On Thursday, March 7, at 6:10 a.m., a van and an SUV sit in adjacent parking spaces, in the lot of a McDonald’s near the junction of the 101 and the 405 freeways, their rear lift-gates open.
Mike Engelman, the driver of the SUV, with the help of the driver of the van, loads something into the back of the SUV. Then Engelman, who owns Doheny Glatt Kosher Meat Market, one of Los Angeles’ largest distributors of kosher animal products, drives off, headed to Pico-Robertson to open his shop.
Almost exactly one hour later, in the parking lot behind Doheny Meats, the mashgiach (rabbinic overseer) from the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), who had unlocked the doors to the store and the distribution center just 10 minutes earlier, is nowhere in sight. Engelman signals to an employee to unload the SUV. The employee takes out eight boxes, hundreds of pounds of unidentified meat or poultry, and wheels them into the store through its rear door.
This entire sequence was captured on video by a private investigator, and on Sunday afternoon, March 24, Rabbi Meyer H. May, president of the RCC, watched the video in horror. What he saw wasn’t just Engelman undermining the supervision of his agency; he also saw the rabbinic supervisor, who is never supposed to leave the premises, break with RCC protocol.
All this was revealed on March 24, the day before Passover. At sundown the following day, hundreds of local families at their own seder tables, as well as thousands of customers at resorts across the region, would be sitting down to eat their traditional Passover meals featuring meat and poultry that had passed through Doheny’s doors.
May and his rabbinic colleagues at the RCC revoked Doheny’s certification. They also declared at the same time that all meat sold by Doheny Meats up until 3 p.m. that day could still be considered kosher.
The aftermath of this scandal is still playing out, but it has already rocked Los Angeles’ kosher industry in a way that hasn’t happened since 1990, when the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC) removed its certification from Emes Kosher Meat Products after a rabbinic supervisor found an empty box in the store’s dumpster that had come from a non-kosher poultry supplier.
This time the scandal implicates both Doheny Meats, believed to be among the largest distributors of kosher animal products on the West Coast, and the RCC, a prominent and widely trusted kosher certifier. As a result, the scandal could have far-reaching consequences.
If Engelman intentionally circumvented his mashgiach, as the videos appear to indicate, Engelman’s business, which he has owned for 28 years, will likely never regain the RCC’s imprimatur, let alone the trust of kosher consumers, and could be forced to close. The case is also a black eye for the RCC, in part because its protocols appear to have been breached on multiple occasions, and also because the breach was not discovered by the rabbis themselves, but by a private investigator who says he was working independently.
Further complicating the matter, the RCC also had received tips about suspicious practices at Doheny years before this scandal broke — the agency says its own investigations turned up no evidence of wrongdoing — a fact that leaves many local observant Jews questioning whether the RCC is up to the task of supervising the approximately 100 kosher restaurants, markets and caterers that bear its hechsher (seal of approval) across the city.
Within the Los Angeles Jewish community, the incident has sparked all sorts of old rivalries and pushed a number of local Jewish leaders to battle over some long-standing ideological disagreements. More facts may yet emerge, and multiple parties are currently consulting with legal advisers to consider whether to take the matter to court. This story will no doubt have a long lifespan, continuing to unfold over the weeks and months ahead.
The once-beloved butcher
Mike Engelman used to be known as the butcher with the highest-quality kosher meat and poultry in Pico-Robertson. His store is located within a 10-minute walk of four major kosher markets, and Doheny Meats serves as both a supplier and a stand-alone shop that carries animal products — including rare meats like bison and elk — and little else. The employees’ white hats and aprons, the sparkling white display case, the thick white paper in which cuts of meat are wrapped — the entire shopping experience there feels like a throwback to a time when most people knew their butchers by name.
Which is what it was: Doheny has been around for more than 50 years, and Engelman made good service a selling point. Whole chickens bought from Doheny, for instance, were passed through an open flame to singe any stray feathers off of the skin. Doheny delivered its products locally, but also drew customers from other cities. At one point in the early 1990s, Doheny was making monthly deliveries to a synagogue in the South Bay and, according to the store’s Web site, which, as of April 1, had been taken down, Doheny had scheduled a delivery to a buying club in San Diego in March and was set to make similar shipments to the San Francisco Bay Area as well.
It was Engelman’s success on the distribution side — selling to caterers, markets, restaurants and hotels, including luxury venues like the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, which made up the majority of the volume of his business — that raised suspicions.
“In the kosher business in Los Angeles, everyone’s a competitor and everybody works together,” said Daryl Schwarz, who owned Kosher Club, a retailer and distributor of kosher meats that closed its doors on Pico in 2011 after more than 20 years in business. “Even though you could hate each other on a Monday, if somebody needs a product and you’ve got it, you’ll sell it to him.”
Schwarz said that while he would frequently find himself calling around to other markets to see if they had a particular kind of product in stock, Engelman always seemed to have whatever he needed.
