Monday, August 10, 200920 Av 5769
Chief Rabbinate Schita in Argentina
The following is a translation of an article appearing in the shabbosYediot Achronot “Musaf Shabbat” magazine, written by Techiya Barak.Mashgiach kashrus Shimon Tzuberi realized he may be better offremaining silent, but he could not, compelled to report what he saw.The incident occurred when he was part of a Chief Rabbinate of Israelteam, a team of shochtim sent to prepare meat for import to EretzYisrael.Tzuberi saw a piece of meat which he felt was not treibered (de-veined) in accordance to halacha, compelling to file a report.“Turmoil resulted and even before completing our assignment, I wasordered to return home” he explained.
“Upon my return, I informed anumber of rabbonim of the situation, calling for a halachicinvestigation into the matter”.Taking part in the investigation were Rav Yaakov Saban, who heads theNational Kashrut Division, Rav Ezra Refael Hariri, who heads the unitoverseeing schita abroad and the importation of meat. “They asked meto explain exactly what I saw, and I did just that. After this, I wasno longer sent abroad for schita”.Tzuberi approached a number of rabbonim, seeking their assistance andfollowing their intervention, he was sent abroad. He reports that insubsequent trips abroad, he documented kashrus inadequacies. Heexplains that he began hearing there were problems with his conduct,explaining in one case, he was accused of arguing with a passenger ona flight. “I was shocked” he explains, deciding to send letters to anumber of rabbis to intervene on his behalf. After a year, he was informed that a hearing would be held.
He arrived well-prepared, armedwith a letter from El Al that there was no such occurrence, nodisturbance involving Tzuberi and another passenger.During the hearing, Tzuberi explains the accusations leveled againsthim made him quite emotional, becoming agitated. Allegations includedan accusation that his hand trembled, which would render him unsuitedto continue as a shochet (ritual slaughterer). He became so agitatedthat he was offered a glass of water. While holding the glass it waspointed out “see, you are trembling” to which he explained this wasthe result of his temporary agitated state. He understood that he hadbeen set up.Following the hearing he received a letter that informed him that dueto his condition, he is no longer qualified to be part of any teamtraveling abroad for schita. Interestingly, the letter did not mentionhis qualifications to continue schita in Israel.
Tzuberi remained determined to reverse the ruling, calling RabbiHariri repeatedly while seeing physicians and obtaining medicaldocumentation that he does not have a tremor in his hands.Tzuberi began contacting rabbis of stature; people he hoped would bewilling to assist him, a battle that has been ongoing for almost adecade. One can count on one hand the number of times Tzuberi wasincluded in a team heading abroad for schita during recent years.“It was not Sabag or I who disqualified him but the rabbis who gavehim [the glass of] water to test him, determining he has a tremor,states Rabbi Hariri. “We also suspended the team leader for failing tonotify us of the tremor. He is however successful as a treiborer (onewho removes forbidden veins and fats as part of koshering process).
Inaddition, he is not a pleasant person to work with. On more than oneoccasion, importers refused to work with him”.The Chief Rabbinate’s Diaspora Schita Unit might be the last place onewould expect to find such conduct and arguments, but this is not thecase. Some of the stories are a juicy as the steaks that receive akashrut stamp, legitimately so or otherwise.An investigation conducted by Musaf Yediot reveals numerous storiesover the years in which mashgichim report problems with the kashrus ofmeat slaughtered abroad. Some of those involved were ‘grounded’ whileothers found themselves in different departments. Others, likeTzuberi, were compelled to defend themselves against allegations.Allegations against employees who filed complaints include oneofficial disqualifying meat intentionally while another employee isalleged to be conducting a romance with a non-Jewish female. A thirdemployee is accused of running around naked. A protest and hungerstrike held in recent months failed to result in any significantchange.
The personal situation of the Chief Rabbinate employees’ aside, thetales have widespread ramifications, with a survey showing 65% of theJewish Israeli population eats kosher and 40% demand a rabbinicalhechsher. 55% of the meat in Israel is slaughtered in factoriesabroad, 60,000 tons of meat imported from various locations abroad.Some of the shochtim report they have begun slaughtering cattle fortheir families, and they have stopped eating meat, even with the bestof hechsherim. They explain some of the meat imported into Israel isindeed questionable regarding its kashrus, not to mention actualtreif.An importer wishing to bring meat into Israel contact Rabbi Sabag andRabbi Hariri, the former’s subordinate. Most of the slaughterhousesare located in South America, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.There are however slaughterhouses in Australia, the United States,Ireland and China as well.Teams dispatched by the Chief Rabbinate are made up of a team leaderand an assistant, who are responsible for the operation.
