For me, one who grew up in the East Coast of the United States, OU was synonymous with ‘kosher’, but not just kosher, a level of kashrut that could be trusted, synonymous with transparency, legitimacy, and a genuine concern for the kosher consumer.
When the news began unfolding a number of years ago that the OU existed in the Holy Land, it brought a smile to the faces of many a former N. American, realizing this premier kashrus organization would without a doubt remove the complexities of the Israeli kashrus scene, permitting us to sit back and relax, entering an OU restaurant or hotel and enjoy Israel’s finest cuisine with the knowledge the kosher standard was among the highest available.
That is how I began this report about 3 months ago, optimistic, and admittedly somewhat excited, armed with my pen, pad and digital camera, I set out to show the world what the OU is bringing to Eretz Yisrael.
To my dismay, what I found was not exactly what I expected. There is no kashrus transparency, no written or published standard, and no friendly voice on the other end of the phone to explain the complexities of the kashrus situation. I cannot really say what the standard is, but what I can do is to relay facts, the findings of many many hours in the street, photographing, speaking with mashgichim in the industry, checking eateries and hotels, and of course, speaking and meeting with the head of the OU in Israel, Rabbi Yosef Minsky, and his assistant, Rachel Stewart. I will add that the OU-Israel kosher certificates displayed in hotels do not even all contain the name of a mashgiach or mefakaiach to call, as is evident from the photos accompanying this article.
I BEGIN WITH SOME TERMINOLOGY & HARD FACTS:
Firstly, one must understand some of the basic ins-and-outs of kashrus in Israel, in this case, pertaining to the Jerusalem Rabbinical Council. There are two levels of kashrus, ‘regular’ and ‘mehadrin’, with the later ensuring a higher standard, one that should be commensurate with many many stringencies that permit the food for people adhering to a high standard.
This includes proficient inspection of fish, greens and legumes for insects and bugs, prohibiting the use of many items including but not limited to strawberries, other berries, certain cuts of meat, and the certainty that the milk, vegetables, foods and other items are not the result of chilul shabbos. It also means there is a mashgiach timidi (a rabbinical kashrut inspector) present while the kitchen operates. Yes, this is all an over simplification, but I am trying to give a general overview and not get bogged down in defining the difference between regular and mehadrin).
In a regular kashrut environment, a mashgiach pops in from time to time (yotzei v’nichnas), not necessarily daily, and the level of kashrut adherence in the kitchen is inferior to the mehadrin.
The Jerusalem Rabbinate employs mashgichim, as well as a mefakaiach (supervisor) who is not assigned to a special store, but goes to a number of places supervising his subordinates, the mashgichim.
Sometime ago, prior to embarking on this article, I spoke with Rabbi Yosef Minsky to get an idea of what OU-Israel brings the kosher consumer. He explained that being that we are in the Holy Land, the level is higher than in the United States, guaranteeing chalav yisrael, bishul yisrael, and regarding shmitah, only l’chumra. He told me in many a conversation that the level of OU-Israel adheres to the strictest standards, cutting no corners, making certain Americans and Israelis alike can enjoy, well-assured the level of kosher is among the highest in the industry. It is pertinent to the article to insert at this point that on numerous occasions, Rav Minsky added that he views the OU among the premier agencies, like Eida Chareidit, making sure to insert he is operating on a higher level than Jerusalem Rabbinate Mehadrin. This was repeated and stressed on numerous occasions.
I emphasize that I am not making any judgments as to the level of kashrus, but I will use this forum to present facts, and perhaps to express a level of frustration I have not known in dealing with any other kashrus agencies in Israel.
As you, readers are aware, I do not generally write about kashrus agencies as an independent unit in a feature article, but events sort of compel that I attempt to document many isolated incidents into a cohesive report. One of the reasons is the fact that JKN is an English forum, thereby attracting many former and current Americans, resulting in many a query regarding OU-Israel.
I strongly suggest that email recipients take the time to view the article online, where photos accompany the documentation.
MORIAH CLASSIC HOTEL:
The Moriah Classic Hotel, formally the Novetell, is one of the Jerusalem Hotels under the supervision of OU-Israel. It also enjoys the supervision of the Jerusalem Rabbinate, regular, not mehadrin.
