State Comptroller Documents Kashrut Deficiencies in Major Cities

Chief Rabbinate of Israel

Chief Rabbinate of Israel

State Comptroller Justice Micha Lindenstrauss on Wednesday (May 6th) released his semi-annual report, a 63 chapter comprehensive volume addressing many aspects of Israeli life, including kashrus.

The state Comptroller’s report cites serious flaws pertaining to the process of issuing kashrut certificates in Israel, addressing the state’s authorized body, the Chief Rabbinate and local rabbinical councils. 

Members of the state comptroller’s staff were out in the field, seeking to meet with the mashgichim, but to their dismay, in many instances, too many, the mashgichim were ‘no shows’. The report cites that some mashgichim are responsible for numerous places, drawing more than one salary, while not even showing up for one job.

This latest report released by State Comptroller Justice Micha Lindenstrauss address the state’s kashrus law as well as kashrus fraud laws, legislation intended to safeguard the kashrut of the Jewish State, placing the responsibility in the hands of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, and ultimately, in the hands of local religious councils.

The state comptroller wished to understand just how reliable the certificates appearing in stores actually are, sending staff investigators to three cities, Haifa, Jerusalem and Rishon L’Tzion. The results of the investigation were alarming to put it mildly.

The report states there were many deficiencies in all three cities, citing the level of the kashrus operation was deplorable in the overwhelming majority of places. (We must also take into consideration the report is written by a secular and not religious agency, so in all fairness, regarding kashrut, there may be a missing element of understanding of what halacha demands).

Some of the details mentioned include a total lack of a paper trail, missing and incomplete applications from businesses applying for and receiving kashrut certification, a void of information pertaining to the owners and the workings of restaurants and businesses, no pertinent personal information pertaining to the mashgichim, and lacking kashrut reports and time accountability forms from mashgichim.

The report states that a random inspection of 80 businesses was conducted and information was missing in the overwhelming number of them. In 24 cases, there were no forms and reports indicating anything from the mashgiach. Some did not contain updated paperwork since 2005 and data such as current factual information was absent, as were reports from the mashgichim. In short, the files did not exhibit any system of tracking and maintaining control over businesses under a local council’s supervision.

Rabbi Eliyahu Schlesinger Shlita serves as the posek of the Jerusalem Religious Council, the rabbinical authority who must undertake the responsibility for the final halachic decisions that must be made. In his response to the report, he stated that while the findings of the state comptroller are “inexcusable”, he is pleased that it deals primarily with “clerical and not kashrus issues”, a statement that I find lacking in substance due to the damaging nature of the report, as well as my own findings over the past two years. (I hope that in the coming weeks I will meet with Rav Schlesinger and ask him a number of questions regarding his plans to improve the system in Jerusalem for the future).

Anyway, Rav Schlesinger explained on Wednesday evening that today, a mashgiach must complete a daily report, an accounting of his time and a record of the day’s activities in businesses under his charge.

Beginning in Yerushalayim, it is pointed out that since 2003; there has not been a chief rabbi or even a rav who is responsible for the kashrus in the Jewish capital. As a result, kashrut certificates were issued in violation of the state’s kashrut laws. “Those issuing the certificates were not authorized to do so”.

The Mashgiach Simply Does Not Show Up for Work

I am happy to see that the state comptroller and I see eye-to-eye on a number of issues, one being the mashgichim. For those of you following my articles over the past year, you are aware of the fact that the mashgichim of the religious council make rare appearances in restaurants at best, and many times, I spend hours waiting, even at Jerusalem Rabbinate Mehadrin places, but no one was to be found, as was the case in the Jerusalem Central Bus Station. This is not to say there are not honest diligent mashgichim out there, but my experience, which I dare say qualifies me to make a statement regarding the Jerusalem Rabbinate supervision, has shown me the mashgichim are ‘no shows’. If you recall in one report I did, I interviewed a mashgiach who is responsible for a Burgers Bar store on Jaffe Street in downtown Jerusalem. He told me that he visits the store, a meat restaurant mind you run by non-Observant staff, 3-4 times weekly for 10-15 minutes a visit. That does not represent kashrut supervision.

The comptroller also addresses the matter of the Badatz hechsherim, and from his perspective, they are indeed problematic since the law entrusts the religious councils to bestow kosher certification on restaurants, not private ‘unauthorized non-state’ agencies. The comptroller points out that in some case, the religious council “is the badatz, as is the case in Rechovot and Jerusalem”. The report also cites some mashgichim are employed in a eating establishment by both the religious council and badatz agency, earning two salaries.

The report states this arrangement enables the mashgichim to receive a salary as a state employee as well as a private employee of another agency, not really understanding the differences of the level of supervision given, but rightfully questioning just what are the religious councils doing and why are the private agencies necessary?