They mustultimately determine if meat is kosher and in adherence to thestandard permitting it to carry the stamp “Kosher by the ChiefRabbinate of Israel”. Other members of the team include shochtim,inspectors [of the various body organs following slaughter] andmashgichim.The teams are generally sent for months at a time, depending on thenumber of cattle to be slaughtered. The teams are selected bydepartment heads. Their salaries travel and other expenses must bepaid by the importer, hence part of the problem. Importers may requestto remove or include any team member, but the ultimate decision ismade by the Rabbanut.This is a recipe for conflict at times since the shochtim are beingpulled in opposite directions at times, by the Rabbinate and the meatimporters.
A shochet that disqualifies to many cattle may find himselfcausing too great a loss to the importer who pays his salary. This mayresult in an importer requesting that a particular shochet notaccompany a team in the future.Problems date back somewhat, even to a case in 1995 in which ashochet, who is no longer alive heard rumors that questionable meatwas imported, meat that was purchased by a Bnei Brak yeshiva. Theshochet got hold of some of the meat to inspect it, only to find thatsome of the prohibited fats were not removed.He summoned Rabbi Shlomo Machpud Shlita, who today heads the YorehDeah kashrus agency, and he was seen on hidden camera [on film whichis on file with Yediot] checking the meat, confirming the prohibitedfats were indeed present. At the time, Rabbi Machpud was a posek forthe Chief Rabbinate, one who is responsible for halachic rulings.“18 tons of this meat arrived in Israel. Bnei Brak yeshiva studentsate it” the shochet explained. He read the printing on the cartonwhich attested to the high standard, even paying more for the meat,under the supervision of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Why dupeyeshiva students?
The meat should not have been imported to Israel”.Rabbi Machpud agreed.The shochet brought the video to the Chief Rabbinate. His friend,Michael Ben-Shimol claims he was threatened and instructed toimmediately destroy the video. The shochet feared being blacklistedand ousted, complying with instructions, destroying the video. Twoyears ago, prior to his death, he asked his good friend that followinghis death to please make sure the video gets to the correct people.It appears not much has changed. One inspector, Leon (not his realname), in his 60s, who is responsible for inspecting animals followingschita in South America recently detected many problems. Sincedocumenting problems with kashrut, there have been complaints againsthim, including allegations that he was accompanied by a female whenseen drinking. He is now at home, unemployed.Leon explains that he was employed for 20 years, never encountering aproblem with complaints leveled against him. In one of his visits toS. America, he witnessed non-kosher animal parts being moved to a baglabeled kosher. During that very same visit, a non-Jew was taken andappointed as the mashgiach. Leon explains that needless to say therewere problems.
Once he began reporting, his headaches began.“In the last place I worked in S. America, I saw meats with prohibitedfats that were not removed. I was also shocked that out of thousandsof cattle, not a single one exhibiting marks from the schita thatdisqualified it, something that simply does not happen. After all,angels were not slaughtering the animals”.Worst of hall Leon explains “is the fact that there were threeshochtim as required by the Chief Rabbinate, but only one worked, forconsecutive hours. The others were elsewhere. The schita could nothave been in adherence to strict standards and of this, halacha warnsus. Simply too many cattle for one shochet alone. I informed asupervisor who promised to take corrective action, which he did. Heplaced a watchman at the door of the slaughter chamber so wheneversomeone spotted me, they were alerted.
On one particular day, when theimporter was present, I told him everything. He warned me that if Imake trouble, then will oust him and me as well”.When Leon returned home he spoke with Rabbi Hariri. He explained thata complaint was lodged against him for allegedly being in a nightclubwith a female.“A few months ago, I went to see a friend. On my route I passed anightclub and it was open. I saw some of the members of our teaminside playing pool. There were four women in their general area,skimpily dressed I might add. Later one, when I passed the area again,this time with my friend, they noticed me and realized I saw them.They threw the pools sticks and ran”.“This behavior is most unacceptable. People responsible for kashrutare compelled to be G-d fearing, without a character stain. The storyI told they turned around and used against me.
I told Rabbi Hariri andasked that he investigate the facts. At some point he came back andtold me that he is droping his allegations against me, but months havepassed and I have yet to be reassigned. Others, like me, have citedkashrut problems but I am not aware what actions have been takenagainst them. I will state with absolute certainty that they aredeceiving the public regarding the kashrut of meat that is importedfrom abroad”.A similar unpleasant experience is recorded by Rachamim (fictitiousname), a shochet and post-schita inspector with over 20 yearsexperience in the field of schita of cattle for the Chief Rabbinate.He documented inadequacies in the kashrus while operating in Brazil,reporting to his direct supervisor, but unaware what correctiveactions were taken, if any.The real action began upon his return however, when Rachamim beganhearing stories of how he was intoxicated while in Brazil, removed hisclothing and paraded around nude in the presence of a female maid.Later on it was learned the team leader reported on this in a lettersent to Rabbi Hariri.Rachamim filed a libel suit against the team leader.
