Special Report: Trusting Kashrus in Eretz Yisrael – Think Again! (Part 1)

Motzei Shabbos – March 28, 2009

YWN has many a time released articles seeking to explain that not all that is advertised as kosher or mehadrin kosher in Eretz Yisrael actually is. In some cases, what is advertised as mehadrin may not even conform to the most minimum standards of kashrus.

Many a visitor and resident alike will confidently enter a store that proudly displays a multi-colored artistic kashrus certificate boasting the pristine mehadrin standard of a restaurant when in actuality; the certificate and the agency are bogus.

Baruch Hashem, the daily Maariv, the second largest newspaper in the country in its weekend Sof Shavua” Magazine did a major story on the bogus kashrus industry, which is lucrative and flourishing in Eretz Yisrael. Following is a reprint of the Jerusalem Kosher News translation of the article, which is poignant by the fact is appears in the secular media, not just the JKN watchdog kashrus information list.

NOT KOSHER – Maariv Article
A number of years ago, Menashe Belker was released from prison, not for the first time. The 54-year-old Lod resident began his illustrious criminal career in 2001, and has since been convicted numerous times on assault charges, assault against family members, adults and children. He was also convicted of some crimes involving property.

Upon his release from prison, he sought to set out on a new path, to earn a living, and that he did. Having worked as a mashgiach earlier in his life he decided to embark on a business, to reenter the world of kashrus – launching the Badatz Bnei Yisrael under the supervision of HaRav HaGadol Menashe Belker. Who decided he was to head the kashrus organization, certifying his qualifications, none other than Belker himself.

Despite the difficulties in launching the new endeavor, he fared well, taking NIS 1,063 a month from one store and less from others. At the end of the day, he was apprehended by authorities.

Belker persuaded the Rechovot Magistrate’s Court that he has indeed repented, promising the court he will cease the illegal operation and stop granting kashrus certificates to stores. The court noted the severity of his actions, explaining his crimes warrant a severe penalty but in light of the fact that he is expressing remorse, and has promised not to return to his unacceptable behavior, he was sentenced to three months of community service.

Members of the fraud division of the Israel Police Central District arrested Belker against last Sunday, once again for selling illegal kashrus certificates to restaurants and bakeries.

In shackles, Belker heard the harsh words of rebuke from Justice Avraham Heiman who shouted “What is this? Anyone who pleases gives out kashrus certificates? Tomorrow, my grandfather will begin giving out certificates. Store owners and Belker ran a con, with clients believing they were eating kosher but in essence, they were chumps.”

This story perhaps highlights the difficulties being faced by the Chief Rabbinate, which continues to wage its war on illegal and unauthorized kashrut supervisions that arise like mushrooms after the rainfall. These unscrupulous individuals are well-aware of the kashrus industry and the profit that can be made, taking the step to enter the market in the hope of reaping the profits. They rely on the many stores that need a certificate more than they actually require kashrus. The Chief Rabbinate has apprehended many a Belker, but the courts are lenient, usually sentencing them to community service or fines involving insignificant amounts of money.

The law of the land permits stores to decide if they wish to be kosher or non-kosher. Those opting for kosher must file for a kashrut certificate from the Chief Rabbinate via the local religious council. The Rabbinate over the years has not been bothered by the fact that some eateries will add a certificate from a more demanding agency alongside the Chief Rabbinate certificate, an agency which makes more halachic demands.

Until a few years ago, there were only a handful of such agencies which were commonly referred to as “Badatzim”. A number of years ago, individuals realized the potential for profit and new agencies were launched and so it began, with many stores looking for the best deal, not genuinely interested in kosher supervision but a framed certificate on the wall.

Rafi Yochai, who heads the Chief Rabbinate Fraud Division explains that taking a kosher certificate in place of the Rabbinate is illegal. A restaurant must have supervision from the state agency to verify the sign stating “kosher” is backed y something and those eating in the restaurant get what is advertised. “It is like someone who advertises he is a doctor and does not have a state license to practice” explains Yochai.

