Report: Chief Rabbinate Schita Abroad

Chief Rabbinate of Israel

Chief Rabbinate of Israel

Chief Rabbinate Schita in Argentina
The following is a translation of an article appearing in the shabbos Yediot Achronot “Musaf Shabbat” magazine, written by Techiya Barak.

Mashgiach kashrus Shimon Tzuberi realized he may be better off remaining silent, but he could not, compelled to report what he saw. The incident occurred when he was part of a Chief Rabbinate of Israel team, a team of shochtim sent to prepare meat for import to Eretz Yisrael. 

Tzuberi saw a piece of meat which he felt was not treibered (de-veined) in accordance to halacha, compelling to file a report. “Turmoil resulted and even before completing our assignment, I was ordered to return home” he explained. “Upon my return, I informed a number of rabbonim of the situation, calling for a halachic investigation into the matter”.

Taking part in the investigation were Rav Yaakov Saban, who heads the National Kashrut Division, Rav Ezra Refael Hariri, who heads the unit overseeing schita abroad and the importation of meat. “They asked me to explain exactly what I saw, and I did just that. After this, I was no longer sent abroad for schita”.

Tzuberi approached a number of rabbonim, seeking their assistance and following their intervention, he was sent abroad. He reports that in subsequent trips abroad, he documented kashrus inadequacies. He explains that he began hearing there were problems with his conduct, explaining in one case, he was accused of arguing with a passenger on a flight. “I was shocked” he explains, deciding to send letters to a number of rabbis to intervene on his behalf. After a year, he was informed that a hearing would be held. He arrived well-prepared, armed with a letter from El Al that there was no such occurrence, no disturbance involving Tzuberi and another passenger.

During the hearing, Tzuberi explains the accusations leveled against him made him quite emotional, becoming agitated. Allegations included an accusation that his hand trembled, which would render him unsuited to continue as a shochet (ritual slaughterer). He became so agitated that he was offered a glass of water. While holding the glass it was pointed out “see, you are trembling” to which he explained this was the result of his temporary agitated state. He understood that he had been set up.

Following the hearing he received a letter that informed him that due to his condition, he is no longer qualified to be part of any team traveling abroad for schita. Interestingly, the letter did not mention his qualifications to continue schita in Israel.

Tzuberi remained determined to reverse the ruling, calling Rabbi Hariri repeatedly while seeing physicians and obtaining medical documentation that he does not have a tremor in his hands.

Tzuberi began contacting rabbis of stature; people he hoped would be willing to assist him, a battle that has been ongoing for almost a decade. One can count on one hand the number of times Tzuberi was included in a team heading abroad for schita during recent years.

“It was not Sabag or I who disqualified him but the rabbis who gave him [the glass of] water to test him, determining he has a tremor, states Rabbi Hariri. “We also suspended the team leader for failing to notify us of the tremor. He is however successful as a treiborer (one who removes forbidden veins and fats as part of koshering process). In addition, he is not a pleasant person to work with. On more than one occasion, importers refused to work with him”.

The Chief Rabbinate’s Diaspora Schita Unit might be the last place one would expect to find such conduct and arguments, but this is not the case. Some of the stories are a juicy as the steaks that receive a kashrut stamp, legitimately so or otherwise.

An investigation conducted by Musaf Yediot reveals numerous stories over the years in which mashgichim report problems with the kashrus of meat slaughtered abroad. Some of those involved were ‘grounded’ while others found themselves in different departments. Others, like Tzuberi, were compelled to defend themselves against allegations.

Allegations against employees who filed complaints include one official disqualifying meat intentionally while another employee is alleged to be conducting a romance with a non-Jewish female. A third employee is accused of running around naked. A protest and hunger strike held in recent months failed to result in any significant change.

The personal situation of the Chief Rabbinate employees’ aside, the tales have widespread ramifications, with a survey showing 65% of the Jewish Israeli population eats kosher and 40% demand a rabbinical hechsher. 55% of the meat in Israel is slaughtered in factories abroad, 60,000 tons of meat imported from various locations abroad.