Judge NoamSolberg seemed to have a difficult time determining who was tellingthe truth. He rejected the suit, explaining the team leader did speakagainst his subordinate, but then justified his actions since he wasresponsible to report on the performance of all members of the team tothe Rabbinate. During the legal proceeding, one of the shochtimclaimed that Rav Hariri called him to his room and rebuked him for hisreport favoring Rachamim during the legal process.Rachamim recorded his conversation with the shochet and then turned tothe civil service commissioner. According to one member of the staff,attorney Gilat Shoham, in her report, the content of the recordingraises fears of an attempt to interfere with an investigation.Rachamim was questioned on suspicion of intentionally seeking tointerfere with investigators.
The prosecutor decided to close the casedue to lack of evidence. In the very same conversation with theshochet, Rav Hariri instructed him “to tell the entire truth in thematter” and certainly, he did not seek to dismiss him from hisposition.One of the problems is that Rabbi Hariri not only concerns himselfwith kashrus issues, but with advancing the interests of importerstoo. Two years ago, Rabbi Hariri invited a number of importers asguests to his daughter’s wedding. They sat at a table together, peoplewho he maintains a professional relationship with him, but theynonetheless received pampering and special attention despite anobvious conflict of interest. This behavior is contrary to theguidelines governing government employees.In his response, Rabbi Hariri explains he only invited the importersafter consulting with and receiving the approval of the ChiefRabbinate’s legal advisor. The rabbi insists they were no treated anydifferently than other guests, adding at the wedding of his seconddaughter, they were not invited.Other problems include requests filed with the Prime Minister’s Officeto approve travel abroad by Sabag and Hariri. Over recent years, theyrequest approval for travel to meat factories abroad, adding theflights would be covered by the importers. The two traveled around theworld dozens of times, including Australia, Paraguay, France, Brazil,Argentina and more. Each flight was thousands of dollars, in additionto lodging and other expenses, all picked up by the importers.
One iscompelled to address the obvious conflict of interests, just how canthe rabbis disqualify meat from these importers who are funding theirtravel around the world.One team leader explains how Rav Hariri appeared in a factory inParaguay to inspect the schita on location. “In essence, he was notthere for a long time and just asked a number of questions and I wasshocked by them. I prepared him a number of sandwiches and he left [ona trip]”.According to Hariri, trips abroad are divided into two categories, toinspect new factories, at the expense of the importer, and to inspectthe kashrus of an operation that is already approved, at the expenseof the Rabbinate. He explains that it is entirely possible that onthis particular trip, when they traveled to inspect a new factory,that the made a stopover to visit and existing operation. This wouldbe likely since each trip abroad requires applications and approval,adding the ‘trip’ mentioned earlier was a onetime event during travelsto visit factories. He mentioned one trip to Argentina which wasaccompanied by a vacation trip, which he paid for out of pocket. “Attimes, members of the team prepare me sandwiches at their owninitiative” he explains, adding “who knows if kosher food is availableon the flight”.The Movement for Quality Government involved itself in the matter oftravel abroad. Avitar Amira turned to the Chief Rabbinate legalcounsel in 2007, attorney Shimon Ulman, pointing out that trips fundedby importers for kashrut inspectors results in a serious conflict ofinterests. He questioned what action would be taken to address theproblem.
Ulman responded in April 2008, explaining he has beenauthorized to introduce a ruling that would permit the Rabbinate toincur expenses. “I hope to complete this process by the end of 2008”he concluded. Over a year has passed and the situation has not changedwith Ulman admitting efforts to date have failed, adding all attemptsto establish a new entity between the Chief Rabbinate and importersresults in a significant increase in the cost factor.In 2004, ousted shochtim band together and signaled they were movingto the courts, prompting Hariri to take to the waves on chareidiradio, announcing anyone going to the secular courts instead of torabbis does not belong among us. Their actions he explainedstrengthened the feeling they were unsuited to work in the ChiefRabbinate as shochtim. His words were met with sharp criticism by thestate’s civil service commissioner.
