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.”