Some of the shochtim report they have begun slaughtering cattle for their families, and they have stopped eating meat, even with the best of hechsherim. They explain some of the meat imported into Israel is indeed questionable regarding its kashrus, not to mention actual treif.

An importer wishing to bring meat into Israel contact Rabbi Sabag and Rabbi Hariri, the former’s subordinate. Most of the slaughterhouses are located in South America, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. There are however slaughterhouses in Australia, the United States, Ireland and China as well.

Teams dispatched by the Chief Rabbinate are made up of a team leader and an assistant, who are responsible for the operation. They must ultimately determine if meat is kosher and in adherence to the standard permitting it to carry the stamp “Kosher by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel”. Other members of the team include shochtim, inspectors [of the various body organs following slaughter] and mashgichim.

The teams are generally sent for months at a time, depending on the number of cattle to be slaughtered. The teams are selected by department heads. Their salaries travel and other expenses must be paid by the importer, hence part of the problem. Importers may request to remove or include any team member, but the ultimate decision is made by the Rabbanut.

This is a recipe for conflict at times since the shochtim are being pulled in opposite directions at times, by the Rabbinate and the meat importers. A shochet that disqualifies to many cattle may find himself causing too great a loss to the importer who pays his salary. This may result in an importer requesting that a particular shochet not accompany a team in the future.

Problems date back somewhat, even to a case in 1995 in which a shochet, who is no longer alive heard rumors that questionable meat was imported, meat that was purchased by a Bnei Brak yeshiva. The shochet got hold of some of the meat to inspect it, only to find that some of the prohibited fats were not removed.

He summoned Rabbi Shlomo Machpud Shlita, who today heads the Yoreh Deah kashrus agency, and he was seen on hidden camera [on film which is on file with Yediot] checking the meat, confirming the prohibited fats were indeed present. At the time, Rabbi Machpud was a posek for the Chief Rabbinate, one who is responsible for halachic rulings.

“18 tons of this meat arrived in Israel. Bnei Brak yeshiva students ate it” the shochet explained. He read the printing on the carton which attested to the high standard, even paying more for the meat, under the supervision of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Why dupe yeshiva students? The meat should not have been imported to Israel”.  Rabbi Machpud agreed.

The shochet brought the video to the Chief Rabbinate. His friend, Michael Ben-Shimol claims he was threatened and instructed to immediately destroy the video. The shochet feared being blacklisted and ousted, complying with instructions, destroying the video. Two years ago, prior to his death, he asked his good friend that following his death to please make sure the video gets to the correct people.

It appears not much has changed. One inspector, Leon (not his real name), in his 60s, who is responsible for inspecting animals following schita in South America recently detected many problems. Since documenting problems with kashrut, there have been complaints against him, including allegations that he was accompanied by a female when seen drinking. He is now at home, unemployed.

Leon explains that he was employed for 20 years, never encountering a problem with complaints leveled against him. In one of his visits to S. America, he witnessed non-kosher animal parts being moved to a bag labeled kosher.  During that very same visit, a non-Jew was taken and appointed as the mashgiach. Leon explains that needless to say there were problems. Once he began reporting, his headaches began.

“In the last place I worked in S. America, I saw meats with prohibited fats that were not removed. I was also shocked that out of thousands of cattle, not a single one exhibiting marks from the schita that disqualified it, something that simply does not happen. After all, angels were not slaughtering the animals”.

Worst of hall Leon explains “is the fact that there were three shochtim as required by the Chief Rabbinate, but only one worked, for consecutive hours. The others were elsewhere. The schita could not have been in adherence to strict standards and of this, halacha warns us. Simply too many cattle for one shochet alone. I informed a supervisor who promised to take corrective action, which he did. He placed a watchman at the door of the slaughter chamber so whenever someone spotted me, they were alerted. On one particular day, when the importer was present, I told him everything. He warned me that if I make trouble, then will oust him and me as well”.

When Leon returned home he spoke with Rabbi Hariri. He explained that a complaint was lodged against him for allegedly being in a nightclub with a female.

