Sunday, August 16, 2009

OU-Israel, Reliable?

1. A New Kashrus Agency in Eretz Yisrael2. 3rd Shuk Tour3. A Look at the Hechsher – OU IsraelThe article is available with accompanying photos on the website. One may also add a comment for posting on the website.
1. A New Kashrus Agency in Eretz Yisrael It was by all accounts a historic event, the launching of a newkashrus agency in Israel, one that enjoys widespread support. The event was hosted in Bnei Brak’s Vishnitz Hotel on Tuesday, August 11,2009.All chassidic bodies have joined force, explaining they have created ahechsher that will integrate the hidurim of all the respective groupsincorporated in the effort.The new agency is being called Badatz Kehillot HaChareidim in EretzYisrael, the product of a year’s work. The official date of the launchof the new agency is 21 Av 5769. Organizers believe that from itsinception, the new agency will be directing products at 30,000families.

The directors of the agency will be Admorim, the Rebbe’s of therespective chassidic courts, who have handpicked the rabbonim who willrepresent them on the board. The list of rabbonim on the new Badatzinclude Rav Zoldon (Haifa), Rav Pessach Horowitz (Ashdod), Rav ChaimSchwartz (Netanya), Rav Shraga Feivel Weinberger (Bnei Brak), RavEliezer Koenig (Tzfat), Rav Nachman Berlind, Rav Yeshayahu Brizal(Jerusalem), Rav Rozovsky (Rosh Yeshiva Slonim), Rav MordechaiEichler, Rav Binyomin Adler, Rav Yoroslovsky (Chabad), Rav Meir Weiss(grandson of Erlau Rebbe Shlita), Rav Simcha Rabinowitz (RamatShlomo), and Rav Shamai Gross (Jerusalem).A number of other rabbonim, currently out of the country, are expectedto join in the future, Chareidim reports.The rabbonim running the organization are reported to be veterans tothe kashrut industry and represent an array of expertise. Rav Schwartzfor example, has been responsible for kashrus in the Laniado Hospitalin Netanya as well as the Ganei Sanz Hotel. The organization plans tobegin by addressing schita.

****2. 3rd Shuk TourBaruch Hashem, on Tuesday evening the third JKN shuk kashrut walkingtour pounded the pavement, and participants expressed satisfaction,with a feeling the time was well spent, learning the ins-and-outs ofthe kashrut maze in Israel, particularly the ‘shuk’.Next Tuesday, August 18th, two additional walking tours are planned.They are booked to capacity. There are many who are wait-listed.Please continue to monitor the list and website for information ofupcoming walking tours. I do not plan any others in August, but whoknows.Yeshivot and seminaries who might benefit from my PowerPointdemonstration for students who spend their year in Israel, dates arefilling rapidly so if you are interested, send an email sooner ratherthan later.By the way, the photo accompanying this article only shows a smallgroup. It appears the participants of this group were quite camerashy.

****3. A Look at the Hechsher – OU IsraelFor me, one who grew up in the East Coast of the United States, OU wassynonymous with ‘kosher’, but not just kosher, a level of kashrut thatcould be trusted, synonymous with transparency, legitimacy, and agenuine concern for the kosher consumer.When the news began unfolding a number of years ago that the OUexisted in the Holy Land, it brought a smile to the faces of many aformer N. American, realizing this premier kashrus organization wouldwithout a doubt remove the complexities of the Israeli kashrus scene,permitting us to sit back and relax, entering an OU restaurant orhotel and enjoy Israel’s finest cuisine with the knowledge the kosherstandard was among the highest available.That is how I began this report about months ago, optimistic, andadmittedly somewhat excited, armed with my pen, pad and digitalcamera, I set out to show the world what the OU is bringing to EretzYisrael.To my dismay, what I found was not exactly what I expected. There isno kashrus transparency, no written or published standard, and nofriendly voice on the other end of the phone to explain thecomplexities of the kashrus situation. I cannot really say what thestandard is, but what I can do is to relay facts, the findings of manymany hours in the street, photographing, speaking with mashgichim inthe industry, checking eateries and hotels, and of course, speakingand meeting with the head of the OU in Israel, Rabbi Yosef Minsky, andhis assistant, Rachel Stewart. I will add that the OU-Israel koshercertificates displayed in hotels do not even all contain the name of amashgiach or mefakaiach to call, as is evident from the photosaccompanying this article.

