Washington Caterer Sued Over Nonkosher Banquet

By Jennifer Siegel

Published October 14, 2005, issue of October 14, 2005.
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Among wedding faux pas, serving shrimp to your kashrut-observant in-laws ranks pretty high.

But that is exactly what happened during a wedding in Washington, according to a lawsuit recently filed in U.S. District Court by Mark and Judy Siegel. The couple’s daughter, Rebecca Siegel Baron, married Craig Baron in an April 2 ceremony at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The Siegels are suing their caterer, beltway institution Ridgewells Inc., for breach of contract, fraud, battery and infliction of severe emotional distress.

According to the Siegels’ attorney, Alyza Lewin, the couple had specifically requested a sushi bar that included only tuna, salmon and vegetables. But even at an event held across from the South Lawn of the White House and packed with Washington glitterati like Morton Kondracke and Eleanor Clift, things can go wrong.

After the ceremony, the mother of the groom “came over to the bride’s mother and told her, ‘There’s shrimp on the sushi bar,’” Lewin said in an interview with the Forward. The offending sushi was then removed but was replaced with sushi containing eel and octopus, which also are not kosher. The suit alleges that Mark Siegel, who served as the White House liaison to the Jewish community during the Carter administration, went to the kitchen to complain — only to find a tray of salmon toast prepared with cream cheese, even though the event was supposed to be nondairy to avoid violation of the religious prohibition against mixing milk and meat.

The Siegels (no relation to this reporter) are seeking damages equal to triple the amount of the $41,000 bill.

Ridgewells does not dispute the Siegels’ claim about the sushi, and the company refunded the $2,200 cost of the raw fish bar. But Ridgewells disputes having used cream cheese. Furthermore the company said that the Siegels did not order a kosher event and that the sushi mix-up should be treated as any other menu flub.

The Siegels specified that no dairy or shellfish be served at the wedding, and instructed Ridgewells to purchase kosher meats. But the couple did not contract for rabbinical supervision, preparation in a kosher kitchen, or the use of kosher dishes and silverware — services that Ridgewells estimates would have added anywhere from $12,000 to $15,000 to the total bill. The word “kosher” does not appear on the contract that the Siegels submitted with their complaint.

Ridgewells plans to file a countersuit against Mark Siegel for allegedly failing to pay a balance of $11,000 and “forcefully” grabbing one of Ridgewells’s female employees by the wrist, according to company president Tom Kean.

“Mr. Siegel was just verbally extremely vulgar and abusive to a number of employees of the company and was using profanity that is uncalled for in any situation,” Kean said. In their court filing, the Siegels acknowledged that Mark Siegel became “very angry” and “made remarks that might, in other circumstances, have been unseemly and inappropriate.”

Scandalously trayf affairs are, of course, not without precedent in the American Jewish community: In 1883, the first class of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College celebrated its rabbinical ordination with what has since become known as the “Treifa Banquet” — a meal that featured half-shell clams, soft-shell crabs and shrimp salad, as well as a number of kosher meats, and concluded with ice cream for dessert. Some traditional rabbis fled the meal, propelling the split that led to the creation of the Conservative movement in America.

More than a century later, there are arguably more ways than ever to be — or not to be — kosher. Picking and choosing among halachic, or rabbinic, dictates is nothing new. But according to Arnold Eisen, professor of religious studies at Stanford University, the lines between the Jewish and secular worlds are more blurred than ever, leaving many Conservative and Reform Jews to continually ask, “How distinctive do I want to be?”

The challenges are particularly pronounced for those who fall in the middle of the religious spectrum, according to Eisen.

When it comes to religious observance, the Stanford professor said that “the people who are in and know for sure that they are in — they have a strict definition of what it means to be in.” Conversely, he added, “The people who are out and have no doubt they’re out… they don’t have to make these decisions. [But] most Jews have to make these kinds of decisions all the time.”

For some traditionalists, however, there is no middle ground when it comes to kashrut. “It’s either kosher or it’s trayf,” said Rabbi Zev Schechter, director of the Metropolitan Rabbinical Kashrut Association. Schechter is a mashgiach (religious inspector) for Ridgewells. “I don’t care if you use kosher meat at that nonkosher affair. As soon as that meat hit the pots or cutting boards or knives, it becomes trayf, therefore the entire event was a nonkosher event.”

One guest at the wedding, who did not want to be named for fear of offending the Siegels, told the Forward that she keeps kosher and had originally believed that all the food at the wedding was prepared according to the laws of kashrut.

Rabbi Jeffrey Wohlberg, who officiated at the ceremony and serves as religious leader of Washington’s Conservative congregation Adas Israel, said he ate dinner at the party with the understanding that the food was kosher. He also said that he doesn’t eat at weddings that are not kosher.

But Lewin, the Siegels’ lawyer, said that the couple believed they ordered a menu that matched the kashrut level of their guests. According to Lewin, the groom’s family members — who are Conservative and keep kosher — said that they’ll “only eat kosher food at the restaurant, but we don’t require the restaurant to have a mashgiach; we don’t require the dishes to be separate dishes.”

Lewin said that by ordering kosher meat and insisting that no explicitly trayf food be served, the Siegels were trying to make a “goodwill gesture towards the groom’s family.”

The Siegels, she said, wanted to “make this good impression and that’s [what is] hard.”

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