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Kosher oversight welcomed

by Jonah Lowenfeld

June 6, 2013 | 1:26 pm

The Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), a local nonprofit consortium of Orthodox rabbis, has brought in two national kosher organizations to review the restaurants in Los Angeles under its supervision.

The out-of-town rabbis visited three local RCC-certified restaurants last month, and on May 24, Rabbi Yaakov Luban, executive rabbinic coordinator of the Orthodox Union (OU), endorsed the RCC’s supervision. 

“These facilities are supervised in accordance with the standards of mainstream kashrus organizations,” Luban wrote after visiting Abba’s on La Brea, Pita Way and Meshuga 4 Sushi, all of which are certified by the RCC, “and I am comfortable endorsing the supervision which is currently in place.” 

The RCC’s reputation was damaged by a scandal revealed in March at Doheny Glatt Kosher Meat Market, and as a result two of the RCC’s client businesses last month moved to a competing kosher agency, Kehilla Kosher. By bringing in independent local and out-of-town rabbis to assess their work, the RCC hopes to reassure consumers that it is doing its job. The increased rabbinic attention clearly pleased the owners of the restaurants mentioned in Luban’s letter. 

At Abba’s on La Brea, a copy of Luban’s letter, written on OU letterhead, was posted on the glass front door. Kelly Benarroch, who owns the restaurant and catering hall with her husband, Shimon, said that various rabbis have been visiting Abba’s frequently since early May.

“It’s a lot of checking, coming in without notice and checking all the items — everything we do, the fact that we are frum [observant] people and that we are constantly here,” Benarroch said. 

“I think that today the RCC is a good kashrut, because all the rabbis are taking responsibility and they [the RCC] want to change,” said David Sharabi, the owner of Pita Way, a 30-seat falafel and shawarma joint on Melrose Avenue. 

In March, the owner of Doheny Meats, the largest RCC-certified meat distributor, was videotaped transporting unidentified products into his store when his on-site supervisor was absent. Since then, the RCC has enlisted at least a half-dozen local and out-of-town rabbis to oversee its operations. Representatives from the OU and the Chicago-based Association of Kashrus Organizations (AKO) have been part of the ongoing effort. 

Rabbi Moshe Elefant, OU chief operating officer for kashrut, said that since his New York-based agency got involved in April, he has visited Los Angeles once and Luban has visited twice. The OU is the largest kosher certifying agency in the country, but its policy is to leave supervision of local kosher businesses in the hands of local boards of rabbis. In this case, Elefant said, the OU’s intent is to support the RCC, not to supplant it. 

“To a degree, we’re competitors,” he said. “But as much as we’re competitors, we all understand that we have a higher mission here, and we’re happy to learn from each other.”

At least some of the rabbis brought in by the RCC are working on a volunteer basis; Elefant said that the OU has so far declined the RCC’s offers to pay its staff for their services.

The RCC asked AKO, an umbrella organization for kosher certifiers, to devise a set of standards for kosher certifiers in Los Angeles. In a May 27 letter, RCC President Rabbi Meyer May and Rabbi Jonathan Rosenberg, who heads the RCC’s committee on kashrus, wrote that “the RCC will adhere to universally accepted kashrus standards recommended by AKO, of which the RCC is a member.” 

AKO has minimum global standards for its members and has also developed standards that apply to certifiers overseeing particular industries, Rabbi Sholem Fishbane, executive director of AKO, said. But kosher standards for local businesses necessarily vary by community.

“What might work in Borough Park might not work in Omaha,” Fishbane said, explaining why kosher laws could not be applied across the world in the same way. 

Kehilla and the RCC, the two most prominent Los Angeles-area kosher certifiers, are both AKO members, and Fishbane said AKO had discussed the plan to develop community-wide standards with the leadership of both organizations. Fishbane wasn’t sure whether either organization had firmly committed to apply the standards, which have yet to be written. 

Both the RCC and Kehilla declined requests for interviews for this story. 

Should such standards be implemented, the impact that they will have on consumers is hard to predict. Elefant, who guessed that Los Angeles has more kosher restaurants per capita than any other city — including New York — speculated that the cost of increased rabbinic oversight could force businesses to raise prices for consumers. That might, in turn, force some of the scores of kosher restaurants in L.A. to shut their doors. 

“I feel bad for the people that will have to close, but at the end of the day the first person that will have to be satisfied is the consumer,” Elefant said. “The person who is paying for a kosher meal is entitled to a truly kosher meal.”

On June 3, Pita Way owner Sharabi said he was happy to see the rabbis coming by his shop — almost every day in recent weeks — and urged kosher consumers to have patience with the RCC.

“The customers are going to see it soon,” Sharabi said. “To break takes a second. To build takes more time.”

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