****I BEGIN WITH SOME TERMINOLOGY & HARD FACTSFirstly, one must understand some of the basic ins-and-outs of kashrusin Israel, in this case, pertaining to the Jerusalem RabbinicalCouncil. There are two levels of kashrus, ‘regular’ and ‘mehadrin’,with the later ensuring a higher standard, one that should becommensurate with many many stringencies that permit the food forpeople adhering to a high standard.This includes proficient inspection of fish, greens and legumes forinsects and bugs, prohibiting the use of many items including but notlimited to strawberries, other berries, certain cuts of meat, and thecertainty that the milk, vegetables, foods and other items are not theresult of chilul shabbos. It also means there is a mashgiach timidi (arabbinical kashrut inspector) present while the kitchen operates. Yes,this is all an over simplification, but I am trying to give a generaloverview and not get bogged down in defining the difference betweenregular and mehadrin).In a regular kashrut environment, a mashgiach pops in from time to time (yotzei v’nichnas), not necessarily daily, and the level ofkashrut adherence in the kitchen is inferior to the mehadrin.The Jerusalem Rabbinate employs mashgichim, as well as a mefakaiach(supervisor) who is not assigned to a special store, but goes to anumber of places supervising his subordinates, the mashgichim.

****OU-ISRAELSometime ago, prior to embarking on this article, I spoke with RabbiYosef Minsky to get an idea of what OU-Israel brings the kosherconsumer. He explained that being that we are in the Holy Land, thelevel is higher than in the United States, guaranteeing chalavyisrael, bishul yisrael, and regarding shmitah, only l’chumra. He toldme in many a conversation that the level of OU-Israel adheres to thestrictest standards, cutting no corners, making certain Americans andIsraelis alike can enjoy, well-assured the level of kosher is amongthe highest in the industry. It is pertinent to the article to insertat this point that on numerous occasions, Rav Minsky added that heviews the OU among the premier agencies, like Eida Chareidit, makingsure to insert he is operating on a higher level than JerusalemRabbinate Mehadrin. This was repeated and stressed on numerousoccasions.I emphasize that I am not making any judgments as to the level ofkashrus, but I will use this forum to present facts, and perhaps toexpress a level of frustration I have not known in dealing with anyother kashrus agencies in Israel.As you, readers are aware, I do not generally write about kashrusagencies as an independent unit in a feature article, but events sortof compel that I attempt to document many isolated incidents into acohesive report. One of the reasons is the fact that JKN is an Englishforum, thereby attracting many former and current Americans, resultingin many a query regarding OU-Israel.I strongly suggest that email recipients take the time to view thearticle online, where photos accompany the documentation.

****MORIAH CLASSIC HOTELThe Moriah Classic Hotel, formally the Novetell, is one of theJerusalem Hotels under the supervision of OU-Israel. It also enjoysthe supervision of the Jerusalem Rabbinate, regular, not mehadrin.I will spare you hours of phone calls and investigatory efforts andcut to the chase. The hotel rav and mashgiach, Rabbi Elyashiv Nafcha,will attest to the fact that there is no OU mashgiach in reality, eventhough the certificate, which is not posted conspicuously as per RabbiNafcha’s decision, since the last one expired, stated the mashgiach isRabbi Eliezer Mendelson. Rabbi Nafcha runs quite the legitimate show,which I will detail in an upcoming report on the hotel. Bottom line,the OU relies on a non-mehadrin Rabbanut hechsher for its OU mehadrinhechsher. In reality, the hotel ingredients are mehadrin but that isnot the point. If one phones the hotel and asks for the rav ormashgiach, Rav Nafcha will tell you the hotel is under J. Rabbinateregular, while the ingredients purchased are mehadrin, but this is notthe same as a mehadrin hotel .JKN phoned the OU-Israel office and we were assured the hotel is underits supervision and mehadrin, “not like the Eida Chareidit, but likethe Belz and other regular mehadrin hechshers”.In short, you the kosher consumer are visiting a non-mehadrin hoteland eating, believing an OU mehadrin mashgiach is there. Sorry folks,but this is simply not the case.