As this article will show, one may have difficult ascertaining who stands behind a kashrus certificate, if it is legitimate or nothing more than a sign.

The Child Prodigy
The Shemen HaMishcha certificate can be seen in many falafel stores and eateries in the Tel Aviv area over recent years. The certificate is extremely similar to that of the Tel Aviv Rabbinate, making it very easy for one to mix it up for just that.

The Shemen HaMishcha non-profit was established by the self-proclaimed HaRav HaGaon Yaakov Ben-Shimon Shlita, about 10 years ago, when HaRav HaGaon was all of 26. Also on the board of directors is brother Bentzion, 22, and brother Eliezer, 19, who also serves as chief financial officer, signing checks for NIS hundreds of thousands annually.

The Tel Aviv Rabbinate reports documenting over 100 stores in Tel Aviv with the Shemen HaMishcha hechsher, with each store paying NIS hundreds monthly.

One Tel Aviv store owner explains “he came to me a number of years ago, offering me a hechsher for NIS 400 a month. You cannot exactly call what he does here a hechsher, coming to visit once every few weeks, and selling mezuzot while he visits. After about a year I understood the principle and left his agency. I just was not serious or legitimate.”

Other stores informed Maariv they are paying between NIS 500 and NIS 1,000 monthly, less than charged by the Tel Aviv Rabbinate.

Ben-Shimon knows the law, which prohibits issuing a Teudat Kashrut (kashrut certificate), which is why his signs read “Teudat Hashgacha” (supervision certificate).

Eldad Mizrachi, who heads the Tel Aviv Religious Council, laments the reality of the Shemen HaMishcha certificates which have flooded the marketplace. The council has been waging a war against the pirate agency for years. He explains that a person enters a store, sees a kashrus certificate and eats – generally not taking the time to read the words and especially the smaller print. Mizrachi explains they customer hasn’t a clue that nothing stands behind the certificate which is intended to fool the client and nothing more.

The Shemen HaMishcha Community
This week, we visited the Shemen HaMishcha office, located in a new building in Ashkelon. The address brings us to the third floor. We discover it is none other than Ben-Shimon’s home, with his wife greeting us at the door. She explained she was in the midst of bathing the children and therefore, was not available to speak to the media, politely closing the door.

When one calls the telephone number of the kashrut certificates, one receives a recorded message “You have reached HaRav HaGaon Ben-Shimon Shlita”. We took him up on the recording and turned to Ben-Shimon.

Ben-Shimon – We do not issue kashrut certificates. We have a private Hashgacha and we have total control on what takes place in stores using the supervision”.

Maariv: Why do we need your private supervision?
Ben-Shimon: We have our own community, the Shemen HaMishcha community that identifies with our service and relies on us.

Maariv: How many people make up your community?
Ben-Shimon: I don’t know. A lot, 50 or 5,000. The numbers are not important.

Maariv: Nevertheless, please tell us.
Ben-Shimon; There are dozens of families affiliated with us.

MAARIV: Nevertheless you are providing kashrus supervision for dozens of restaurants so several dozen of your people can eat. If your goal is not for profit, wouldn’t it be better to just give your people a list of places in which they can eat.
Ben-Shimon: It is a problem. The issue is dynamic.

Maariv: Are you an ordained rabbi?
Ben-Shimon; Ah, um, a rabbi, yes, I am a rabbi.

Maariv: Do you have ordination from the Chief Rabbinate?
Ben-Shimon: Yes

As the probe continued Ben-Shimon backtracked and said he does not have ordination from the Chief Rabbinate, explaining it is not important and he does not care to discuss it.

Eldad Mizrachi or the Tel Aviv Religious Council tried repeatedly to work with the Non-Profit Registrar to halt the activities of the Shemen HaMishcha organization but for a long time, the registry accepted the explanations given by Ben-Shimon, that he is only involved in giving supervision, not acting as a kashrut supervising agency.