“There’s only so much meat on a cow,” Schwarz said, “and Mike was never out of anything.”
Eric Agaki, the private investigator who shot the footage that has brought Doheny to its knees, said that it was complaints from disgruntled local distributors (though not Schwarz) and from a few rabbis that led him to start investigating, beginning around Rosh Hashanah 2012.
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.
The local rabbis reached this decision after consulting with Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, the head of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas in Brooklyn, N.Y., the legal authority for the Orthodox Union’s kashrut division. They relied on the principle of rov, which states that in certain cases in which a majority of a set of items are known to be kosher, the entire set can be declared kosher.
Still, there’s evidence that kosher consumers’ faith in the RCC has been shaken.
“I have no clue who to trust anymore,” a woman shopping at Pico Glatt Mart on Thursday, March 28, said, asking to be identified only as Friede. “I don’t trust RCC.”
May said that throughout the week of Passover, he had been questioned about what the RCC knew, and when. In addition to offering up the timeline of events on Sunday, May said in his statement that the RCC knew competitors had issues with Doheny.
Schwarz, the former owner of Kosher Club, said that, as early as 2010, and “numerous times” over the years that followed, he reported to Rabbi Nissim Davidi, the RCC’s kashrut administrator, that he had seen empty boxes, fraudulent labels and fraudulent tape in Engelman’s truck. Around the same time, Schwarz also told The Journal about questionable practices of the same nature that Agaki later documented.
The RCC, in its statement, said that it had investigated all the complaints about Doheny, “but found no evidence of wrongdoing.”
Schwarz is not satisfied by that answer. “It was obvious,” he said of the reasons to suspect Engelman. “If you wanted to find something, you could find something.”
Since Agaki’s videos have been revealed, it’s become clear that the current leadership of the RCC also did not know everything about Engelman’s history prior to his purchasing the Doheny shop.
In 1983, Rabbi Pinchas Gruman was the chair of the RCC’s kashrut committee. On Nov. 3 of that year, acting on a tip, Gruman drove to Orange County to visit Los Alamitos Kosher Meats and Poultry, where he found some kosher meat and poultry in the freezer placed alongside non-kosher animal products. In an interview this week, on March 31, Gruman alleged that Engelman was the person who opened the freezer for him that day.
It is not clear what Engelman’s job was at the shop — reached on Sunday, March 31, he had no comment. Engelman was not the sole owner of the Orange County shop, nevertheless, he was the only person Gruman said he saw on the day he made the visit.
“I’m telling you, he [Engelman] was caught with treif [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.”
May said 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. And although May said he could understand why the RCC would allow Engelman to own and operate a kosher-certified market after being connected to another store that was caught with non-kosher products – his store was manned by a constant rabbinical supervisor, or mashgiach temidi, who had the only key to the shop — May still said that hearing about it was “nauseating.”
“It’s hard to imagine that anyone would get two strikes,” May said, noting that there was little or no chance now that Engelman would have his certification reinstated by the RCC in the wake of the current scandal.
Who says what’s kosher?
In the week since the RCC revoked the certification and the news spread throughout the community, various rabbis from across the city — and from a number of different points on the ideological spectrum — have suggested that the RCC has not been doing its job in one way or another.
While some rabbis have reportedly urged their constituents not to trust the RCC because it is too lenient, Rabbi Moshe Benzaquen, who has advocated less stringent supervision for kosher restaurants in the past, sent out an e-mail to the congregants of the West Coast Torah Center calling for one of the professionals leading the RCC to be fired “for incompetence on this matter.”
“Obviously I’m biased, of course,” Benzaquen said in an interview on March 31. Benzaquen, who was president of the RCC for three years starting in 1990, now has his own kosher certification company, Kosher L.A.
“But if, God forbid, anything like this should happen to us,” Benzaquen continued, “we would have been ridiculed, and they [the RCC] would have said, ‘Oh, well, we knew that.’”
Two more rabbis quickly jumped into the fray to serve as rabbinic supervisors of the store. Rabbi Meshulom Dov Weiss and his son Rabbi Menachem Weiss announced that they would themselves certify Doheny as kosher from March 28 until the end of Passover.
This move led Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am, a Conservative congregation, to urge his congregants to shop at Doheny.
“Not only because their products are wonderful,” Kligfeld wrote in an e-mail to members of the large synagogue located on La Cienega Boulevard on March 29, “but because by doing so we can make a statement that kashrut should be about kashrut ... and not monopolies, or power plays, or raising suspicions or being careless with others’ parnassa [livelihood].”
What Kligfeld did not mention in the e-mail is that the manager of Doheny, Israel Feuerstein, is the son-in law of Rabbi Joel E. Rembaum, who served for decades as Temple Beth Am’s senior rabbi and now holds the position there of rabbi emeritus. Asked about that connection after his e-mail went out, Kligfeld dismissed any possibility of a conflict of interest.
