Jerusalem Hotels – Sheraton Jerusalem Plaza

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

This is a most difficult report, not due to a lack of cooperation or information, but quite the contrary – to much information to report.

The Sheraton’s rabbi and chief mashgiach, Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Altman was more than cooperative and provided me with more than a bit of information. While I realize electronic media is more forgiving regarding the length of a report, I could not possibly include all the information given over to me during over two hours of discussion. I will however do my utmost to present facts, stories and antidotes as they were given over to me by the veteran mashgiach, who has been serving in his post for 17 years.

“The Plaza” as the hotel is more commonly known, has served for many years as a bastion for the Sabbath-Observant community long before such high standards of kashrut became available in other luxury hotel settings. The hotel is known for its high standards, and perhaps for its Shabbat lunch buffet, undoubtedly a favorite for many North American visitors.

Anyway, down to business – Rabbi Altman explained his hotel is certified “mehadrin” by the Jerusalem Rabbinate, and as such, there are no exceptions. All meats are glatt (chalak), dairy chalav yisrael, greens Gush Katif, and so-forth. All dry goods and ingredients must have mehadrin certifications and from what I could see, they all do.

Rav Altman, whose knowledge regarding the kashrut industry became increasingly apparent as the interview proceeded, was extremely careful responding to a number of questions, making certain that a layperson such as I could absorb the facts accurately. When asked which hecsher is used for meat, milk, and cheese for example, he candidly explained that they are all mehadrin. (More on this in the article)

The entire hotel maintains the same level of kashrut, including the Primavera Restaurant on the right side of the lobby, all dining rooms and lounges – there are no exceptions.

He expounded on his response explaining that he is permitted to use any hechsher approved by the Jerusalem Rabbinate, which presents him with a large array of meats and dairy products, all maintaining a high standard. As such, he refuses to tell any guest that the milk is a particular firm, and the same for meat served at a meal.

The rabbi stated it is quite simple and one must realize that in an institutional setting, a chef may exhaust a supply of a specific cheese and take another off a shelf, another brand and another kosher certification. As such, he will not take responsibility for something that in essence cannot be controlled due to the enormous volume of food passing through the hotels kitchens daily.

The rabbi stated that guests may realize all the foods are mehadrin, and the kitchen maintains a high standard, but regarding the certification of a specific item served, that is a non-starter.

That said, he did add one booking a private affair may indeed order a special hecsher of meat for example, Rav Landau or the Jerusalem-based Eida Hareidit. This however is not a commonplace occurrence he explains, since it is known the hotel’s level of kashrut is quite high.

The kitchens are all separate, meat, dairy, bakery, and parve – used for fish. Everything follows the traditional pattern, color-coded cutting boards, holes in utensils for dairy and no holes for meat. Flour and rice are checked/cleaned mechanically, with the machines located in a special room for that purpose alone.

We toured it all, the lounges, dining rooms, ballrooms, kitchens, refrigerators and freezers, and storage facilities. I even saw the private dining area which over a decade ago housed the then-famous Cow on the Roof Restaurant, which was not mehadrin due to a number of items on the menu. That has since been closed and now, the entire hotel maintains one level of kashrut.

There is a mashgiach on duty every shift, as well as a live-in on Shabbat and Yomim Tovim (Chagim).

In addition to the food aspect, the mehadrin hotel attempts to maintain a Shabbos atmosphere, explaining none of the non-Jewish employees will willingly perform anything forbidden on Shabbat if asked to do so by a guest. Jewish and non-Jewish employees alike are well-aware of restrictions regarding Jewish Law and customs, and they seem to accept their instructions the same as other rules governing each one’s respective job description.

In addition, all electronic items in rooms are turned off before the beginning of Shabbat, including locks, switches that shut off lights when room doors are closed, and other questionable modern-day devices in the bathrooms and elsewhere.

Other steps are taken as well to meet the stringent halachic rulings of the Chazon Ish regarding the warming and serving of foods on Shabbat, as well as the serving of the foods to guests. Much behind-the-scenes effort is taking place, perhaps appearing benign to most guests, but in actuality, it is part of efforts to adhere to many ‘chumrot’ (stringencies) to accommodate the most demanding kosher consumer.

As an overall conceptual matter, Rav Altman explained there is an advantage regarding kashrut in a major hotel, especially a chain hotel, since the name and prestige surrounding the operation is a matter of premium importance and most managers are too wise to risk a future career and/or the hotel’s name for immediate gain, even a profitable one. As such, there is less risk in a hotel than a small business that a buyer would intentionally acquire something which is deemed unacceptable by the mashgiach.

Logistically speaking he added it is almost impossible, since the purchase of any food item involves a number of departments in the hotel, and it is difficult to conceive of a situation in which they would all conspire to deceive the public, jeopardize their careers, and the hotel’s good name. This would include the mashgiach, hotel buyer, chef, budgetary personnel and others.

