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Jewish Journal

Rubashkin Revenge: Ethical Certificates at Center of Dispute

by Jonah Lowenfeld

July 25, 2012 | 4:24 pm

The Tav HaYosher, an ethical certification issued by the nonprofit organization Uri L'Tzedek, seen hanging in the window of Milky's Frozen Yogurt, a kosher-certified eatery located on Robertson Boulevard, just south of Pico. Photo by Jonah Lowenfeld

The Tav HaYosher, an ethical certification issued by the nonprofit organization Uri L'Tzedek, seen hanging in the window of Milky's Frozen Yogurt, a kosher-certified eatery located on Robertson Boulevard, just south of Pico. Photo by Jonah Lowenfeld

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.

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