Let’s turn our attention to Haifa for a moment, where the condition according to the state comptroller is no better than in the capital, a basic failure in adhering to the most minimum standard of record-keeping. Rav Schlesinger states that in Jerusalem, this is no longer the case, also pointing out that the period referred to in the report preceded his tenure. Truth be said, in any event, many of the issues mentioned above are not included in the rav’s responsibilities, but the kashrus issues, which are poor at best, is another matter. (I have reported on numerous occasions that Rav Schlesinger is working to implement change, having waged a war against the bogus hechsherim).

“Today one can enter a restaurant and rely on the certificate” states Rav Schlesinger, a statement that I personally find lacking factual substance, since I have seen time and time again this is simply not the case – the mashgichim are generally not present and that is today’s reality.

The rav adds that today, “he is relentless with mashgichim and if one is not where one must be, he needn’t return.” He gave an example from Wednesday (May 6th) in which a mashgiach was not in a store, but shopping in Geula. He said the mashgiach was told not to return.

Well folks, here is your chance to play a role in assisting. Rav Schlesinger urges anyone and everyone to please call the Jerusalem Religious Council to report any case of a mashgiach not being present. (Sorry to burst your bubble, but I go in person and await results. Maybe you will have better luck than I).

“Prompt attention will be directed to your statements, in a matter of hours, not weeks” added Rav Schlesinger.

While the Rav does indeed work tirelessly, as I and other who know him are aware, he inherited a system that simply fails to meet its responsibilities. The state comptroller has done a fine job highlighting what should be our fear upon entering a restaurant – the mashgichim simply are not present.

No time schedule is specified in the council’s directives for mashgichim, leaving this to the subjective decision of a mashgiach. The comptroller’s report highlights what I have been delivering in smaller doses over the past two years. Between May and June 2007, the state comptroller’s team made spot checks in 54 restaurants, bakeries, hotels, and other businesses under supervision throughout Yerushalayim.

In the inspections conducted during the morning hours, 8am-12pm, a mashgiach was found in only six locations. In the inspections during afternoon hours, 12pm-4pm, no mashgiach was found anywhere!

While my report only scratches the surface of the state comptroller’s findings, I think that it is testimony that much needs to be done to bring religious council kashrut certifications up to snuff, to permit one to enter and enjoy without fear that the food one is served is below one’s kosher standard despite a certificate stating otherwise.

Attorney Moshe Hausditzer, a former head of the Jerusalem Religious Council takes a somewhat haughty attitude [in my opinion], especially since the report addresses his tenure as council head. To his credit, he did try, albeit unsuccessfully, to change the system of the ‘cat watching the milk’. What I mean to say is that today, a mashgiach is paid by the business he is responsible to watch, not by the religious council that employs him. That means, if he complains too much, or has the kashrus revoked, he is out of a job. By the way, I almost forgot to mention that in the state comptroller’s 1992 report, it mentions this conflict of interests must be eliminated; pointing out it is unacceptable for the restaurant to pay the mashgiach’s wages.

Further complicating the situation is the common practice of a business owner instructing a mashgiach to assist behind the counter, serving, waiting or whatever, since “I pay your salary” expecting him to ‘earn his keep’. This does not exactly facilitate a mashgiach in overseeing the kitchen.

Hausditzer was critical of Rav Schlesinger for firing the inspectors who oversee the mashgichim, explaining “it is not the job of consumers to report problems, but for the council’s supervisors who were responsible for overseeing the mashgichim. In defense of Rav Schlesinger, the firing decisions were made by administrative bosses, not the rav. At the time, they explained the difficult fiscal situation in the council compelled the move.

Rav Schlesinger stated that at times, we must accept reality, one that falls short of an ideal situation, like the current reality, but he stressed he is confident that today, one may enter a restaurant under the supervision of the Jerusalem Religious Council and rely on the certificate.

3 Comments

  • Levi Bookin
    May 7, 2009 - 08:27 | Permalink

    “rightfully questioning just what are the religious councils doing and why are the private agencies necessary?”

    In view of the information contained in the report, it is scarcely surprising that many people do not accept the Kashrut level of religious councils.

    Private agencies are necessary, unless people are to grow their own food etc.

  • Phyllis Koenigsberg
    May 7, 2009 - 09:56 | Permalink

    I continue to be in amazed with Yechiel’s professional and thorough investigations. I am grateful to him for providing us with his continous discoveries. Kol Hakovod to him. Phyllis Koenigsberg

  • Chaim
    May 7, 2009 - 11:11 | Permalink

    The reality of mashgichim not doing their job is the sad result of the charedi community’s attitude towards the Rabbanut and those whole rely upon it.

    The charedi community on principal does not rely on the Rabbanut’s kashrut, which means that those who do are generally the “mizrohnikim,” who, in the eyes of the charedi community, don’t really keep kosher anyway. Thus, the mashgichim, who are by and large charedi, have no moral qualms about enforcing a “כאילו” kosher standard that they themselves would not touch. (I encountered a mashgiach in chutz la’aretz who excused the poor lettuce-washing standards by claiming that most patrons don’t wash lettuce properly at home either!)

    A real change will only come about when the mashgichim realize that a very large portion of the “mizrahi” community takes kashrut just as seriously as they and won’t settle for “kosher enough for the srugim.”

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