Hariri explained that while he is a civil servant, he is a frumchareidi Jew and compliance with halacha must remain his firstpriority. Shochtim explain that Hariri makes the decisions as to whoworks and who does not and who travels and who is ousted, left behind.That is the case with Reuven Said, who awaits a hearing with Sabag andHariri since 2005. Previously, he was a treiborer (de-veiner) inParaguay but after complaining of substandard kashrut, he has beengrounded. He was flown home in the middle of an assignment andeventually, left his position as a result.“There were many shortcomings in the factory” Said explains, I saw non-Jews removing part of the animal without a mashgiach present, and Iinformed the team leader, but nothing was done. I saw non-Jewscarrying non-kosher organs which were then mixed among their koshercounterparts. Nothing was done. This made everything not kosher. Oneday I saw the team leader sign off on a non-kosher animal as kosher. Ipointed this out to him to make certain he knew. He gave me a look andthen insisted the inspector of the internal organs erred, as if nowthe animal was indeed kosher. I saw non-kosher parts placed in bagsmarked kosher. Once again I pointed this out, but this time, heshouted, ‘it’s not your business. Do your work.’”“From then on, the attitude changed and I was the subject of ridicule.After a number of incidents, the team leader informed me that I wasbeing returned home to Israel”. Said quickly phoned Hariri to informhim, demanding an explanation for sending him home.Raful told him that he was nothing and that he was not performingsatisfactorily and therefore, was being ousted from the team. Haririinformed him that the team leader wants him out.
In the heat of theargument, the following was stated.After ten years as a shochet for the Rabbinate abroad, Menachem(fictitious name) had enough, unwilling to continue. The substandardlevel of kashrus in two factories was totally unacceptable and he wasunwilling to tolerate any longer. He decided he no longer wanted anypart of this operation, and on his last assignment, he even paid forhis own return trip and left the team early, heading back to EretzYisrael.“During all the years in which I worked as a mashgiach and knifeinspector in various factories abroad, I encountered kashrut problems.Nevertheless, it was possible to find solutions and somehow continue”,explained Menachem. “This time, the flippant attitude of the team leftme with the feeling there was nowhere to go. I felt that no one cares.It got to the point I would not eat from the meat we slaughtered”.What were some of the kashrut deficiencies?Two uncertified shochtim were permitted to slaughter cattle. This ismost serious. When the team leader was informed, he responded “I do asI please”. In addition, the local non-Jewish workers used electricprods on the cattle prior to schita, using such strong shocks that thecattle were downed onto the ground. The force used was at the veryleast three times that permitted in accordance to halacha. This placedthe entire schita in doubt explains Menachem, but once again, the teamleader would not address the issues.“Another thing, according to halacha, a shochet may not inspect hisown knife.
We usually line up one behind the other and each checks theother’s knife. The knife must be perfect to avoid any unnecessarysuffering to the animal. The pace was so intense that each shochetinspected a knife for a quarter of a second. The halacha says one mustconcentrate on the act, not perform under duress or when one is tired.They did whatever they pleased.“I sent an SMS text message to Hariri in which I stated ‘there areproblems which compromise the integrity of the kashrut. I await yourimmediate reply’. Hariri phoned me and asked ‘do you want theimporters not to select you?’ to which I responded, ‘what’s my job, toworry about importers or kashrut?’ once again, when word got out thatI was a trouble maker, I was left out with colleagues not including mein the group, sitting away from me during meals and so forth.“A number of days later I returned home and I asked Sabag and Haririfor a halachic inquiry in the presence of the rabbonim poskim(halachic authority) of the Chief Rabbinate.
When we entered the roomI realized it was only the three of us. Even those against whom Icomplained were not present. They already left for work abroad onceagain”.Since then, Menachem does not work and has lost touch with colleaguesin the department. Menachem however is content, explaining he is notabout to rubber stamp meat as kosher when he knows the meat isproblematic.He concludes in a letter to Hariri and Sabag about two months ago,writing “simply one who wishes to survive on the team must hearnothing, say nothing and see nothing”. One veteran shochet added “ifthey slaughter donkeys (not kosher) and use forbidden animals don’tsay anything for if you do, you are in trouble”.Who is the Boss?In 2001 shochet Michael Ben-Shimol and two colleagues turned to theHigh Court of Justice, demanding to see their personal files as wellas the criteria of the Rabbinate’s unit which performs schita abroad.They simply wished to understand what criteria are used to assignsomeone to a specific position and what guidelines exist to send ateam member home prematurely. The shochtim were alleging favoritismand discriminatory practices in reaching such decisions.A number of years earlier, Ben-Shimol was working in schita inIreland, reporting that immediately following schita, the animal wasshot, as per the chief veterinarian on location, who was concernedwith needless suffering. I explained that halacha dictates if onewishes to shoot the animal, one must wait a few minutes but they didnot listen and the team leader was not strong enough to oppose thechief veterinarian.
