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Expo’s menu highlights taste, kashrut, health

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Thousands turned out at the Meadowlands Exposition Center in Secaucus on Tuesday and Wednesday for Kosherfest. Photos by Josh Lipowsky

The Meadowlands Expo Center in Secaucus became a kosher foodie’s dream on Tuesday and Wednesday, as the 21st annual Kosherfest expo showcased new products and trends.

Organized by marketing companies Lubicom and Diversified Business Communications, Kosherfest is the world’s largest kosher expo. Organizers expected some 6,000 attendees this week to visit more than 300 exhibitors. With a number of companies unveiling low-calorie, heart-healthy products, the unofficial theme of this year’s showcase may as well have been healthful living.

“If there’s been a change in Kosherfest it’s in the number of new products,” Menachem Lubinsky, CEO of Lubicom, told The Jewish Standard Tuesday, noting the increased number of health and gourmet products.

Danielle Praeger, vice president of marketing of the Elmwood Park-based Dr. Praeger’s, said the trend in kosher food is now toward healthier options. The Ungar’s brand, which Dr. Praeger’s owns, is well known for its gefilte fish but the company plans to expand the line to include blintzes, matzoh balls, and other traditional items — all of which would be all-natural and health-conscious, said Praeger.

The move toward more health-conscious products is more than just a fad, said David Yale, CEO of Manischewitz. The company has added a new symbol on its matzoh boxes citing the product’s health value. The entire kosher industry is looking at the convergence of “the pureness and cleanliness of kosher “ with the demand in the general market for healthful lines.

“You see a little bit more of that at the show, but we’re being a little more aggressive,” he said.

Bayonne-based Kedem has also added a symbol on some of its products about their health value, said spokesman Nachman Frost.

“We’re trying to market our items as all-natural, healthy and [they] just happen to be kosher,” he said.
This was the second year in a row at the Meadowlands for Kosherfest. Though it had originated in New Jersey, the show spent several years at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City. Elie Katz, co-owner of Chopstix in Teaneck, was one of many who were happy to see the trade show back in the Garden State.

“It’s more convenient,” he said, as he searched the aisles for new ingredients to bring to his restaurant. Several booths displayed Asian sauces, seasonings, and meats, which Katz said could go well with his menu.

Stuart Kahan, co-owner of Ma’adan in Teaneck, said he would return to his store with several new ideas.

“They’re really starting to step it up,” he said of the kosher industry.

He lamented, though. that some of the new items he saw are not yet in distribution.

“It’s a big problem trying to find a distributor,” he said. “They have to give it more time.”

“We’re catching up to the real world in product availability that can leave the New York market,” said Stuart Reichman, founder of Teaneck-based Slurpin’ Good Soups. As he looked for ideas for packaging and distribution for his own products, he praised what he saw as improvements in packaging to give kosher food a longer shelf life and appeal to broader audiences.

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Cheski Baum’s Luck Chen won Best in Show at this year’s Kosherfest new products competition.

Kosher meat giant Agriprocessors was noticeably absent from last year’s Kosherfest, which took place just a few months after federal immigration agents raided the company’s Iowa facility, sparking the company’s downward spiral. The fallout could be felt throughout the kosher industry.

As the Rubashkin family continues to face legal battles, a new corporation swooped in several months ago to buy Agriprocessors. Agri Star has been marketing Aaron’s Best meats and poultry and the company has been warmly welcomed back to the market, said its president, Daniel Hirsch.

“There’s a tremendous positive response and there is demand for our quality of product,” he said, as the company served up samples of chicken wings, mini hot dogs, and deli meat on Tuesday. “We’re looking to increase production in the next several months.”

The kosher meat and poultry industry has changed quite a bit in the past year, said Elie Rosenfeld of Joseph Jacobs Advertising, which works with such big-name clients as Empire Poultry and ShopRite.

“We still see continued growth in the kosher market place,” he said. “Retail expansion is continuing as they see the kosher and Jewish consumer as a valuable part of their business models.”

Manufacturers of mainstream food products are also becoming aware of the value of kosher certification, said Rabbi H.Z. Senter, executive administrator of Teaneck-based Kof-K Kosher Supervision. He pointed to an increased number of flours, spices, and seasonings seeking out certification.

To fill the gap left by Agriprocessors, many smaller kosher companies became regional suppliers, Rosenfeld said. He also pointed to increased lines at companies such as Solomon’s and Empire, which recently began producing meat in addition to poultry.

This results in more competition and better prices for the consumer, Rosenfeld said. Agri Star’s Hirsch said the price of kosher meat has dropped since Aaron’s returned, but the Standard could not verify that claim.