“A few months ago, I went to see a friend. On my route I passed a nightclub and it was open. I saw some of the members of our team inside playing pool. There were four women in their general area, skimpily dressed I might add. Later one, when I passed the area again, this time with my friend, they noticed me and realized I saw them. They threw the pools sticks and ran”.

“This behavior is most unacceptable. People responsible for kashrut are compelled to be G-d fearing, without a character stain. The story I told they turned around and used against me. I told Rabbi Hariri and asked that he investigate the facts. At some point he came back and told me that he is droping his allegations against me, but months have passed and I have yet to be reassigned. Others, like me, have cited kashrut problems but I am not aware what actions have been taken against them. I will state with absolute certainty that they are deceiving the public regarding the kashrut of meat that is imported from abroad”.

A similar unpleasant experience is recorded by Rachamim (fictitious name), a shochet and post-schita inspector with over 20 years experience in the field of schita of cattle for the Chief Rabbinate. He documented inadequacies in the kashrus while operating in Brazil, reporting to his direct supervisor, but unaware what corrective actions were taken, if any.

The real action began upon his return however, when Rachamim began hearing stories of how he was intoxicated while in Brazil, removed his clothing and paraded around nude in the presence of a female maid. Later on it was learned the team leader reported on this in a letter sent to Rabbi Hariri.

Rachamim filed a libel suit against the team leader. Judge Noam Solberg seemed to have a difficult time determining who was telling the truth. He rejected the suit, explaining the team leader did speak against his subordinate, but then justified his actions since he was responsible to report on the performance of all members of the team to the Rabbinate. During the legal proceeding, one of the shochtim claimed that Rav Hariri called him to his room and rebuked him for his report favoring Rachamim during the legal process.

Rachamim recorded his conversation with the shochet and then turned to the civil service commissioner.  According to one member of the staff, attorney Gilat Shoham, in her report, the content of the recording raises fears of an attempt to interfere with an investigation. Rachamim was questioned on suspicion of intentionally seeking to interfere with investigators. The prosecutor decided to close the case due to lack of evidence. In the very same conversation with the shochet, Rav Hariri instructed him “to tell the entire truth in the matter” and certainly, he did not seek to dismiss him from his position.

One of the problems is that Rabbi Hariri not only concerns himself with kashrus issues, but with advancing the interests of importers too. Two years ago, Rabbi Hariri invited a number of importers as guests to his daughter’s wedding. They sat at a table together, people who he maintains a professional relationship with him, but they nonetheless received pampering and special attention despite an obvious conflict of interest. This behavior is contrary to the guidelines governing government employees.

In his response, Rabbi Hariri explains he only invited the importers after consulting with and receiving the approval of the Chief Rabbinate’s legal advisor. The rabbi insists they were no treated any differently than other guests, adding at the wedding of his second daughter, they were not invited.

Other problems include requests filed with the Prime Minister’s Office to approve travel abroad by Sabag and Hariri. Over recent years, they request approval for travel to meat factories abroad, adding the flights would be covered by the importers. The two traveled around the world dozens of times, including Australia, Paraguay, France, Brazil, Argentina and more. Each flight was thousands of dollars, in addition to lodging and other expenses, all picked up by the importers. One is compelled to address the obvious conflict of interests, just how can the rabbis disqualify meat from these importers who are funding their travel around the world.

One team leader explains how Rav Hariri appeared in a factory in Paraguay to inspect the schita on location. “In essence, he was not there for a long time and just asked a number of questions and I was shocked by them. I prepared him a number of sandwiches and he left [on a trip]”.

According to Hariri, trips abroad are divided into two categories, to inspect new factories, at the expense of the importer, and to inspect the kashrus of an operation that is already approved, at the expense of the Rabbinate. He explains that it is entirely possible that on this particular trip, when they traveled to inspect a new factory, that the made a stopover to visit and existing operation. This would be likely since each trip abroad requires applications and approval, adding the ‘trip’ mentioned earlier was a onetime event during travels to visit factories. He mentioned one trip to Argentina which was accompanied by a vacation trip, which he paid for out of pocket. “At times, members of the team prepare me sandwiches at their own initiative” he explains, adding “who knows if kosher food is available on the flight”.

