April 3, 2013
After Doheny Kosher scandal, what does the future hold for L.A.’s meat market? [PHOTOS]
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Investigator Eric Agaki. Photo by Jonah Lowenfeld.
From the start of his surveillance of Doheny, his presence was noticed, Agaki said. Engelman declined to speak to The Journal on the record for this article, but according to Agaki, when the 56-year-old, Russian-born owner of Doheny saw the Israeli-born Agaki in the parking lot behind his store, Engelman walked up and began questioning him, eventually calling the police.
Agaki said that he did all his work on the investigation into Doheny without any payment — “It’s a mitzvah,” were his exact words — and the break in the case came last month, when he began to monitor a location in Reseda that he said belonged to a relative of Engelman.
That location, Agaki said, was a distribution center for meat and poultry products that was not under any kosher supervision. On March 7, Agaki followed a van leaving that lot and tracked it to the parking lot of a McDonald’s just off the 101 freeway. There, the driver of the van met up with Engelman, who was in his SUV. Agaki shot video that morning showing the two vehicles parked next to one another, their rear gates open; though he didn’t capture it in his frame, Agaki said he saw them move boxes from the van into Engelman’s SUV.
Agaki caught up with Engelman’s SUV on the 405, and then sped off to Pico-Robertson, where Agaki had arranged with the resident of an apartment to allow him to set up his video and still cameras by the window overlooking the parking lot behind Doheny’s shop and distribution center. From that vantage point, he would have a virtually unobstructed view of the doors leading into Doheny meats — and, significantly, of Engelman’s personal SUV.
Agaki’s video leaves no doubt that Engelman was directly involved in every aspect of getting the unsupervised products into the doors of his establishment. The March 7 video — and Agaki said he had documented suspicious actions at Doheny on more than just that one occasion — shows Engelman watch the mashgiach leave, signal to his employee and then unlock the doors to the SUV.
When the employee got to Doheny’s rear door, Engelman was there holding it open.
‘This is a monumental failure.’
Rabbi May, the president of the RCC since 2000, first heard about Agaki’s video on March 24 at around 1 p.m.
Agaki had given the video to Rabbi Avrohom Teichman, the rabbinic administrator of Kehilla Kosher, another local Orthodox kosher certification agency. He also gave a copy to the news department of KTLA, a local TV station, and a third copy to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), hoping that it would be the first one to act. (According to a USDA spokesman, the federal agency is conducting an investigation into Doheny.)
But on that Sunday, Teichman and May (who represent rival kosher-certification organizations but have shared interests in maintaining kosher standards) met at the home of a third Orthodox rabbi, Gershon Bess.
Together, Bess and May — who both sit on the RCC’s Vaad Hakashrut, the committee dedicated to Jewish dietary law — along with Teichman and other rabbis, watched the investigator’s footage. Based on what they saw, May, Bess and others involved in the RCC’s kosher certification arm would revoke Doheny’s certification later that same day.
Since then, May and others in the volunteer and paid leadership of the organization have been working to limit any damage to the RCC’s reputation.
In a statement released by the RCC on Friday, March 29, May emphasized the rapidity of the RCC’s response, listed the systems the council had in place at Doheny to ensure that kosher laws were followed and said that the mashgiach assigned to Doheny had been suspended.
“This is a monumental failure,” May said in an interview on March 31. “Even though it wasn’t a system-wide failure, it was a failure, because we owe the community to not have any failures.”
The RCC leaders convened another meeting on Sunday, March 24, at 4:45 p.m., with a number of lay leaders and rabbis within the Orthodox community of Pico-Robertson. This meeting took place in the office of Rabbi Kalman Topp, the spiritual leader of Beth Jacob Congregation, the largest Orthodox synagogue in Pico-Robertson. Also present were Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City and Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea.
Together they watched Agaki’s video.
“You see him [Engelman] talking to the mashgiach; you see him waiting until the mashgiach leaves,” said Muskin of the 30-minute segment of video shown at the meeting. “And the damaging evidence is that once the mashgiach leaves, that’s when he has his helpers empty out his SUV, bringing the boxes into his establishment.”
After the group finished watching the video, the meeting continued, and Engelman himself was brought into the room. The shopkeeper initially denied the allegations, but eventually, according to people present at the meeting, Engelman admitted he had brought boxes of unsupervised food into the store.
“He did claim that it was kosher — I think that the way he put it was that he ‘never brought non-kosher meat into the store,’ and that he ‘never sold something not kosher,’ ” an individual who attended the meeting told the Journal on March 28. “But he did acknowledge bringing in boxes — he claimed it was poultry — into the store.”
Before the meeting ended, the assembled rabbis composed an e-mail stating that the RCC had “removed its kosher supervision, for cause, from Doheny Kosher Meats,” adding that all meat purchased before 3 p.m. that day was still considered kosher.