Lubinsky said the industry had to wait for the new owners to “find their oats” but he predicted the company could become a major player once again.

Kosherfest also highlighted 18 new items in its annual new products competition. Judges crowned Luck Chen, a line of Asian noodles, this year’s Best in Show. Cheski Baum didn’t like what his children were eating. When they wanted a quick bite, their options were full of sodium, MSG, and calories.

After exploring culinary options in Asia, he unveiled Luck Chen heat-and-serve noodle meals earlier this year. Baum credits his business model for his success, acknowledging he’s going about things a little differently.

“Our business model puts profit second,” he said. “Our goal is to make something good for the customer.”

Baum is looking to expand the business with soups, spices, and sauces. Luck Chen, which comes in a variety of Asian flavors, will “probably revolutionize the industry of the quick meal,” he said.

 
 

Orthodox rabbis address the ethics of kashrut

The ethical side of the kashrut industry has been under a microscope in the wake of the 2008 immigration raid at the Agriprocessors plant, which led to a fraud conviction for the company’s former CEO.

Now, a task force within the Rabbinical Council of America has issued its Jewish Principles and Ethical Guidelines to “promote and safeguard ethical corporate policies and behavior, and encourage socially responsible activities in kosher food production,” according to the organization. The task force, headed by Rabbi Asher Meir, research director of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, included rabbinical experts in business ethics, law, and kosher supervision.

“Recent events, and the deliberations of our task force, made it clear to us that expectations were not in alignment among the three major stakeholders in the kosher food industry: producers, supervisors, and consumers,” Meir e-mailed The Jewish Standard on Wednesday. “The supervising agencies had certain standards but they were not consistently defined or applied, and the producers were not always of aware of them; the consumers had expectations the agencies had not really understood. Most of all, we wanted to create a set of standards that would be acceptable to all the participants.”

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Rabbi Menachem Genack

The guidelines will help repair the damage caused to the image of the kosher industry since the Agri incident, according to Meir. The guidelines maintain that “agencies should explicitly inform clients that they require lawful conduct, and agencies should distance themselves from any producer whose conduct constitutes a gross affront to the ethical demands of Jewish law and tradition.”

Among the areas supervisors should monitor are employee and animal safety.

Jewish organizations welcomed the guidelines, while the Orthodox Union, the country’s largest kashrut supervisory organization, has endorsed them and has begun to direct its inspectors to monitor for violations. Rabbi Menachem Genack, the OU’s kashrut division CEO and an Englewood resident, served on the RCA’s task force.

“We’re not expecting kashrus inspectors to ferret out issues beyond their expertise, but in the process of the plant, if they become aware of something, they should report it,” he said.

Following the Agri raid, a group of rabbinical students from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah created Uri L’Tzedek, dedicated to promoting social justice in the Orthodox world. In a phone interview with the Standard earlier this week, Uri L’Tzedek founder Shmuly Yanklowitz said there has to be a “grassroots” shift in consumer habits.

“It’s clear that the Orthodox constituency, as well as the establishments, are rapidly changing in their perspectives of consumerism, kashrut, and social justice,” Yanklowitz said.

Until now, the Orthodox community has been more reactive about ethical standards in kashrut, Yanklowitz said.

“There’s an understanding now that the whole country is watching to see how will we clean up this mess,” he said. “But also on the positive side there’s an expanded notion of kashrut as a spiritual and emotional force in the country. That’s creating a great pressure in the Orthodox establishment to put forward solutions.”

Rabbi Morris Allen, founder of the Conservative movement’s Magen Tzedek — formerly Hekhsher Tzedek — ethical kashrut seal, said the new focus on ethical issues in the kashrut industry is a “victory for the Jewish people.” He credited his organization for spurring the change in attitude toward kashrut.

“Three years ago there was no consensus in the Jewish community about ethical issues in kosher food,” he said. “Now there is clear consensus.”

The role of the rabbi in monitoring ethical concerns remains a matter of debate. Yanklowitz said that, “Rabbis ought to be an inspiring force in helping to guide these values and laws.”

Genack argued that rabbis cannot be expected to take the place of trained government inspectors.

“They shouldn’t substitute themselves for governmental agencies that are by law and experience able to handle these issues more effectively,” he said. “But if they become aware of these issues, they shouldn’t ignore it.”

The RCA guidelines recognize rabbis’ limited knowledge of federal regulations. Rather than begin their own investigations, they are directed to bring their suspicions to the attention of the company in question or federal inspectors.