Finally, even the registrar realized something and a strongly-worded letter was recently sent to Ben-Shimon stating that his organization is actively and knowingly taking part in a fraud being committed against the public and is therefore in violation of law prohibiting kashrut related frauds. They non-profit, Shemen HaMishcha was informed it may not issue certificates to any restaurant that does not have a kosher certification certificate from the rabbinate. The certificates they issue must also state specifically that it is not a kashrut certification.

Eldad even turned to the state attorney general, and about a month ago, a member of the Justice Ministry staff, attorney Harel Goldberg issued a legal opinion regarding Shemen HaMishcha’s claim that is only gives supervision, not kashrut certification. Goldberg concurs, that the organization is indeed perpetrating a fraud against the kosher consumer and is indeed seeking to sell a store as kosher while it has no authorization to do so since it is not recognized as a known legal entity. The non-profit is indeed violating laws pertaining to kashrus fraud.

While in Tel Aviv and other areas around the country the battle is over the business for regular kashrut certificates, in Jerusalem, it surrounds the mehadrin and mehadrin min ha’mehadrin market. Customers in these stores expect ingredients that are of a much higher kosher standard, conforming to stringent kashrut regulations.

Glatt (Chalak) for example demands different schita (ritual slaughtering) and inspections related to the process. They are even more stringencies in some areas for sephardim, who must eat glatt and are not permitted other meat. These mehadrin agencies claim to have mashgichim operating on the premises, maintaining a watchful eye on the kosher integrity of the kitchen and entire operation.

Such supervision is obviously more expensive explains Rav Yochai of the Fraud Division. “The meat demands additional inspection than ‘regular’ meat. The supervision demands the presence of rabbinical inspectors at all times and these things cost money. A representative of one of these ‘badatz’ agencies comes to a store and asks how much they pay monthly for supervision, NIS 2,500? I will give it to you for NIS 1,500. A month later, another badatz arrives and offers it for NIS 750. Today, some of the badatz supervisions offer their service for NIS 250. For such a price, it is quite obvious there is no mashgiach (rabbinical supervisor) on premises. This is a bluff.

“Such people, seeking to make a profit have learned they open a non-profit, sell their services and thereby earn major profits and report [to the government] that they are non-profit. You must see their sale people operate, to win over new clients to really get an understanding of the scope of the operation”.

The rabbis are waging a war against these agencies. It should also be noted there are chareidim primarily who run independent kosher certifying agencies which indeed maintain high standards. It is evident by their high prices due to the significantly higher costs. Seeing to bring an end to the bogus mehadrin certificates, the rabbinate has begun a new policy, that any store apprehended with a bogus mehadrin certificate will lose its rabbinate certificate as well.

Jerusalem is especially suitable for badatz agencies due to the major chareidi population. One agency boasts itself as “Vaad HaKashrut” with the name of a prominent rav who is totally unaware that his name was used and appears on the agency’s kashrut certificates. Others use buzz words like “Rabbanim Gaonim” but actual names are never given.

One such bogus agency is Nachlat Yitzchak, which uses the name of the late Mekubal HaRav Yitzchak Kadouri zt”l. the agency in recent years gave its supervision to restaurants and many factories producing food items.

Nachlat Yitzchak was quick to turn to the High Court of Justice where the Chief Rabbinate explained in one case, the store was giving its mehadrin supervision to a business operating on Shabbos, and in another case, an eatery serving meat and milk together. In yet another case, treif meat was found on premises, a large well-known catering operation.

In one raid of a factory, Chief Rabbinate inspectors found a printing press for kashrut certificates.

Nachlat Yitzchak began a smear campaign against Rav Yaakov Sabag, who works with Rav Rafi Yochai, but it backfired and was used against the agency in the High Court case.