****JERUSALEM PLAZA HOTELThe Jerusalem Plaza Hotel is under the supervision the JerusalemRabbinate Mehadrin, and OU-Israel. Once again, the hotel mashgiach,Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Altman is the rav and chief mashgiach. Asveteran readers know, I am a fan, impressed with the kashrut standardmaintained by this senior veteran mashgiach. In this case too, heexplains, the OU mashgiach, guess who -- Rabbi Eliezer Mendelson, isnot really in control of kashrus. Here again, it appears the OU relieson the Rabbanut mashgiach to cover itself.I will point out that Rabbi Mendelson is a member of Rabbi Altman’sstaff, one of his mashgichim. When I asked the Jerusalem Rabbinate ifthey are bothered by this conflict of interests, I was told thatofficially, Mendelson is a “representative” of the Rabbinate and an“employee” of the Plaza, so no problem.Anyway, here too the OU-Israel enjoys the zealous efforts of the hotelrav and comfortably adds its kashrut sign, but in reality, RabbiMendelson does not make the decisions regarding what foods arepurchased, used, and so-forth. Rabbi Altman runs the kashrut show hereand there have not been any changes in the kashrut operation since theOU added it name.

****MOSHIKO SHWARMAOnce again, Jerusalem Rabbinate Mehadrin and OU-Israel. As you mayremember from a previous report, the Rabbinate mashgiach is presentfor about 8 hours daily, and the Rabbinate supervisor (mefakaiach)visits several times a week. The OU Mefakaiach, Rabbi Avraham Turetzkytold JKN that he relies on the Rabbanut mashgichim and visits from“time-to-time”.Here I must point out that while the J. Rabbinate Mehadrin seems to bedoing its job, the OU office has told me repeatedly its standard ishigher than the Rabbanut Mehadrin and it does not rely on the mehadrinhechsher. It appears Rabbi Turetzky is unaware of this policy decisionsince he does indeed rely on the J. Rabbinate mashgiach timidi.

****JERUSALEM GATE HOTELYou guessed it, Jerusalem Rabbinate Mehadrin and Rabbi Turetzky assupervisor. In truth, all my investigations show the hotel runs justfine, but again, due to the credit of the Jerusalem Rabbinate with theOU taking a free ride. By the way, R’ Turetzky’s name, or anyone elsefor that matter, does not appear on the certificate.I will use this opportunity to add that all my phone calls revealRabbi Turetzky is a serious G-d fearing Rav, one who take kashrusseriously. In addition to his demanding kashrus positions, he alsoserves as an employee of the Rabbinical Center of Europe, where heworks in their Givat Shaul, Jerusalem, office during the afternoonhours. The point, once again, the hotel relies on the JerusalemRabbinate, which the OU office degrades, but in essence, it maintainsthe level of kashrus.Here again, as in the case of R’ Mendelson, R’ Turetzky is the hotelrav/mashgiach for the J. Rabbinate, and the OU.I think it is also noteworthy to add that one who relies on OU foreating out and possibly less comfortable with the Jerusalem RabbinateMehadrin, in the overwhelming majority of cases, you are eating theRabbanut schita, not OU meat or chickens.
****TAIKULocated on Emek Refaim Street in the German Colony, this fine eateryis becoming increasingly popular, it recently decided to leave theAgudat Yisrael supervision and move to the OU [see previous reports].Since that time, I have contacted the mashgiach twice by phone andmade three unannounced visits. Sorry, but he was never on site. Thisdoes not say there are kashrus problems, but this is not exactly whatis meant by “mashgiach timidi”.I use this opportunity to add that in violation of state law, the OUhas granted a certificate of kashrut to this restaurant despite thefact that it does not have a Jerusalem Rabbinate hechsher. The samewas true under Agudat Yisrael as per the Jerusalem Religious CouncilKashrut Department.

