Rabbi Menachem Weiss is the new kosher supervisor at Doheny Glatt meat market. (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)
For five decades, Doheny Glatt Kosher meat market has been one of California's preeminent suppliers of food that meets the requirements of Jewish law, offering staples such as brisket and chicken as well as bison, prime steak and grass-fed beef.
But on Friday, the esteemed butcher was at the center of an angry debate that had spread across L.A.'s Jewish community. The owner of Doheny faces accusations of selling meat that was not properly certified under kosher rules. Longtime customers doing their shopping before Shabbat were forced to decide how much they trusted their butcher.
Earlier this week, a council of rabbis pulled Doheny's kosher certification and, in a statement Friday, raised the possibility of "legal action," a recourse to secular courts that would be rare. Other prominent rabbis have stood by the meat shop.
Charges of fraud on the one side have been met with accusations of favoritism on the other, with some of Doheny's defenders suggesting that the shop has been under attack by disgruntled competitors.
In a letter emailed to congregants Friday, the chief rabbi of one of the city's largest synagogues, Rabbi Adam Kligfeld of Temple Beth Am, urged continued patronage of Doheny "because by doing so we can make a statement that kashrut" — Jewish dietary law — "should be about kashrut ... and not monopolies or power plays or raising suspicions."
At stake is not just the integrity of people's kitchens but also millions of dollars in sales to retail customers as well as to caterers, hotels and institutions that serve meat to Jews who follow the religious laws that govern what meat can be eaten.
On Pico Boulevard, opinion remained sharply divided.
"If [the butcher] did it in Israel, New York or Chicago, he'd be dead by now," said Shein Epstein, who lives a few blocks from Doheny in the heavily Orthodox Jewish Pico-Robertson district.
"How are they still open?" shouted another woman outside the store.
"It's just an allegation," longtime customer Rick Scott shot back. Scott had driven down from Bel-Air to buy a chicken and, after talking to some of the workers at Doheny, decided to stick with the butcher.
The controversy started Sunday when a video taken by a private investigator surfaced, purporting to show Doheny workers bringing in boxes of meat late at night without the required supervision of the independent inspector, known as a mashgiach, tasked with overseeing the store. The video later aired on KTLA-TV Channel 5.
After viewing the videotape, the Rabbinical Council of California pulled Doheny's kosher certification.
A group of rabbis also met with Michael Engelman, Doheny's owner. According to the council, Engelman initially denied any wrongdoing but later "admitted to bringing unauthorized products to the store on two to three occasions."
The rabbinical council said in Friday's statement the organization had previously investigated complaints from Doheny's competitors but had found "no evidence of wrongdoing." The council has suspended the mashgiach who was on duty at the time the videotape was made and said it's also investigating allegations that Doheny used false labels on some products.
Engelman could not be reached for comment. On Friday, a new kosher supervisor, Rabbi Menachem Weiss, tried to reassure customers that the problems had been solved.
"We're 100% sure that all the meat being sold out of this place is glatt kosher," he said outside the store. "Mike is running the business. He's under a lot of pressure.... We just took over the kosher certification."
Weiss cited a series of improvements made at the shop this week, including a new security system with eight cameras that is being supervised off-site by Weiss' father. They also hired a new supervisor who will remain on the premises and threw away any meat that had come to the store before their arrival.
Some supporters of Engelman have suggested that he might have been set up because of his success and questioned why the private investigator targeted him with the video sting.
"I've known Michael for 30 years. He wouldn't do this. He just wouldn't," said Heather Broidy, who has been shopping at the market for 30 years. "This is a huge deal because this is the political side of kosher supervision and the rabbis who supervise. You can't run a kosher business without that certification, so you have to bow to the political pressure. They make money on it."
Kosher meat is considerably more expensive than meat found in a regular supermarket because of the extra supervision and inspections required.
Kosher rules are extensive and sometimes confusing to outsiders. Milk cannot be mixed with meat, some animals cannot be eaten, and those that can must be killed according to strict guidelines. But for the observant, it's more than a set of arbitrary dietary preferences; rather, it's a way of life that extends beyond eating habits. Eating kosher means being reminded several times a day of Jewish values.
Although some rabbis stood behind Doheny, others expressed alarm over the allegations.
Rabbi Shimon Kashani of the Southern California Jewish Center said his congregation had been warned about the situation. "We have told them to be careful," he said.
"It's horrifying," he said. "If it is true — again, I just know what I have seen in the videos — but you really feel betrayed. If the food that you are thinking is kosher and you find that it may not have been kosher — that's very devastating."
Kashani described the video as "troubling," saying "it seems that certain things are happening that maybe shouldn't be happening."
Rabbi Zvi Dershowitz of Sinai Temple said stakes for the Jewish community are high — and very personal.
"If somebody says it's kosher and it's not, that's damaging my spiritual values — what I believe in, what's important," he said. "It hurts me."