Once a supervising agency becomes convinced of wrongdoing, according to the guidelines, it “should act promptly and not remain, or even appear to remain, indifferent to such misconduct.” Actions may include removing its supervision; also the RCA may publicly condemn the violations.

“The bottom line,” Allen said, “is that what we’re seeing is a coalescing in the Jewish community around the shared notion that in the production of kosher food, ethical issues that impact a Jewish community are important.”

 
 

Jewish agencies: Food stamps are ‘kosher’

As the economy slowly emerges from what some analysts have called its worst downturn since the Great Depression, government aid programs continue to attract new applicants.

One such initiative that has received a lot of attention recently is Families First Electronic Benefits Transfer, more commonly known as the food stamp program.

According to the Department of Human Services, in December 2009, more than 284,000 households in the state received food stamps, representing an increase of 53,941 since December 2008.

“Food stamps and Medicaid programs are really the first stop-gap measure that people fall back on to try to maintain self-sufficiency,” said Marc Schiffer, director of the Passaic County Board of Social Services.

Schiffer noted there has been a large increase in applications for food stamps and Medicaid in the past year. Conversely, the state’s welfare programs have not increased at the same rate.

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Gone are the days of paper certificates exchanged for food. The food-stamp system has become more modern and discreet. The Division of Family Services in New Jersey’s Department of Human Services uses the Electronic Benefits Transfer System. Recipients receive monthly allotments on a Families First debit card, which can be used to buy most grocery items. They cannot be used for alcohol, tobacco, or non-food items.

“It does not put someone into a spotlight,” Schiffer said of the card. “A lot of times it’s invisible to other shoppers.”

Despite the inconspicuousness of the card, the decision to go on food stamps can be difficult, especially for people in the upper-middle class. White-collar jobs have been hit hard, according to Lisa Fedder, executive director of Jewish Family Service of Bergen County and North Hudson. Because of this, she said, pride can often get in the way of somebody signing up for the program.

“Unfortunately, there are some people who feel a stigma attached to receiving food stamps,” she said. “There are some people who won’t take them even though they are eligible.”

About 15 percent of JFS Bergen’s more than 1,900 clients receive food stamps. About 5 percent of those eligible won’t join the program, according to Faith O’Connor, care manager in the adult case management department.

One JFS client on food stamps is an elderly Holocaust survivor, O’Connor said. He suffered a stroke a number of years ago and has been unable to work. He and his wife depend on the program.

“It’s difficult, yet it has served to help them tremendously,” O’Connor said.

Most people look at food stamps as a supplement to help them meet their nutritional needs, Schiffer said, despite any stigma that may be attached to the program.

“At a point in time, unless your circumstances change, you have to make a decision of having the resources to feed your family or feed your pride,” Schiffer said. “Most people make the decision to feed their family.”

Passaic County, he pointed out, is home to the third-largest number of recipients in the state. Essex County has the highest number of recipients.

Esther East, executive director of Jewish Family Service & Riskin Children’s Center of Clifton/Passaic, estimated about 100 of JFS client families receive food stamps.

“We’ve come a long way in helping people accept that if they are needy and trying to keep their families together, then they need to access whatever government programs there are, and this is one of them,” she said.

So-called entitlement programs are more acceptable now, she said, because of the difficult economy.

“It’s normative at this point,” she said.

Adina Yacoub, assistant administrator at the Bergen County Board of Social Services, no longer sees a stigma attached to the program. Her department encourages all people who think they are eligible to apply, she said.

“We tell them it’s tax dollars at work,” she said.

Leah Kaufman, executive director of Jewish Family Service of North Jersey, has noticed more willingness among her clients to seek out the food stamps program. Still, she said, there remains an uneasiness about making that first call to JFS for financial help.

“Many don’t reach out until there’s a crisis,” she said. “They might be on the verge of losing their house, unable to pay for medical insurance, filing for bankruptcy…. People tend to turn to credit cards to pay their bills, but once they max out, that creates a major crisis for them.”

In the past few months the number of calls for financial assistance has doubled, she said.

When a person applies to the food stamp program, the state runs a check on his or her financial situation. On average, according to Schiffer, an individual stays on the program for six to nine months.

“It all depends on their circumstances,” he said.

A majority of grocery stores accept the EBT card, according to Yacoub. An informal survey, however, of seven Bergen County kosher markets revealed that none of them accept food stamps, although a representative of Teaneck Kosher said the market is working on it. Kosher Konnection in Passaic accepts the EBT card.

The benefits of signing up for the program, Yacoub said, include attracting more shoppers to the store. The government guarantees payment, so the only disadvantage, she continued, is some paperwork.

“It’s out there in the community for people who need it,” Fedder said. “I would hope people take advantage of it.”