Let’s jump to Pesach, which by the way is in full swing at the Plaza. Some areas are already marked “Kosher for Passover,” and boarded and/or padlocked close. Others are well on their way while others are still operating as usual. While it is too lengthy an explanation for this forum regarding detailed realities of kashering The Plaza for Pesach (Passover), I was more than amazed to observe and listen to the rabbi – who masterfully explained the logistical realities of koshering one room at a time which still maintaining a flow of food to satisfy his guests, never permitting the behind-the-scenes reality impact the level of service to guests.

This is in no small part due to accumulated experience and a total familiarity with the facilities available to him as well as the actual literal ins-and-outs regarding all the kitchens, storage facilities and other spaces, permitting him many options. Rav Altman explained that if he were less familiar with the physical layout, he couldn’t possibly know what areas to cordon off, lock, permit access to and so forth since the area being kashered is simply too massive.

This year adds an additional challenge to the most seasoned mashgiach, with seder being on Saturday night. The hotel will be serving only kosher for Passover foods at least 5 days before the holiday, at which time one may eat one’s fill of matzah but there will no longer be bread to be found.

Interestingly, in a world paying increasing attention to security and anti-terror concerns, the days before Pesach hotel staff and security who greet you will not be any less concerned about checking visitors, but they will be no less diligent in efforts to prevent anyone from bringing any chametz (not for Passover use) items into the hotel, and this I dare say does not exist anywhere except Jerusalem.

The Passover menu of course is also mehadrin, with matzot being shmura only, both hand and machine. Of course there is no shrurya (gebrochs) or kitniot.

For those readers well-versed in the halachic (Jewish Law) controversy of rolls vs. egg matzah on the Shabbat morning prior to Seder, you will enjoy this. The rabbi explained that rolls or any form of chametz is a non-starter, leaving him with egg matzah, which some leading rabbinical authorities feel is more problematic than bread. (Agree or not, this is not the point, but reality). This is because we learn that flour and water can become chametz in 18 minutes. In the case of egg matzah, we mix fruit juice and flour. The Talmud teaches us however that if water enters this mixture, it can become chametz instantly, creating the problem.

As such, the rabbi uses kosher for Passover shmura matzah meal, which is boiled to change its halachic status, and then uses the pasty remains to make a dough and ultimately, a pre-Passover roll which is not chametz as is the bread and deemed by most significantly better than egg matzah. The point – Rav Altman goes to great lengths to provide an extremely high level of kashrut to permit guest to sit back and enjoy. (He did add the bakers are less than thrilled with the reality, but they will do what they have to do).

Back to the day-to-day — I was truly privileged to meet senior master chef Shalom Zohar, who has been at his post for 30 years – explaining to me that he has prepared meals for many presidents and state leaders from the United States, Europe and elsewhere.

A marvelously colorful personality, a most illustrated individual, who explained, “I raised six children her, grandchildren, and was offered jobs in some of the world’s best hotels and institutions.”

When I boldly confronted him as to why he is still here, he stated, “My wife refuses to leave Jerusalem,” adding “in three months, I am going home. I have had enough. It is time to relax.”

Back to Pesach – After showing an extremely large state-of-the-art new cooking apparatus in the meat kitchen, the rabbi explained it will be cleaned, covered, and placed out of use for Pesach. He explained the chef did not want it dismantled as he insisted be the case to kasher it for Pesach so the decision was made to put it out of service for the holiday and revert back to the simple stoves and ovens for the one-week festival.

Rav Altman explained that the in-house maintenance staff will disassemble most stoves, the parts will be cleaned and kashered, and then reassembled but some of the more complicated items, such as the new ovens in the bakery which are too digitally advanced. As such, the company’s technicians are called in and paid to spend an entire day to dismantle them and remove the special brick bottom, permitting cleaning and kashering, and they then return to reassemble the item.

One maintenance worker explained that he and his colleagues will spend days just disassembling and cleaning the automatic dishwashers before the rabbi will even agree to inspect it and then bring in his team with blowtorches and hot water to render it usable for the holiday.

Rabbi Altman explained that 90% of the Passover preparations are the cleaning stage. He adds that rarely will a room or piece of equipment pass his scrutinizing inspection first or second time around. The workers are accumulating serious overtime ahead of the holiday due to the tight schedule and his uncompromising standard.

As is the case with such interviews, there is a measure of discussion which falls under the ‘off the record’ category, but this particular matter the rabbi requested that I include, in his name, to impress upon you, the reader, just how strongly he feels based on his many years of experience at the helm of this major institution.

