July 25, 2012
Rubashkin Revenge: Ethical Certificates at Center of Dispute
About eight months ago, when Katsuji Tanabe agreed to display the Tav HaYosher certificate in the window of his one-year-old restaurant on Pico Boulevard, the head chef and owner of Mexikosher knew that the “ethical seal,” issued by the Modern Orthodox social justice organization Uri L’Tzedek, would inform customers that he treats his workers with respect and in accordance with California labor laws.
Tanabe didn’t know that in displaying the certificate he was also, in effect, choosing a side in a mostly covert battle between two segments of the Orthodox Jewish community.
On one side is Uri L’Tzedek, a four-year old nonprofit promoting social justice causes that has been supported by a handful of prominent Jewish foundations, including the Joshua Venture Group, Bikkurim, and the Jewish Federations of North America. On the other are an unknown number of individuals who are acting independently and largely anonymously.
At Mexikosher, the certificate hung in the window for between four and six weeks; during that time, Tanabe said he received phone calls from individuals identifying themselves as being from “different Chabads,” and threatening to boycott his restaurant if he didn’t take the certificate down.
Tanabe, who said he hadn’t changed any of his policies to earn the Tav, decided to remove it.
“I don’t talk about politics or religion in the restaurant,” said Tanabe, 31, who describes himself as “Mexican-Japanese-Catholic.” “We only talk about food.”
Although the pushback against the Tav appears to be coming primarily, if not exclusively, from individuals affiliated with the Chabad Lubavitch movement, there is no evidence that any official encouragement came from Chabad, according to the organization’s leaders and those involved in the anti-Tav efforts.
The headquarters of Chabad of California is located on Pico Boulevard, within blocks of a dozen Kosher-certified restaurants, including at least one that displays the Tav. In a recent interview, the group’s CEO, Rabbi Chaim Cunin, said he hadn’t heard of the Tav or Uri L’Tzedek until very recently, and that he knew of no coordinated effort to oppose the program.
“If there’s any such conspiracy it’s deep underground,” Cunin said.
The battle between Uri L’Tzedek and the mostly nameless Orthodox Jews threatening to boycott the 100 restaurants nationwide that participate in its signature program may be taking place in the shadows, but it illuminates a rift within American Orthodoxy stemming from the 2008 raid on the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa.
Uri L’Tzedek established the Tav Hayosher in 2009 as a free certification. To qualify, employers must demonstrate that they calculate worker’s hours accurately, pay wages—including overtime – promptly and in full and grant breaks to their employees, as required by law. Studies have shown that many food-service businesses – both kosher and non—fall short of these basic legal requirements.
Over the last few months, multiple owners of kosher-certified businesses who display the Tav have been urged to take it down.
“People are threatening the 100 Tav owners around the country, saying they are going to hurt their business and boycott them,” Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, wrote in an email to The Journal on July 9.
The hardest-hit are in Los Angeles, Yanklowitz said, where Tav-certified businesses have received more complaints than in any other city. Yanklowitz said three local restaurants chose to drop the certification in the face of this controversy. As of July 20, nine Los Angeles-based businesses were listed among the certified restaurants on the Tav’s website.
The issue appears not to be the Tav certification, per se, but rather that in 2008, Uri L’Tzedek was the instigator of a boycott of products from the Agriprocessors meat processing plant in Postville, Iowa, in the wake of the massive immigration raid that closed down the plant.
Aron Markowitz, 31, a self-described “Chabadnik” who has a book of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s teachings on his desk in his Wilshire Boulevard office, is among those who’ve objected to the certificates. He said in an interview that he first heard about the Tav less than a month ago, and, initially, the principle behind the Tav certification sounded to him like a good idea.
But he felt that Yanklowitz’s leadership of Uri L’Tzedek’s boycott of Agriprocessors – which had been owned by the Rubashkin family, prominent members of the Lubavitch community –made Yanklowitz himself unfit to lead an organization dedicated to promoting ethical business practices.
“Based upon what he did, I don’t think he is ethical,” Markowitz said.
Before calling for that boycott, Markowitz said, Uri L’Tzedek’s leaders should first have visited the company’s plant in Postville and consulted with a beis din, a court of religious Jewish law.