I will spare you hours of phone calls and investigatory efforts and cut to the chase. The hotel rav and mashgiach, Rabbi Elyashiv Nafcha, will attest to the fact that there is no OU mashgiach in reality, even though the certificate, which is not posted conspicuously as per Rabbi Nafcha’s decision, stated the mashgiach is Rabbi Eliezer Mendelson. Rabbi Nafcha runs quite the legitimate show, which I will detail in an upcoming report on the hotel. Bottom line, the OU relies on a non-mehadrin Rabbanut hechsher for its OU mehadrin hechsher. In reality, the hotel ingredients are mehadrin but that is not the point.
JKN phoned the OU-Israel office and we were assured the hotel is under its supervision and mehadrin, “not like the Eida Chareidit, but like the Belz and other regular mehadrin hechshers”.
In short, you the kosher consumer are visiting a non-mehadrin hotel and eating, believing an OU mehadrin mashgiach is there. Sorry folks, but this is simply not the case.
JERUSALEM PLAZA HOTEL:
The Jerusalem Plaza Hotel is under the supervision the Jerusalem Rabbinate Mehadrin, and OU-Israel. Once again, the hotel mashgiach, Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Altman is the rav and chief mashgiach. As veteran readers know, I am a fan, impressed with the kashrut standard maintained by this senior veteran mashgiach. In this case too, he explains, the OU mashgiach, guess who — Rabbi Eliezer Mendelson, is not really in control of kashrus. Here again, it appears the OU relies on the Rabbanut mashgiach to cover itself.
I will point out that Rabbi Mendelson is a member of Rabbi Altman’s staff, one of his mashgichim. When I asked the Jerusalem Rabbinate if they are bothered by this conflict of interests, I was told that officially, Mendelson is a “representative” of the Rabbinate and an “employee” of the Plaza, so no problem.
Anyway, here too the OU-Israel enjoys the zealous efforts of the hotel rav and comfortably adds its kashrut sign, but in reality, Rabbi Mendelson does not make any decisions regarding what foods are purchased, used, and so-forth. Rabbi Altman runs the kashrut show here.
Once again, Jerusalem Rabbinate Mehadrin and OU-Israel. As you may remember from a previous report, the Rabbinate mashgiach is present for about 8 hours daily, and the Rabbinate supervisor (mefakaiach) visits several times a week. The OU Mefakaiach, Rabbi Avraham Turetzky told JKN that he relies on the Rabbanut mashgichim and visits from “time-to-time”.
Here I must point out that while the J. Rabbinate Mehadrin seems to be doing its job, the OU office has told me repeatedly its standard is higher than the Rabbanut Mehadrin and it does not rely on the mehadrin hechsher at all. It appears Rabbi Turetzky is unaware of this policy decision since he does indeed rely on the J. Rabbinate mashgiach timidi.
JERUSALEM GATE HOTEL:
You guessed it, Jerusalem Rabbinate Mehadrin and Rabbi Turetzky as supervisor. In truth, all my investigations show the hotel runs just fine, but again, due to the credit of the Jerusalem Rabbinate with the OU taking a free ride. By the way, R’ Turetzky’s name, or anyone else for that matter, does not appear on the certificate.
I will use this opportunity to add that all my phone calls reveal Rabbi Turetzky is a serious G-d fearing Rav, one who take kashrus seriously. In addition to his demanding kashrus positions, he also serves as an employee of the Rabbinical Center of Europe, where he works in their Givat Shaul, Jerusalem, office during the afternoon hours. The point, once again, the hotel relies on the Jerusalem Rabbinate, which the OU office degrades, but in essence, it maintains the level of kashrus.
Here again, as in the case of R’ Mendelson, R’ Turetzky is the hotel rav/mashgiach for the J. Rabbinate, and the OU.
I think it is also noteworthy to add that one who relies on OU for eating out and possibly less comfortable with the Jerusalem Rabbinate Mehadrin, in the overwhelming majority of cases, you are eating the Rabbanut schita, not OU meat or chickens.