It’s Not Relevant Now on the Bus
Another agency is also working, using the High Court of Justice to achieve its objectives, having changed names three times of late, from Keter Kashrut to Tiferet Kashrut and Kisei Shel Eliyahu. The certificates of the ‘mehadrin min ha’mehadrin’ supervision are signed by Rav Avi Tzvi, who is none other than Sahar Mizrachi, the man behind the entire operation.

In the state’s case now in the High Court, it was learned that Mizrachi was once a mashgiach for the rabbinate, but he was dismissed for unacceptable performance.

As is the case with Nachlat Yitzchak, the Chief Rabbinate recently released a publication stating Keter Kashrut and the other names used by Mizrachi are unauthorized and in violation of the state’s kashrut laws. Chief Rabbinate computers also seem to indicate that Mizrachi is not an ordained rabbi.

In the case, one of the restaurants mentioned is a branch of Burgers Bar, in the Gilo area of Jerusalem. The sign of course read under the supervision of Rav Mizrachi. When the branch owner was questioned by inspectors, warned he would face charges if he perjured himself, he said Mizrachi asked for NIS 500 in the beginning and NIS 500 a month, which eventually was raised to NIS 641 including VAT tax. He admitted that Sahar made no kashrut demands and did not ask him to sign any commitment to conform to any regulations. The store owner admitted for him, what was important was the certificate that said mehadrin, nothing more. In the beginning he added, a mashgiach would come for 10-30 minutes twice monthly, but then, he only came by to collect the money. He came once monthly for money. There is no mashgiach! That is when I realized the entire operation is a fraud.

About a month ago, an inspection was conducted on the “Mana V’Chetzi” restaurant in Jerusalem (7 Ben Zakkai Street). Here too, he explained it was about money, NIS 500 a month. The owner explained a mashgiach came for the first two week and for the remaining 8.5 months that they worked with the organization, only monthly to collect money.

Like Nachlat Yitzchak, Mizrachi used the name of a ‘major player’ to legitimize his kashrut certificates, none other than Rav Eliyahu Abarjil, who happens to be the rav of a Jerusalem neighborhood an Av Bet Din in Beersheva. When questioned, Rav Abarjil explained he is totally unaware that his name is being used and has absolutely no affiliation with Sahar or his Keter agency.

Mizrachi told the court that nevertheless, he received Rav Abarjil’s permission, adding there are many badatz agencies operating, referring to the legitimate ones, which are also “unauthorized” under the state kashrut laws, explaining he is being selected because his agency is small and therefore vulnerable.

Maariv to Mizrach: How much do you receive for your service?
Mizrachi: It’s not relevant, especially not on the phone.

Maariv: Yes, you are not compelled to respond but I am just asking you what the problem is? What are you afraid of?
Mizrachi: this is not relevant now. Especially while I am on the bus because my car is in the garage.

Maariv: So what’s the problem? Give me a number.
Mizrachi: You are trying to compel me to say something I do not wish to say.

Maariv: You’re right. I am just trying to understand where the problem is, why you cannot reveal a number.
Mizrachi: I will respond when I see it is relevant. At present, I am simply not in the mood to respond.
END of Maariv article.

Part 2 I hope will be forthcoming before Pesach. I have given testimony to Rav Yochai in the case against Mizrach as well based on my findings and am currently working on a number of restaurants which in my opinion, continue to perpetrate a fraud against the kosher consumer.

For now, I suggest one relies on authorized agencies, there are many, including local rabbinate certificates, and the badatz agencies including but not limited to the Eida Chareidit, Rav Landau of Bnei Brak, Agudat Yisrael, Belz Machzikei Hadas, Rechovot Mehadrin, Rav Rubin, Beit Yosef, Yoreh Deah- Rav Machpud, and Bnei Tzion.

More to follow!

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Thanks for listening
Yechiel Spira for Jerusalem Kosher News

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