“They’re [the beis din] going to make a decision, and then they tell the world,” Markowitz said. “It is unethical, immoral to pass judgment on somebody after only hearing one side.”
On June 25, in a post on a blog Yanklowitz maintains on the New York Jewish Week’s website, he defended Uri L’Tzedek’s decision to call for a boycott of Agriprocessors’ products. Around 2,000 rabbis and Jewish leaders joined Uri L’Tzedek’s call, Yanklowitz wrote. He described the boycott as “a short-lived episode of responsible, halakhically-motivated consumer activism, supported by the broader Jewish community.”
(Yanklowitz also maintains a blog at JewishJournal.com.)
The May 2008 immigration raid on the Agriprocessors plant resulted in the arrests of 389 illegal immigrants, including 31 children. According Sue Fishkoff’s 2010 book “Kosher Nation,” “Eighteen of those arrested were between the ages of 13 and 17.”
That Yanklowitz’s blog post also cited the presence of underage workers at Agriprocessors – four years after the raid, two years after a jury in an Iowa state court found Rubashkin not guilty of all 67 counts of child labor violations by – rankles Markowitz.
“He was acquitted,” Markowitz said. “Why are you bringing it up?”
In early July, when Markowitz saw the Tav hanging at Cafe of Paris, a small kosher-certified eatery on Wilshire, he asked one of the owners, Tamy Amsellem, what she knew about Uri L’Tzedek, and then offered her some of his own impressions of the organization.
Markowitz said he made no threats against the Amsellems.
“Who sounds like a bully? I asked people a question; they took down a sign. He—” Markowitz said, referring to Yanklowitz’s assembling a coalition of Jewish leaders to join his call to boycott Rubashkin “—shut down a company, petitioned to shut it down.”
Amsellem and her husband, Yuri, opened their cafe less than two years ago, and they received the Tav about six months ago. Since then, the Amsellems said they had received three or four phone calls from people applauding their decision to accept the Tav and a similar number urging them to drop it.
As of July 20, Cafe of Paris was still listed among the nine Tav-certified businesses in Los Angeles on the program’s Web site, but Yuri Amsellem told The Journal he had taken down the certificate more than two weeks earlier, in part because of the conversation with Markowitz, and in part because of an email he received on July 2, explicitly threatening a boycott of his business.
“Until you remove Tav HaYosher, you will find an increasing number of people boycotting your business,” the email, sent by a person identified as Menachem Cohen, concluded.
Yuri Amsellem shared Cohen’s email with The Journal. According to Yanklowitz, a similar email had been sent to all 100 businesses displaying the Tav. In it, Cohen cited Yanklowitz’s “mercilessly join[ing] all of Rubashkin’s enemies in levying false claims against him” as the primary reason for the threatened boycott of Tav-certified businesses.
The email held Yanklowitz partially responsible for Agriprocessors’ subsequent bankruptcy and for Sholom Rubashkin being sentenced to 27 years in prison for financial fraud.
That sentence, which came after a jury in a U.S. District court convicted Rubashkin on 86 charges of financial fraud in November 2009, is a major source of angst, even anger, among Rubashkin supporters.
Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, a Chabad rabbi in Orange County, knows Sholom Rubashkin personally. He said the younger Rubashkin was ill suited to act as CEO of the meatpacking powerhouse that Agriprocessors had become.
“He didn’t have the experience or knowledge to run a multi-million dollar corporation,” Eliezrie said. “But he was, in his very heart, a very good, kind, and charitable person.”
And in court, Eliezrie added, Sholom Rubashkin did not deserve what he got.
“He was unjustly victimized,” Eliezrie said. “He made mistakes, but he was, without question, the target and the victim of the unions.”
Even as many Orthodox Jews—and Lubavitchers in particular – continue to be angry over the entire Agriprocessors affair, many more non-Orthodox Jews and countless non-Jews – see the former meat processing company as a symbol of corporate malfeasance, ranging from animal cruelty to unlawful treatment of vulnerable workers.