The Movement for Quality Government involved itself in the matter of travel abroad. Avitar Amira turned to the Chief Rabbinate legal counsel in 2007, attorney Shimon Ulman, pointing out that trips funded by importers for kashrut inspectors results in a serious conflict of interests. He questioned what action would be taken to address the problem. Ulman responded in April 2008, explaining he has been authorized to introduce a ruling that would permit the Rabbinate to incur expenses. “I hope to complete this process by the end of 2008” he concluded. Over a year has passed and the situation has not changed with Ulman admitting efforts to date have failed, adding all attempts to establish a new entity between the Chief Rabbinate and importers results in a significant increase in the cost factor.

In 2004, ousted shochtim band together and signaled they were moving to the courts, prompting Hariri to take to the waves on chareidi radio, announcing anyone going to the secular courts instead of to rabbis does not belong among us. Their actions he explained strengthened the feeling they were unsuited to work in the Chief Rabbinate as shochtim. His words were met with sharp criticism by the state’s civil service commissioner.

Hariri explained that while he is a civil servant, he is a frum chareidi Jew and compliance with halacha must remain his first priority. Shochtim explain that Hariri makes the decisions as to who works and who does not and who travels and who is ousted, left behind.

That is the case with Reuven Said, who awaits a hearing with Sabag and Hariri since 2005. Previously, he was a treiborer (de-veiner) in Paraguay but after complaining of substandard kashrut, he has been grounded. He was flown home in the middle of an assignment and eventually, left his position as a result.

“There were many shortcomings in the factory” Said explains, I saw non-Jews removing part of the animal without a mashgiach present, and I informed the team leader, but nothing was done. I saw non-Jews carrying non-kosher organs which were then mixed among their kosher counterparts. Nothing was done. This made everything not kosher. One day I saw the team leader sign off on a non-kosher animal as kosher. I pointed this out to him to make certain he knew. He gave me a look and then insisted the inspector of the internal organs erred, as if now the animal was indeed kosher. I saw non-kosher parts placed in bags marked kosher. Once again I pointed this out, but this time, he shouted, ‘it’s not your business. Do your work.’”

“From then on, the attitude changed and I was the subject of ridicule. After a number of incidents, the team leader informed me that I was being returned home to Israel”. Said quickly phoned Hariri to inform him, demanding an explanation for sending him home.

Raful told him that he was nothing and that he was not performing satisfactorily and therefore, was being ousted from the team. Hariri informed him that the team leader wants him out. In the heat of the argument, the following was stated.

After ten years as a shochet for the Rabbinate abroad, Menachem (fictitious name) had enough, unwilling to continue. The substandard level of kashrus in two factories was totally unacceptable and he was unwilling to tolerate any longer. He decided he no longer wanted any part of this operation, and on his last assignment, he even paid for his own return trip and left the team early, heading back to Eretz Yisrael.

“During all the years in which I worked as a mashgiach and knife inspector in various factories abroad, I encountered kashrut problems. Nevertheless, it was possible to find solutions and somehow continue”, explained Menachem. “This time, the flippant attitude of the team left me with the feeling there was nowhere to go. I felt that no one cares. It got to the point I would not eat from the meat we slaughtered”.

What were some of the kashrut deficiencies?
Two uncertified shochtim were permitted to slaughter cattle. This is most serious. When the team leader was informed, he responded “I do as I please”. In addition, the local non-Jewish workers used electric prods on the cattle prior to schita, using such strong shocks that the cattle were downed onto the ground. The force used was at the very least three times that permitted in accordance to halacha. This placed the entire schita in doubt explains Menachem, but once again, the team leader would not address the issues.

“Another thing, according to halacha, a shochet may not inspect his own knife. We usually line up one behind the other and each checks the other’s knife. The knife must be perfect to avoid any unnecessary suffering to the animal. The pace was so intense that each shochet inspected a knife for a quarter of a second. The halacha says one must concentrate on the act, not perform under duress or when one is tired. They did whatever they pleased.