“That didn’t play at all in my communication with the congregation,” Kligfeld said during an interview soon after he sent the e-mail, “and it doesn’t play at all into my deliberations here."
Kligfeld said his position stems from a long-standing disagreement between Orthodox and Conservative Jews over the nature of kosher laws.
The disagreement is particularly salient in the case of Doheny Meats, which, for most of its history, sold meat that was kosher, but did not meet the higher standard of “glatt kosher.”
For meat to be considered kosher, it must be from the right kind of animal and must be slaughtered and prepared properly. For large animals — not poultry —the animal’s innards must be checked to ensure that there are no signs of disease. If, for instance, a cow has a hole in its lung, the animal is not considered kosher by any standard.
But to be kosher under the higher “glatt” standard — the word means “smooth” in Yiddish — the animal’s lungs must have no signs of ever having had any ulcers. If the ulcers have healed, the meat is considered kosher — but not glatt kosher.
The RCC began to insist upon the higher standard in 2008, after the Rubashkin-owned AgriProcessors kosher meat processing plant in Postville, Iowa, which had been documented mistreating its cattle, was shut down in the aftermath of the largest immigration raid in American history. At that time, because glatt kosher meat is more expensive, Engelman initially decided to drop the RCC’s certification and to continue selling kosher meat that did not meet the glatt standard under the Weisses’ supervision.
Without the RCC certification, however, Doheny’s business suffered, and after about 18 months, Engelman decided to return to the RCC and to adhere to the glatt standard.
For Kligfeld, the glatt requirement “is an unnecessary stringency” that was invented in the 17th century. The rabbi said his family does not abide by it. But because “so much of the kashrut world is in the hands of the most stringent authorities,” in large part because their constituents make up the majority of the consumer base, Kligfeld said that he and other Conservative Jews who might be satisfied with non-glatt meat end up having to buy glatt kosher meat anyway.
“Non-glatt meat, which for your grandparents and my grandparents was completely fine, has been rendered treif, which it isn’t,” Kligfeld said.
But what to Kligfeld is an unnecessary stringency— the word in Hebrew is chumrah —is, for the RCC’s May, a way to fulfill a commandment in a more beautiful way, or hiddur.
“I think most people want to have glatt kosher meat these days,” May said. “This is a hiddur, an improvement. It’s an extra step, and now, people are saying, ‘If they checked it better, great.’ ”
Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, the spiritual leader at North County Chabad Center in Yorba Linda, said that such a reading, while narrowly accurate, did not take account of the broader connotation of the term.
“What glatt has come to mean is something bigger than the actual meat — which is kashrus with a bigger sense of accountability and responsibility,” Eliezrie said.
Similarly, Eliezrie, who is president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County and Long Beach, which plays a role similar to the RCC, said that the involvement of such organizations in kosher certification also represents a greater level of communal accountability and transparency.
And so, when an organization like the RCC, which has nearly 100 member rabbis, decides to pull its certification from a particular establishment, Eliezrie said they should be given the benefit of the doubt.
“If they say we’re pulling a hechsher from somebody two days before Pesach,” Eliezrie said, “it’s got to be for really good cause.”
Was what was in the boxes kosher?
Even though Engelman wouldn’t say it in his own words to this reporter, there may be a somewhat generous way of explaining what the owner of Doheny Meats is doing in the video.
“I don’t believe he brought in any non-kosher meat,” Menachem Weiss, the interim masghiach said, following an explanation he said he had gotten from Engelman. “I think that non-glatt meat might have made its way into the warehouse, not into the store.
“And if it was done,” he went on, “it was not done with the intention of bringing it into the store, or selling it to anybody who would think it’s glatt. I think that he might have certain clients who would want the non-glatt, and I think he might have been secretly providing them.
“If that’s what he did, I’m not excusing that; that was wrong, that was a big mistake, and it put him in this situation that he’s in right now,” Weiss said. But, he added, “I don’t think he deserves to be closed down for that.”
Just after 10 a.m. on Friday, March 29, the employees of Doheny Glatt Kosher Meats were clustered near the front of the shop. A single customer, a woman, stood in the store; she said she had been shopping at Doheny for more than 30 years.
“I’ve been coming to this store since Jack and Joe, the original owners, were here,” she said later, through the open window of her Prius, which was parked on Pico Boulevard, in front of the store.
But the woman, who described herself as Orthodox and requested her name not be used, hadn’t come to purchase anything on this visit. And according to one of the employees — whose jobs depend on Doheny’s ability to resume selling kosher meat — only six customers had come through the doors so far on that Friday morning.
The woman knows Engelman, but she didn’t want to talk about him. Her main concern was for his employees.
“All of us who shop here, we’re all very worried about the workers,” she said. “We see them regularly. We feel like we grew up with them.”
Contributing writer Zev Hurwitz contributed to this report.