Conservative Rabbi Morris Allen also was inspired to create an ethical certification for kosher food, dubbed the Magen Tzedek. He too did so, in part, because of what he read about and saw in Postville, and Allen has also come in for intense criticism.
Avi Shafran, the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America, a Charedi organization, wrote an article earlier this year in which he argued that the Magen Tzedek was “conceived in sin – the sin of not only accepting slander but, by dint of the enterprise’s self-definition as a high-minded corrective to the Agriprocessors ‘scandal,’ promoting slander as well.”
Shafran’s article also called into question much of the accepted history of the Agriprocessors saga, in ways that are occasionally misleading. He left out, for instance, any mention of citations and fines issued against Agriprocessors before the raid. About the 72 immigration charges against Rubashkin, Shafran wrote they were “unceremoniously dropped” in 2009, omitting the reason given by Federal prosecutors at the time, who explained the decision as a way of avoiding “an extended and expensive trial.”
Thrust into the middle of this debate over the legacy of Postville are the kosher-certified businesses that have chosen to accept the ethical certificates.
On a weekday morning in early July, a laminated eight-and-a-half-by-11-inch Tav HaYosher certificate could still be seen hanging in the window at Bibi’s Bakery on Pico, just beside the door, opposite a much larger, full-color poster advertising free toppings on pizzas every Tuesday.
Owner Dan Messinger said he’d had one local Chabad group cancel a medium-sized order on account of the certification, but that he hadn’t been threatened, per se.
“The Tav isn’t a condemnation of Sholom Rubashkin,” Messinger said. “If people don’t want to shop here, they don’t have to shop here. I’m still comfortable with the commitment I’m making to my employees.”
For its part, Uri L’Tzedek is planning to push back nationally against the opposition. Rabbi Ari Weiss, the organization’s executive director, sent an email blast on July 4 urging supporters to “stand up for restaurant owners” enrolled in the Tav program by visiting a Tav-certified business or donating to an upcoming media campaign.
Meanwhile, the Tav’s opponents believe there’s momentum in their direction. In an email sent to The Journal on July 13, Menachem Cohen – who described himself as an Orthodox 26-year-old law student, and would not say what city he lives in or confirm whether he was emailing under his real name—said his “grassroots” boycott campaign was getting “mixed” responses from Tav holders.
Some businesses replied they had never been certified, some said they had taken down the Tav and, “most have told [sic] that they are deliberating if they should remove it,” Cohen wrote.
When Erica Tucker received an email that threatened a boycott of her bakery, Sweet E’s Bakeshop, located on Robertson Boulevard just south of Pico, she contacted Uri L’Tzedek.
The organization, Tucker said, pledged to support her against any such threats – but she said she was still watching for any negative impact the Tav might have on her sales.
“If I see that it is, then I’ll unfortunately have to take it down,” Tucker said.
In Los Angeles, the voices from Uri L’Tzedek’s opponents appear to be having an impact. Citing Uri L’Tzedek’s confidentiality agreement with Tav-certified businesses, Yanklowitz declined to say which three restaurants had removed the Tav in the face of the controversy.
The Journal found four kosher-certified businesses in Los Angeles that recently dropped the certification, among them Mexikosher.
Another is Schnitzly, a two-year-old restaurant on Pico Boulevard, where a portrait of the Lubavitcher Rebbe hangs near the soda cooler. The Tav certificate hung in the window for “a few days,” according to Menachem “Meni” Eliyahu, one of the restaurant’s owners. When his partner Yakov Brenenson, who is affiliated with Chabad, saw the Tav, he immediately called Uri L’Tzedek and dropped out of the program, Eliyahu said.
Nut House, a 15-year-old specialty food retailer on Pico, had displayed the Tav in his window facing the street for about six months, owner Amir Mehrian said. Mehrian said he removed the sign in mid-July after one large family – a man, his wife, and “seven, eight kids” – came into the store, but left when they saw the Tav.
Mehrian attributes the decline in sales of soft-serve ice cream this summer to the presence of the Tav. “All my customers, they run away because of this sign,” he said.
Tamy Amsellem said Cafe of Paris also no longer displays its Tav certificate.
“I just decided to not get involved with anybody, and keep it simple,” she said.