Rabbi Altman questions just how many non-kosher hotels are ‘turned over’ or rendered “kosher-mehadrin” in a matter of days, permitting caterers to come in and begin preparing their culinary delights to accommodate the many Passover guests. “It is a business” adds the rabbi, who stated with absolute certainty that such a feat is simply impossible – explaining that his mehadrin hotel begins preparations for Passover about a month ahead of the holiday, and with an increased staff, experienced workers, all of whom are familiar with the setting and the equipment, just manage to get the job completed in time.

That said, the efforts being exerted in The Plaza ahead of Pesach are quite impressive, and I plan to return ahead of the holiday, to take advantage of the personal invitation to observe the actual koshering of the kitchens as the holiday draws near.

For example, the rabbi explained that ahead of releasing the knives and kitchen tools used on Pesach, his team will use engraving devices to carve a new shape into the handles. This prompted me to question their fashion design attempt, which he explained as follows.

Each year, a number of items will remain in use after the holiday, perhaps a chef stating he prefers a certain tool over another. As such, when next Passover comes around, there can be some confusion over the tool which was packed away and one that remained out. Therefore, every year he adds another engraved pattern to eliminate any confusion as to the status of a piece of kitchen equipment being kosher for Passover or not.

About 7-8 years ago, the rabbi took a leave-of-absence and worked in the Prima Palace Hotel on Jerusalem’s Pines Street, the former Central Hotel.

The rabbi was brought in to set up the kashrut operation for the new hotel. He permitted me to reveal a story, which he chalks up to “Divine providence”.

He explained one day, after completing his morning shift, he left but decided to leave a package behind, to be picked up later in the day as he made his way home. He returned later in the day, and as he entered in the lobby, for a “fraction of a second” he saw the head chef walking with a dairy tray of salad components from the meat to dairy kitchen.

He immediately confronted the senior employee, who “began to mutter and stumble on his words,” while assuring the rabbi all was well.

The next day the rabbi, the chef, labor representatives and hotel management met to discuss the serious matter. Rabbi Altman explained that while he was pained, he was compelled to demand his dismissal, which by the way did take place. He told me that if such a high-ranking member of the kitchen staff intentionally did something forbidden, and would not even admit to his actions, he can no longer be trusted and he had to be dismissed to ensure subordinates realize the severity of his infraction.

Back to The Plaza, he spoke of numerous occasions when parties were booked at the hotel and family members brought home baked goods, creating a most uncomfortable situation. The story ends that in all cases, without exception, the home made goods were removed.

Rabbi Altman explains that no outside food items may be introduced to the hotel other than sealed packages of acceptable kashrut certifications. The exception is hard liquor, which he explained the host of a private event must present to him 48 hours ahead of the event, at which time each bottle will be reviewed, and approved or rejected. He explained that the bottom line, permitting guests to bring their own liquors is a favor to enable them to save considerable amounts of money since the hotel prices for hard drinks is quite high.

Regarding catering off premises, which he related occurs quite frequently, the hotel takes it own ovens and all serving equipment, never permitted to rely on anyone’s own kitchen equipment or utensils. He even cited one case in which they catered an event in Telshe Stone, a chareidi community located in the Jerusalem corridor. Despite the event being hosted in the home of a Chassidic Jew, none of his utensils or kitchen equipment was permitted for use.

I also met a young mashgiach, Aaron Katz, who was coming in to begin his afternoon shift. We exchanged greetings and he got on with his schedule.

And once again, back to Pesach – the hotel begins using disposable goods for room service about 10 days prior to the holiday to ensure no chametz plates or cutlery pop up where they shouldn’t as the holiday nears.

Another Pesach related note, the rabbi told me that he even found a different rubber glove which does not use talc made with starch with creates a problem in the kitchen on Passover. This is the extent of Rabbi Altman’s efforts to bring the daily and Passover standards to a truly mehadrin level.

A special Passover mashgiach is brought in about 10 days before the holiday, whose entire job is to observe all items brought into the hotel from the loading dock. Each item is scrutinized to ensure it is labeled Kosher for Passover with acceptable mehadrin supervision.

And to conclude holiday matters, the rabbi detailed at length his efforts following the holiday, to ensure the items being delivered were sold in accordance to Jewish Law – not a small task to say the least. He explained that while there is little problem vis-à-vis large firms with reliable supervision, but many of the items delivered come from distributors, not the manufacturer so he is compelled to trace down all items to ensure they were not in Jewish hands during the Passover holiday, which would render them unfit for use at any time.

In short, I enjoyed an educational experience, given the red carpet treatment by a knowledgeable, cordial, G-d fearing, uncompromising mashgiach who seems to never tire of making every possible effort to bring his guests a very high standard of kashrut.

To speak with Rabbi Altman, or an on-duty mashgiach, one may call the hotel’s main desk and request the hotel rabbi. 972-2-629-8666. The rabbi speaks fluent Hebrew, Yiddish, Spanish and conversational English.



The next article in the hotel series will appear G-d willing following the Passover holiday. Best wishes for a Chag Kasher V’Samayach to all readers.


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