How Kosher Meat Scandal Exploded in Los Angeles

'Monumental' Failure Rocks Community on Eve of Passover

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By Jonah Lowenfeld (Jewish Journal)

Published April 04, 2013.
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On 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 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 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.

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 and a few rabbis that led him to start investigating, beginning around Rosh Hashanah 2012.

On May 24, a group of rabbis who sit on the RCC’s Vaad Hakashrut, the committee dedicated to Jewish dietary law, watched Agaki’s footage. Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City was among them.

“You see [Engelman] talking to the mashgiach; you see him waiting until the mashgiach leaves,” Muskin said of the video. “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.”

At some point during the meeting, Engelman himself was brought into the room. The shopkeeper initially denied the allegations, but eventually admitted he had brought boxes of unsupervised food into the store, according to people present at the meeting.

“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. “But he did acknowledge bringing in boxes — he claimed it was poultry — into the store.”

The group decided to revoke Doheny’s certification that day but said that all meat purchased before 3 p.m. that day was still considered kosher. The rabbis reached this decision after consulting with Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, 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.

But 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.”

The RCC has been working hard to limit any damage to its reputation. In a statement released March 29, the RCC’s 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. “Even though it wasn’t a system-wide failure, it was a failure, because we owe the community to not have any failures.”

May said that throughout the week of Passover, he had been questioned about what the RCC knew, and when. He said the RCC knew competitors had complained about Doheny, including allegations that empty boxes, fraudulent labels and fraudulent tape had been seen in Engelman’s truck. But the RCC said in its statement that it had investigated all the complaints and found “no evidence of wrongdoing.”

After the RCC certification was revoked, two other rabbis offered to certify Doheny as kosher, arguing that the meat was kosher even if it did not reach the standard of glatt – a form of premium kosher that once was limited to Hasidic circles but in recent decades has become the standard for kashrut certifiers.

On Sunday, Shlomo Rechnitz, a prominent L.A. businessman and philanthropist, purchased the store from Engelman.

Rechnitz could not be reached immediately for comment. But May, who was among a group of rabbis who urged Rechnitz to buy the store, confirmed the sale to the Jewish Journal.

Under Rechnitz’s ownership, RCC would likely resume its certification of Doheny, May said.

“If Mr. Engelman is out entirely and it’s owned entirely by Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz, it’s likely that we will return our certification forthwith,” he said.

This story

Jewish Journal writer Zev Hurwitz contributed to this report.


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