****PAPAGAIOThis is without a doubt the new excitement on the N. AmericanJerusalem eating scene. Since moving from Jerusalem Rabbinate regularto OU after Tisha B’Av, it has been standing room only. This branch,the only mehadrin branch of Papagaio is located at 3 Yad CharutzimStreet in the Talpiot area of Jerusalem.This story is a bit longer, even the abridged version --I saw the full page color ad in the weekend J. Post, and decided Iwill call to make an appointment and visit, to write up therestaurant. As is my custom, I phoned to request permission tointerview the mashgiach and tour the kitchen. The restaurant was morethan pleased to comply, as is always the case – realizing thepotential for free media exposure. I arrived at 10:45am, 15 minutesearly, using the time to take photos.

Arriving early permits me some time to check out a place before aformal interview begins; something that helps me assess the situation.In this case too, I did just that and I saw an impressive place, aBrazilian steakhouse busy with the daily getting-the-day-started mode,setting tables, preparing the salads, meats and other foods for the 12noon opening. The prices displayed on the menu were extremelyreasonable considering the ambiance and general feel of the place.

I introduced myself to the branch manager, Yaniv, who actually fit thecentral casting for the part, shaven head and quite suave inappearance, the type of chap one would expect operating such a fineeatery. I learned from him there are seven stores in Israel, 5 withregular rabbinate supervision in other cities, one not kosher and openshabbos, and this branch, under the OU for only a number of days. Idid not know they just moved from Jerusalem Rabbinate regular to theOU, but that is not relevant either. (The J. Rabbinate certificate wasnot on display so I could not know. I did check with the office of theJ. Rabbinate a number of days later).By any definition of the word, the restaurant is an impressivesteakhouse, and it is not difficult to understand why the reservationphone is ringing off the hook since it announced its OU-Israelhechsher.

Anyway, everyone was there except for Shaul Ben-Shachar, themashgiach. I was given his cellular number and we spoke, and itappears no one informed him of the meeting. Anyway, he was apologeticand we agreed I would wait an hour for him to arrive. To speed up thestory, after waiting about 40 minutes, Yaniv informed me that he spokewith Rabbi Y. Minsky (head of the OU-Israel) and he informed Yanivthat I may not enter the kitchen without him being present. I wasasked to leave – a request that I accommodated, somewhat frustratedand angry, but I do not get into arguments over entering a kitchen. Bylaw, no one has to grant me access since I have no state-givenauthority, only a press card.For those who remember the recent updated photo report on Emek Refaimarea restaurants, that report was prompted by this chain of events. Ihad already wasted too much time, and was perturbed. Rather than busit back to the center of town I walked, passing through the GermanColony, using the time to photograph the stores for the updatedreport.After cooling down a bit I decided to phone Rabbi Minsky to confirmthat he actually gave the order barring me from the Papagaio kitchen.He confirmed the facts. After about 15 minutes on the phone I realizedthe conversation was not heading anywhere and tried to end it. Therabbi pointed out I am not a rabbi, or kashrut expert, to which Iagreed, but I pointed out I am quite proficient in documenting factsand have enough learning under my belt and on-site experience to dojust that. I also explained I was not seeking kashrut inadequacies,but just to relay the facts to readers as I have been doing for thepast 2.5 years.When Rabbi Minsky realized I was fed up with his shenanigans, tellinghim I planned to boycott the OU-Israel in future reports to avoidrepeated confrontations, he changed his tone and explained that he didnot realize I was the correspondent at Papagaio, but feared it wassomeone else who might just be seeking to give the OU a bad name. Weagreed that I would telephone and come in to meet with him to talk,which I have not yet done. Quite honestly, I do not see any benefit insuch meeting and blei neder, I have no intention of re-visitingPapagaio today or any other day in the future.I spoke with the Jerusalem Rabbinate to see if Papagaio has acertificate, since only the OU-Israel certificate is displayed. Ilearned it has a Jerusalem Rabbinate regular hechsher and themashgiach is R’ Avi Levy, who is on duty 3 hours daily, usually duringthe afternoon.R’ Levy told me that R’ Ben-Shachar [the OU-Israel mashgiach] is onduty from 8:30am “every day” and makes certain the kitchen neveroperates without a mashgiach present. He assured me that the kitchenNEVER operates without one of the three mashgichim present, not evenduring the early-morning setting up hours.I can only say on the one occasion I popped in, this was not the case.Meats and poultry were being marinated, the grill was lit before myeyes, salads cut and much more was taking place, without a mashgiachpresent. There is also a third mashgiach beginning at 5:00pm untilmidnight R’ Levy told me, also under OU-Israel auspices. (I wasunable to get his name).R’ Levy told me the meat was OU and the chicken Fleish (OU-Israelalso). R’ Ben-Shachar said meat was Agudah and poultry Fleish).Before moving on, I pose a question here for both the J. Rabbinate andOU-Israel -- Those viewing the photos accompanying this article cansee the well-stocked Papagaio bar. Well, I sent the photos to aRabbanut expert on hard drinks and he told me that two items are“problematic” and one is definitely dairy.My question is what is a dairy liquor doing in a meat restaurant and Iask the OU, what is a “problematic” drink doing in a mehadrinrestaurant? Especially since OU America is a leader in raisingawareness to the possible kashrut problems related to hard drinks.