Located on Emek Refaim Street in the German Colony, this fine eatery is becoming increasingly popular, it recently decided to leave the Agudat Yisrael supervision and move to the OU [see previous reports]. Since that time, I have contacted the mashgiach twice by phone and made three unannounced visits. Sorry, but he was never on site. This does not say there are kashrus problems, but this is not exactly what is meant by “mashgiach timidi”.
I use this opportunity to add that in violation of state law, the OU has granted a certificate of kashrut to this restaurant despite the fact that it does not have a Jerusalem Rabbinate hechsher. The same was true under Agudat Yisrael as per the Jerusalem Religious Council Kashrut Department.
This is without a doubt the new excitement on the N. American Jerusalem eating scene. Since moving from Jerusalem Rabbinate regular to OU after Tisha B’Av, it has been standing room only. This branch, the only mehadrin branch of Papagaio is located at 3 Yad Charutzim Street in the Talpiot area of Jerusalem.
This story is a bit longer, even the abridged version —
I saw the full page color ad in the weekend J. Post, and decided I will call to make an appointment and visit, to write up the restaurant. As is my custom, I phoned to request permission to interview the mashgiach and tour the kitchen. The restaurant was more than pleased to comply, as is always the case – realizing the potential for free media exposure. I arrived at 10:45am, 15 minutes early, using the time to take photos.
Arriving early permits me some time to check out a place before a formal interview begins; something that helps me assess the situation. In this case too, I did just that and I saw an impressive place, a Brazilian steakhouse busy with the daily getting-the-day-started mode, setting tables, preparing the salads, meats and other foods for the 12 noon opening. The prices displayed on the menu were extremely reasonable considering the ambiance and general feel of the place.
I introduced myself to the branch manager, Yaniv, who actually as a central casting figure for the part, shaven head and quite suave in appearance, the type of chap one would expect operating such a fine eatery. I learned from him there are seven stores in Israel, 5 with regular rabbinate supervision in other cities, one not kosher and open shabbos, and this branch, under the OU for only a number of days. I did not know they just moved from Jerusalem Rabbinate regular to the OU, but that is not relevant either. (The J. Rabbinate certificate was not on display so I could not know. I did check with the office of the J. Rabbinate a number of days later).
By any definition of the word, the restaurant is an impressive steakhouse, and it is not difficult to understand why the reservation phone is ringing off the hook since it announced its OU-Israel hechsher.
Anyway, everyone was there except for Shaul Ben-Shachar, the mashgiach. I was given his cellular number and we spoke, and it appears no one informed him of the meeting. Anyway, he was apologetic and we agreed I would wait an hour for him to arrive. To speed up the story, after waiting about 40 minutes, Yaniv informed me that he spoke with Rabbi Y. Minsky (head of the OU-Israel) and he informed Yaniv that I may not enter the kitchen without him being present. I was asked to leave – a request that I accommodated, somewhat frustrated and angry, but I do not get into arguments over entering a kitchen. By law, no one has to grant me access since I have no state-given authority, only a press card.
For those who remember the recent updated photo report on Emek Refaim area restaurants, that report was prompted by this chain of events. I had already wasted too much time, and was perturbed. Rather than bus it back to the center of town, I walked, passing through the German Colony, using the time to photograph the stores for the updated report.
After cooling down a bit I decided to phone Rabbi Minsky to confirm that he actually gave the order barring me from the Papagaio kitchen. He confirmed the facts. After about 15 minutes on the phone I realized the conversation was not heading anywhere and tried to end it. The rabbi pointed out I am not a rabbi, or kashrut expert, to which I agreed, but I pointed out I am quite proficient in documenting facts and have enough learning under my belt and on-site experience to do just that. I also explained I was not seeking kashrut inadequacies, but just to relay the facts to readers as I have been doing for the past 2.5 years.
When Rabbi Minsky realized I was fed up with his shenanigans, telling him I planned to boycott the OU-Israel in future reports to avoid repeated confrontations, he changed his tone and explained that he did not realize I was the correspondent at Papagaio, but feared it was someone else who might just be seeking to give the OU a bad name. We agreed that I would telephone and come in to meet with him to talk, which I have not yet done. Quite honestly, I do not see any benefit in such meeting and blei neder, I have no intention of re-visiting Papagaio today or any other day in the future.