“I sent an SMS text message to Hariri in which I stated ‘there are problems which compromise the integrity of the kashrut. I await your immediate reply’. Hariri phoned me and asked ‘do you want the importers not to select you?’ to which I responded, ‘what’s my job, to worry about importers or kashrut?’ once again, when word got out that I was a trouble maker, I was left out with colleagues not including me in the group, sitting away from me during meals and so forth.

“A number of days later I returned home and I asked Sabag and Hariri for a halachic inquiry in the presence of the rabbonim poskim (halachic authority) of the Chief Rabbinate. When we entered the room I realized it was only the three of us. Even those against whom I complained were not present. They already left for work abroad once again”.

Since then, Menachem does not work and has lost touch with colleagues in the department. Menachem however is content, explaining he is not about to rubber stamp meat as kosher when he knows the meat is problematic.

He concludes in a letter to Hariri and Sabag about two months ago, writing “simply one who wishes to survive on the team must hear nothing, say nothing and see nothing”. One veteran shochet added “if they slaughter donkeys (not kosher) and use forbidden animals don’t say anything for if you do, you are in trouble”.

Who is the Boss?

In 2001 shochet Michael Ben-Shimol and two colleagues turned to the High Court of Justice, demanding to see their personal files as well as the criteria of the Rabbinate’s unit which performs schita abroad. They simply wished to understand what criteria are used to assign someone to a specific position and what guidelines exist to send a team member home prematurely. The shochtim were alleging favoritism and discriminatory practices in reaching such decisions.

A number of years earlier, Ben-Shimol was working in schita in Ireland, reporting that immediately following schita, the animal was shot, as per the chief veterinarian on location, who was concerned with needless suffering. I explained that halacha dictates if one wishes to shoot the animal, one must wait a few minutes but they did not listen and the team leader was not strong enough to oppose the chief veterinarian. I stood my ground, insisting the animals were no longer kosher.

“Upon my return, I requested a reassignment and that was followed by allocations hat I was intentionally causing animals to become treif (not kosher). It is simple. One who complains and reports kashrut problems must then face an array of charges. One goes with women and the other drinks. A third has problems because of hand tremors while I intentionally render animals unfit. For four years I sent letters to everyone and did everything possible, but no response. Finally, I turned to the Supreme Court”.

During the court hearing an agreement was reached that was given the status of a court ruling. Ben-Shimol received is personal file, the criteria for the unit’s operations, and that he would be reassigned to teams abroad, three times, on probation.

“Hariri: “An importer writes that he intentionally renders animals un-kosher and then continues to work. True he was not traveling regularly, but he did go abroad but importers do not want him. The hearing panel decided his qualifications must be retested in light of the allegations against him”.

About 5 years ago, 14 employees, including Ben-Shimol, turned to the Tel Aviv Labor Court. They filed a lawsuit against the Rabbinate. They claimed discriminatory practices were standard and that those who cited problem were subject to retaliation.

The court absolved the Rabbinate of responsibility, stating the employer was not the Rabbinate but the importer. The court made the case a precedent-setting affair, ruling on who the employer is. In a July 2008 ruling, Justice Chagit Saguy agreed with the shochtim, giving support to claims of discrimination and retaliatory practices, but ultimately agreed that the employer is the importer, not the Rabbinate. A group of shochtim appealed to the National Labor Court, stating if the importer is the employee, there is a definite conflict of interests. The court’s ruling is pending.

About a month ago, a group of shochtim held a protest and hunger strike in Yerushalayim. Hariri followed the events and photographed some of the shochtim sleeping on the street, at 1:00am, after a number of days of a vigil at the scene outside the Rabbinate. They were summoned to a meeting with Sabag and Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar Shlita. The meeting was cordial and a full investigation into allegations was promised. The protestor closed shop, folded the protest tent and returned home.

