Statement by Rabbi Yaakov Luban, in Response to Criticism of OU Kosher Standards in Israel

04 Sep 2009

Recently, an investigative journalist posted an article that appeared on a number of blogs, which was critical of OU supervision of hotels and restaurants in Israel. Within a few days, the OU arranged for me to visit Israel and determine if the criticism was valid.

I spent one week in Israel and visited these OU locations multiple times, both with the OU representative responsible for oversight, and on my own, at different times of day and night. The conclusions of my investigations are as follows:

While the investigator accurately reported what he saw and heard, the report did not capture the entire picture, as there were other pieces of relevant information that the journalist did not reflect in his article, perhaps because of a lack of awareness on his part. One of the strong criticisms of the article was that the OU rubber stamps the existing rabbanut supervision at these locations with no oversight of its own. This is not the case.

The Jerusalem Plaza is supervised by Rabbi Eliezer Mendelson, who works on behalf of the OU, and has made various enhancements to the supervision in the past year. The article quoted a source who said that Rabbi Mendelson “is not really in charge of kashrut.” This is not true, as Rabbi Mendelson was appointed by the owner to be the Rav of the hotel, and in conjunction with this he serves as the OU representative.

The report notes that Rabbi Turetzky is the supervisor at Jerusalem Gate Hotel on behalf of the Jerusalem Rabbinate, but that there is no OU presence. It is true that Rabbi Turetzky is in the employment of the Jerusalem Rabbinate, but he is also an employee of the OU. As such, he is at the hotel in a dual capacity.

The report does not touch on the Ramada, which is under Rabbanut Mehadrin, as well as the OU. The OU has reviewed the hotel and has verified that the mashgichim are of excellent caliber and the kashrut system is well controlled.

During my visit, I met with Rabbi Shmuel Burnstein, who heads the division of supervision of the Rabbanut Mehadrin hotels. I reviewed the kashrut in all OU hotels and found it to be tightly controlled by a team of very competent mashgichim.

The OU supervises four dairy restaurants in Yerushalayim. In each of the restaurants only Jews cook in the kitchen, which obviates the concern of bishul akum. There is a very strong system of yotzei vinichnas (spot inspections) with a mashgiach coming regularly throughout the day and night. In each of these restaurants, the OU arranged for mashgichim and the OU insisted that all ingredients meet Mehadrin standards. In addition, Rabbi Turetzky spot-checks to ensure that everything is in order. The OU is comfortable with this situation.

The OU supervises three meat restaurants where the OU arranged for mashgichim to be present. The OU has a strong presence in these establishments and is not blindly rubber stamping the supervision.

The article reported on other irregularities as well. For example, the journalist waited in the morning for the mashgiach at Pappagio, a meat restaurant, for 40 minutes, but the mashgiach did not arrive. In the interim, the restaurant was in operation. I confirmed with the mashgiach that he was not present, but what was not reported was that the mashgiach was ill that morning and could not arrive because of a severe back problem. Though the mashgiach arrived late that particular day, this is not standard operating procedure at the restaurant. One cannot prevent such emergencies from occurring.

The question is how to respond when the mashgiach is late because of an emergency: Should the restaurant open or not? This depends on the individual facility, and the mashgiach felt that he had sufficient control and knowledge of the facility to not warrant shutting down the store until his arrival, particularly since the management anticipated his presence shortly and they did not know when he would arrive. The grill (where most of the cooking occurs) was not in operation before the mashgiach arrived, and only prep work was occurring in the kitchen. In addition, the chefs are Jewish and there was no concern of bishul akum. When the mashgiach did arrive, he was able to confirm that everything was in order.

The journalist reported that he visited Taiku three times and never saw the mashgiach. The arrangement in Taiku is that a shomer shabbos chef, who does all the cooking, is present at all times. In addition, a mashgiach is present at least eight hours a day during the busiest time of operation. It is common practice to rely on shomer shabbos employees (we refer to them as “working mashgichim”) in certified restaurants.

The report also claimed that dairy liquor was used in a meat establishment. I asked the journalist for the name of the liquor and he said it was Southern Comfort. To our knowledge, this is not dairy. It is true that in America the OU does not allow Southern Comfort because it lacks supervision, but in Israel it is commonly used. Nonetheless, the point of consistency is valid and we are reviewing this situation.

I met with the reporter in Israel and he expressed to me that there was a lack of transparency in the standards and procedures in Israel. This, in part, created some of the confusion. This is a valid point which we hope to correct in the future by publicizing the OU standards in food establishments in Israel.

The reporter also expressed frustration that he was not permitted entry into the kitchens without the presence of our supervisor. This creates the impression that we are seeking to hide information. I explained that this is not the case, and it is common practice to have a supervisor present during a review to ensure that misunderstandings do not occur. We are happy to escort people through the kitchen and explain the basis of our supervision.

I was glad that I came to Israel to review these establishments. It is always possible to improve and enhance supervision. In general, the kashrut of the OU restaurants and hotels in Israel was good, but I did find some areas where I felt improvement can be made. I hope to implement these changes in the near future.

If you would like to discuss this matter with me directly, please call me at 212-613-8214 and I will be happy to speak to you.

Rabbi Yaakov Luban
Executive Rabbinic Coordinator
Orthodox Union Kashrut Division