****AGAS VETAPUACHAgas VeTapuach is a high-end operation, dairy/parve, located at KikarSafra, Jerusalem City Hall.In short, I spoke with Yonatan, the owner/manager and the JerusalemRabbinate. The place is under the supervision of Jerusalem Rabbinateregular and OU-Israel mehadrin. The supervisor is R’ Turetzky, and theJ. Rabbinate mashgiach comes and goes, as is fine in compliance withthe dictates of a regular J. Rabbinate supervision. There is not OU-Israel mashgiach, only a supervisor who makes occasional visits. Inshort, this OU-Mehadrin place does not have any mashgiach timidi.Yonatan assures me all his products are “badatz mehadrin and chalavyisrael”.

****SUMMATION1. There are numerous other OU-Israel supervised hotels, eateries andcaterers in the Greater Jerusalem area. I do not plan to visit orreview them. This is not because of kashrut concerns, but due to thelack of cooperation from OU-Israel office staff and the smokescreenthat results in some of my questions.2. This report does not intend to hint at the level of kashrut in anyof the places mentioned, for good or G-d forbid otherwise, regardingthe OU. I have reported on some of the places, such as the JerusalemPlaza and Moshiko, and they indeed are true to their J. Rabbinatehechsher. The OU-Israel adds absolutely nothing other than a red andwhite sign.3. If one is stringent on eating OU schita (beef and poultry) whenentering an OU establishment, think again in Israel. Not all placesuse Fleish chickens and to date, the OU has not succeeded in havingits own cattle schita despite efforts to do so. Therefore, if amashgiach in Jerusalem tells you the meat is “OU”, it may be OU-Israelapproved, which is fine, but it cannot be OU-Israel schita since todate, there has not been any.4. If you expect a mashgiach timidi in your OU mehadrin restaurant,then you are out of luck in some cases.5. Based on what I saw at Papagaio, the kitchen operating without amashgiach, it is difficult to say if OU-Israel satisfies ‘bishulyisrael’ for sephardim, which hold by the stringent rulings of theBeit Yosef. Rav Minsky assures me all OU-Israel establishments arebishul yisrael for both ashkenazim and sephardim.6. There are many many emails that have come in regarding OU chickens,sold under the Fleish name. I mention this so readers do not think Ihave ignored this. I just prefer not to address the matter at thistime.7. Without exception! Any and every hotel mashgiach and rav I spokewith, referring to hotels that the OU-Israel has claimed to be underits supervision, at least three, maintain the OU-Israel has not addeda thing towards mehadrin level kashrus and it appears the organizationis taking a free ride off the services of the J. Rabbinate hechsher,both regular and mehadrin, as well as the reputations of the finerabbonim and mashgichim in those very same hotels.

****For questions please send me an email at . Iwill do my best to respond.To comment, please see the article on the website and insert yourcomment at the end of the article.Yechiel SpiraPlease pass this around and encourage others to join this freeinformative service to help get the word out on kashrut in EretzYisrael. To join the JKN mailing list, visit the website. ****Baruch Hashem, a growing number of kosher alert organizations aroundthe world are using this material.Anyone is free to distribute it, but not for commercial use. If youopt to use material, it must be accompanied with the footer “JerusalemKosher News – -”.

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