A number of days later, in the mail, the minutes of the meeting arrived and they noticed much of what they said was not recorded in the transcript. Issues pertaining to substandard kashrut were omitted. They realized they are alone and have no one to rely on.

Rabbi Ezra Refael Hariri in his response states all allegations of kashrut deficiencies were investigated thoroughly. In the last year he explains, guidelines have been published stating exactly what qualifications are required for a mashgiach. He adds that they are always working to ensure the quality of personnel, their professional expertise as well as making certain they are God-fearing individuals.

He assures us that all allegations of kashrut problems are probed and when necessary, rabbonim poskim are involved. He adds that probes as conducted as thoroughly as possible, adding there are no hidden cameras and they do not possess the ability to monitor every team member constantly.

“I do not recall ever saying regarding any probe ‘why is this your business?’ If a person seeks to make a personal issue a halachic matter, and presents it as such, we may not halt production.

When there are allegations that animals are shocked or shot I immediately phone the team leader. Such allegations would never be ignored”.

The following response was released by attorney Shimon Ulman, the Chief Rabbinate legal advisor.

“We are talking about a group of 10 people here of some 700 employees involved in schita abroad. For reasons that are not dependent on us, importers refuse to use them. This due to professional issues that have been documented including an inability to work as part of a team, as well as a lack of tznius (modesty). They are not included in teams working abroad as per the decision of the head of the schita unit. There were a number of attempts to give them additional chances, but it simply did not work out.

We should not take the word of this small number of disgruntled employees, who by the nature of the situation are distorting the facts. It is understood that and issues of kashrut are probed as required, and have been unfounded in reality. The most mehadrin and pristine kashrut agencies are connected with the teams against whom they are trying to taint, without justification and contrary to the facts on the ground. Their allegations of kashrut inadequacies against the state kashrut mechanism are simply baseless and unfounded and simply intentional slander, and therefore, difficult to address this concoction of allegations.

It is very east to place a doubt on the state-run kashrut mechanism, upon which most citizens rely, and this is done without bringing factual evidence and documents. Any allegation of kashrut inadequacies is probed in-depth to make certain the public does not receive substandard products, to safeguard them from such a possibility. The complaints of this band of shochtim have been reviewed numerous times, in-depth, by investigators of the State Civil Service Commission as well, and were deemed as unfounded.

NOTE: I pondered publishing this but decided that it appeared in the nation’s leading newspaper, backed by evidence amassed by Yediot, thereby rendering it newsworthy and perhaps incumbent upon me to bring it to the attention of the English-speaking public.

I add that on Sunday, August 9, 2009, in my capacity as editor of Jerusalem Kosher News, I met with one expert for a number of hours, discussing some of the troublesome allegations. He told me that first off, nothing here has any connection to Rabbinate mehadrin (chalak) meat, just regular schita. He added that having decades of experience, he can attest to the fact that in many cases, team members do indeed exhibit social and behavioral issues, which he has seen firsthand. That said, the rav, whose is a known expert in the field, explained there are issues regarding kashrut from time-to-time, as this is the nature of the business, and he has seen that at least in the chalak field, in which he is affiliated, they are addressed as they should be.

Attorney Ulman's response - page 1 of 2

Attorney Ulman's response - page 1 of 2

Attorney Ulman's response - page 2 of 2

Attorney Ulman's response - page 2 of 2

One comment

  • August 10, 2009 - 18:59 | Permalink

    I have followed your progress for the past month or two and have found your articles worthy of the highest praise. The effort you put into this work is mind boggling. However, you have here provided a tremendously long article which dwarfs your partial translation of the rebuttal (itself running to two full pages in the original Hebrew) from the Rabbinate at the end without explaining to the uninitiated that media such as Ynet are largely in business to create scandal, and if it is scandal which makes Rabbis, any Rabbis, look bad, so much the better. You also failed to translate the bit about the Courts (no friends of Rabbis themselves) having thrown out the claims of these guys on more than one occasion. Personally I have no idea who is right here but if I must choose between Ynet and duly accredited Rabbis I know which I prefer.

  • Comments are closed.