from Doheny Glatt Kosher Meat Market before news of the scandal broke. Nourollah, who oversees all meat purchases for Glatt Mart and Cambridge Farms in the San Fernando Valley, said sealed boxes like this one, which were not processed by Doheny, presented no concern for him or kosher certification authorities. Photo by Jonah Lowenfeld

Ever since March 24, when the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC) revoked Doheny Glatt Kosher Meat Market’s kosher certification, the nonprofit consortium of Orthodox rabbis has been trying to explain to kosher observant Jews in Los Angeles what went wrong, why they responded the way they did and what they’ll do differently in the future. 

RCC leaders acted after seeing video footage of the shop’s then-owner bringing unsupervised boxes of meat or poultry into his store at a time when the RCC’s kosher supervisor, or mashgiach, was absent.  

They released statements outlining the sequence of events and gave extensive interviews to press outlets. They marshaled support from rabbis across the city and country.  

RCC President Meyer May was also among those who helped bring about the sale of Doheny to Shlomo Rechnitz, an Orthodox businessman and philanthropist, on March 31, which may yet offer the embattled shop a new chapter. And, in an interview with the Jewish Journal on April 8, May said that the organization and its chief local competitor, Kehilla Kosher, would each undergo complete reviews by two separate outside kosher certification agencies to assess their operations. 

Despite these efforts, the RCC faces challenges on a variety of fronts. 

According to May, the council has been named as a defendant in at least one lawsuit. Two local rabbis have made public statements questioning the reliability of the RCC’s kosher certification arm. And two merchants currently certified by the nonprofit consortium of nearly 100 Orthodox rabbis told the Journal that they are considering pursuing other options for their kosher certification.

“I don’t know if we still have confidence in the RCC,” one business owner, speaking on condition of anonymity, said in an interview on April 8. “It’s very tough, very unnerving.” 

The other business owner, who also requested anonymity, said if he found the RCC’s imprimatur was harming his business, he would move to another certifier. 

“It’s too soon to tell,” he said in an interview on April 5. 

RCC Director of Kashrut Services Rabbi Yakov Vann, who said he was frustrated at what he called the “disinformation” that he was hearing from “the street,” nevertheless said he understands the business pressure on the merchants his organization certifies. 

“I can respect and understand that a merchant that is suffering has to look at his options,” Vann said, “and I don’t think that it’s fair for anyone to expect otherwise.”

Additional facts about the Doheny case are still coming to light. After reviewing the business’ records, the RCC’s leaders now say that only a very small amount of the meat handled by Doheny passed through its doors unsupervised — at most, 10 percent of the stock. Even that meat, the RCC has said, is believed to have been kosher meat, albeit not “glatt kosher” meat, the higher standard that the RCC insists upon.

Before it became embroiled in the current scandal, Doheny Meats supplied “a very significant” amount of the glatt kosher meat and poultry consumed in Los Angeles, according to the RCC’s May. Most of it was distributed wholesale to RCC-certified markets, restaurants and caterers around the city who were encouraged by the agency to support Doheny. 

This sign was posted by Rabbi Ezra Douek, spiritual leader of the Sephardic Orthodox Beit Midrash Od Yosef Hai, at his synagogue on La Brea Ave. on March 27. He refused to take it down, despite a request from the RCC.

In the wake of the scandal, some rabbis have been advising their congregants to be more careful about where they purchase meat. 

Rabbi Shimon Raichik, the director of Chabad-affiliated Congregation Levi Yitzchok on La Brea Avenue, wrote to his congregants on April 4 saying they should only buy meat from establishments where they know the owner is observant, “and either he or the mashgiach is present most of the time.”

“If the restaurant owner is either not a Yid [Jewish], or isn’t a Shomer Torah uMitzvos [observes the Torah and the commandments], even the best Hashgachah [certification] is not sufficient!” Raichik wrote in the e-mail. (He declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Doheny’s former owner, Mike Engelman, is Jewish but not Orthodox. 

Rabbi Ezra Douek, the Sephardic Orthodox spiritual leader of Beit Midrash Od Yosef Hai, also located on La Brea, posted a sign at his synagogue on March 27 telling his followers that “until further notice, certification of meat products by [RCC logo] can not be relied on.” 

Photographs of the sign circulated widely via text and e-mail; the day after he posted it, Douek said, he received a call from the head of the RCC’s kosher certification arm, Rabbi Nissim Davidi, asking him to take it down. Douek declined. 

On March 31, the RCC sent Douek a letter with a list of 12 RCC-certified markets that the agency said had no “processed items” from Doheny meat in their inventory (emphasis in the original). Douek posted that unsigned letter alongside his original sign.

“I’m very upset about what happened and I hope that they’ll do good in the future,” Douek said on April 8. “In the meantime, we do have Kehilla, which I’m sort of, in the meantime, telling people that, thank God, that there is an alternative.” 

Douek is on Kehilla’s rabbinic advisory board; he and three other Kehilla board members joined two rabbis involved in the RCC leadership in signing an April 8 statement declaring there was no need to kasher (ritually cleanse) utensils that may  have come in contact with Doheny meat. 

But although an early version of the April 8 statement said that “the RCC and Kehilas [sic] Kosher” had agreed that utensils did not have to be kashered, Rabbi Avrohom Teichman, Kehilla’s rabbinic administrator, released his own statement later that day saying that his organization had not taken a position on the matter.

Multiple messages left for Teichman were not returned.

In the aftermath of the scandal, many kosher-certified business won’t admit to having sourced meat or poultry from Doheny in the recent past. Even before the recent allegations against Doheny Meats and its owner, establishments certified by Kehilla Kosher were, as a matter of policy, prohibited from purchasing meat from Doheny. Of four RCC-certified merchants interviewed by the Journal, two said they hadn’t sourced meat from Doheny for months. The other two, which had taken shipments of Doheny meat until just before news of the scandal broke, declined to be interviewed on the record. 

Aaron Nourollah, one of five part-owners of two local RCC-certified markets, Glatt Mart on Pico and Cambridge Farms in the San Fernando Valley, however, not only admitted to having poultry that came from Doheny, but agreed to show one such box of chicken leg quarters to a reporter. 

Standing in a refrigerator at Glatt Mart stuffed with meat, Nourollah, who worked for eight years as a mashgiach himself, opened up a sealed box from Agri Star, a large kosher processor. The box, which was sealed with white tape emblazoned with the logo of one kosher certification agency, also had a blue label affixed to the outside bearing both that logo and the symbol of the Orthodox Union. Inside the box, a thick plastic bag filled with chicken parts was sealed with a blue label that looked identical to the one on the outside. 

“We are big enough that we are not buying open boxes,” Nourollah said, explaining why he had no concerns about the product  he got from Doheny’s distribution channel. 

Lately, Nourollah has had to explain all of this to many of his customers. 

“Now, everybody’s become their own researcher, the rabbi,” Nourollah said.

“They want to trust the store owner,” he added, “not just the supervision.”

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