I spoke with the Jerusalem Rabbinate to see if Papagio has a certificate, since only the OU-Israel certificate is displayed. I learned it has a Jerusalem Rabbinate regular hechsher and the mashgiach is R’ Avi Levy, who is on duty 3 hours daily, usually during the afternoon.
R’ Levy told me that R’ Ben-Shachar [the OU-Israel mashgiach] is on duty from 8:30am “every day” and makes certain the kitchen never operates without a mashgiach present. He assured me that the kitchen NEVER operates without one of the three mashgichim present, not even during the early-morning setting up hours.
I can only say on the one occasion I popped in, this was not the case. Meats and poultry were being marinated, the grill was lit before my eyes, salads cut and much more was taking place, without a mashgiach present. There is also a third mashgiach beginning at 5:00pm until midnight R’ Levy told me, also under OU-Israel auspices. (I was unable to get his name).
R’ Levy told me the meat was OU and the chicken Fleish (OU-Israel also). R’ Ben-Shachar said meat was Agudah and poultry Fleish).
Before moving on, I pose a question here for both the J. Rabbinate and OU-Israel — Those viewing the photos accompanying this article can see the well-stocked Papagaio bar. Well, I sent the photos to a Rabbanut expert on hard drinks and he told me that two items are “problematic” and one is definitely dairy.
My question is what is a dairy liquor doing in a meat restaurant and I ask the OU, what is a “problematic” drink doing in a mehadrin restaurant? Especially since OU America is a leader in raising awareness to the possible kashrut problems related to hard drinks.
Agas VeTapuach is a high-end operation, dairy/parve, located at Kikar Safra, Jerusalem City Hall.
In short, I spoke with Yonatan, the owner/manager and the Jerusalem Rabbinate. The place is under the supervision of Jerusalem Rabbinate regular and OU-Israel mehadrin. The supervisor is R’ Turetzky, and the J. Rabbinate mashgiach comes and goes, as is fine in compliance with the dictates of a regular J. Rabbinate supervision. There is not OU-Israel mashgiach, only a supervisor who makes occasional visits. In short, this OU-Mehadrin place does not have any mashgiach timidi.
Yonatan assures me all his products are “badatz mehadrin and chalav yisrael”.
1- There are numerous other OU-Israel supervised hotels, eateries and caterers in the Greater Jerusalem area. I do not plan to visit or review them. This is not because of kashrut concerns, but due to the lack of cooperation from OU-Israel office staff and the smokescreen that results in some of my questions.
2- This report does not intend to hint at the level of kashrut in any of the places mentioned, for good or G-d forbid otherwise, regarding the OU. I have reported on some of the places, such as the Jerusalem Plaza and Moshiko, and they indeed are true to their J. Rabbinate hechsher. The OU-Israel adds absolutely nothing other than a red and white sign.
3- If one is stringent on eating OU schita (beef and poultry) when entering an OU establishment, think again in Israel. Not all places use Fleish chickens and to date, the OU has not succeeded in having its own cattle schita despite efforts to do so. Therefore, if a mashgiach in Jerusalem tells you the meat is “OU”, it may be OU-Israel approved, which is fine, but it cannot be OU-Israel schita since to date, there has not been any.
4- If you expect a mashgiach timidi in your OU mehadrin restaurant, then you are out of luck in some cases.
5- Based on what I saw at Papagaio, the kitchen operating without a mashgiach, it is difficult to say if OU-Israel satisfies ‘bishul yisrael’ for sephardim, which hold by the stringent rulings of the Beit Yosef. Rav Minsky assures me all OU-Israel establishments are bishul yisrael for both ashkenazim and sephardim.
6- There are many many emails that have come in regarding OU chickens, sold under the Fleish name. I mention this so readers do not think I have ignored this. I just prefer not to address the matter at this time.
7- Without exception! Any and every hotel mashgiach and rav I spoke with, referring to hotels that the OU-Israel has claimed to be under its supervision, at least three, maintain the OU-Israel has not added a thing towards mehadrin level kashrus and it appears the organization is taking a free ride off the services of the J. Rabbinate hechsher, both regular and mehadrin, as well as the reputations of the fine rabbonim and mashgichim in those very same hotels.
(Yechiel Spira – Jerusalem Kosher News – photos on website – www.jerusalemkoshernews.com)