I stood my ground, insisting the animals were nolonger kosher.“Upon my return, I requested a reassignment and that was followed byallocations hat I was intentionally causing animals to become treif(not kosher). It is simple. One who complains and reports kashrutproblems must then face an array of charges. One goes with women andthe other drinks. A third has problems because of hand tremors while Iintentionally render animals unfit. For four years I sent letters toeveryone and did everything possible, but no response. Finally, Iturned to the Supreme Court”.During the court hearing an agreement was reached that was given thestatus of a court ruling. Ben-Shimol received is personal file, thecriteria for the unit’s operations, and that he would be reassigned toteams abroad, three times, on probation.“Hariri: “An importer writes that he intentionally renders animals un-kosher and then continues to work. True he was not travelingregularly, but he did go abroad but importers do not want him.
Thehearing panel decided his qualifications must be retested in light ofthe allegations against him”.About 5 years ago, 14 employees, including Ben-Shimol, turned to theTel Aviv Labor Court. They filed a lawsuit against the Rabbinate. Theyclaimed discriminatory practices were standard and that those whocited problem were subject to retaliation.The court absolved the Rabbinate of responsibility, stating theemployer was not the Rabbinate but the importer. The court made thecase a precedent-setting affair, ruling on who the employer is. In aJuly 2008 ruling, Justice Chagit Saguy agreed with the shochtim,giving support to claims of discrimination and retaliatory practices,but ultimately agreed that the employer is the importer, not theRabbinate. A group of shochtim appealed to the National Labor Court,stating if the importer is the employee, there is a definite conflictof interests. The court’s ruling is pending.About a month ago, a group of shochtim held a protest and hungerstrike in Yerushalayim. Hariri followed the events and photographedsome of the shochtim sleeping on the street, at 1:00am, after a numberof days of a vigil at the scene outside the Rabbinate. They weresummoned to a meeting with Sabag and Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar Shlita.The meeting was cordial and a full investigation into allegations waspromised. The protestor closed shop, folded the protest tent andreturned home.A number of days later, in the mail, the minutes of the meetingarrived and they noticed much of what they said was not recorded inthe transcript. Issues pertaining to substandard kashrut were omitted.They realized they are alone and have no one to rely on.Rabbi Ezra Refael Hariri in his response states all allegations ofkashrut deficiencies were investigated thoroughly. In the last year heexplains, guidelines have been published stating exactly whatqualifications are required for a mashgiach. He adds that they arealways working to ensure the quality of personnel, their professionalexpertise as well as making certain they are God-fearing individuals.
He assures us that all allegations of kashrut problems are probed andwhen necessary, rabbonim poskim are involved. He adds that probes asconducted as thoroughly as possible, adding there are no hiddencameras and they do not possess the ability to monitor every teammember constantly.“I do not recall ever saying regarding any probe ‘why is this yourbusiness?’ If a person seeks to make a personal issue a halachicmatter, and presents it as such, we may not halt production.When there are allegations that animals are shocked or shot Iimmediately phone the team leader. Such allegations would never beignored”.The following response was released by attorney Shimon Ulman, theChief Rabbinate legal advisor.“We are talking about a group of 10 people here of some 700 employeesinvolved in schita abroad. For reasons that are not dependent on us,importers refuse to use them. This due to professional issues thathave been documented including an inability to work as part of a team,as well as a lack of tznius (modesty). They are not included in teamsworking abroad as per the decision of the head of the schita unit.There were a number of attempts to give them additional chances, butit simply did not work out.
We should not take the word of this small number of disgruntledemployees, who by the nature of the situation are distorting thefacts. It is understood that and issues of kashrut are probed asrequired, and have been unfounded in reality. The most mehadrin andpristine kashrut agencies are connected with the teams against whomthey are trying to taint, without justification and contrary to thefacts on the ground. Their allegations of kashrut inadequacies againstthe state kashrut mechanism are simply baseless and unfounded andsimply intentional slander, and therefore, difficult to address thisconcoction of allegations.It is very east to place a doubt on the state-run kashrut mechanism,upon which most citizens rely, and this is done without bringingfactual evidence and documents. Any allegation of kashrut inadequaciesis probed in-depth to make certain the public does not receivesubstandard products, to safeguard them from such a possibility. Thecomplaints of this band of shochtim have been reviewed numerous times,in-depth, by investigators of the State Civil Service Commission aswell, and were deemed as unfounded.
NOTE: I pondered publishing this but decided that it appeared in thenation’s leading newspaper, backed by evidence amassed by Yediot,thereby rendering it newsworthy and perhaps incumbent upon me to bringit to the attention of the English-speaking public.