 
 

Fair trade gets boost in Teaneck

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Bruce Prince’s family has been in business for many years. The owners of Prince Embroidery, founded in Hudson County in the 1920s, they watched as the once-thriving garment industry became “uprooted.”

With the price of labor far less overseas, said Prince, a Teaneck resident and owner of the Teaneck General Store, manufacturers began to send their business elsewhere.

“People there were working for small amounts of money,” he said. As a result, “the industry here shut down.”

Recently, the Teaneck shopkeeper realized that this was not just a matter of business.

“The reality hit us that people weren’t being given fair wages,” he said. “The people we employed here were unionized. We were mindful of labor practices. Now it’s cheaper, but for what reason?”

The reason, suggested Prince — who serves on the Fair Trade Teaneck Steering Committee together with other Teaneck residents and business owners — is that employers are engaging in unconscionable labor practices.

According to the group’s fact sheet: “Hundreds of thousands of pre-teen children are victims of trafficking and forced labor; impoverishment is notably the result of exploitation by local middlemen; predatory farming methods are destroying indigenous environments; [and] hazardous labor conditions expose workers to toxic chemicals, compel them to accept low pay, and prevent them from asserting their rights.”

That can be changed, says Dennis Klein, a Teaneck resident and professor of history at Kean College in Union.

Klein, director of Jewish studies at the college, organized the steering committee in the hope that Teaneck might become a fair trade town. According to the committee Website, “Just five establishments selling at least two fair trade product lines will raise Teaneck’s profile as an enlightened business and consumer community.”

The Kean professor said he has long been involved in social change initiatives. A chance encounter with Tim Blunk, owner of Teaneck’s Tiger Lily Flowers, “piqued his interest” in fair trade.

It’s a case where “folks at the local level can do something to help people far away,” he said, explaining that while the local group is part of a national and international movement, the issue is truly an opportunity to “think globally and act locally.”

“I like that approach,” he said, noting that in his visits not only to merchants and public organizations but to synagogues and Jewish schools as well, “we alert people to problems behind the products they’re buying and empower each one of us as local consumers to make choices.”

The idea of “making an ethical choice appeals directly to the Jewish community,” he said.

The steering committee fact sheet notes that “just by purchasing fair-trade certified products, consumers can tip the balance of market share that will favor just labor practices, fair prices, and sustainable farming methods … [defeating] the sources of the present human rights crisis.”

To help bring this about, the American Jewish World Service recently formed a partnership with Equal Exchange, a fair trade product supplier and worker-owned cooperative founded in 1986.

Announcing the partnership, AJWS issued a statement noting that “big companies can afford to significantly undersell smaller growers, who are then forced to lower their prices to the point where they can no longer remain in business.” Members of fair trade cooperatives, however, “receive fair prices for their crops and enjoy long-term trade relationships with trusted partners.”

The AJWS-Equal Exchange venture, Better Beans, was created to sell and distribute fairly traded kosher coffee and chocolate. Such programs exist to “create a global market for these farmers and provide them with access to the financial resources and assistance that they need to operate,” said the AJWS statement, adding that the project “allows congregations, community organizations, and individuals to order high-quality coffee and chocolate while supporting small growers and community-owned cooperatives in the developing world.”

To further this effort, the organization is encouraging the Jewish community to serve only Better Beans coffee and chocolate at their synagogues, schools, and local events. In addition to supporting small farmer co-ops, a portion of every pound of coffee or chocolate purchased through Better Beans will support the AJWS Fighting Hunger from the Ground Up campaign.

Klein pointed out that the Teaneck steering committee “actively visits and provides information” to the groups it hopes to recruit.

“We presented a pitch to the Teaneck Jewish Community Council and got some wonderful responses,” he said. “We’re also visiting Temple Emeth and Cong. Beth Sholom and will go to Orthodox shuls and yeshivas as well.”

So far, he said, 25 groups have said they’re interested, and five have already agreed to promote fair trade products.

While those he visits have been “very sympathetic” to the idea of fair trade, he said, “most are not aware of the movement. We bring them up to speed. Once they hear why this is such an important endeavor, they begin to understand that they can do something at the local level.”

During his visits, he said, “I form a picture of the division of labor in the developing world [explaining that] coffee, tea, wine, and flowers are sometimes produced under impossible conditions of exploitation and child labor abuses.”

Prince said he and Klein became interested in the issue at the same time. He recalled, however, that he had begun to learn something about the subject several years ago when he served as executive director of Temple Beth Or.

“The rabbi [then Peter Berg] was a social activist and began to buy fair trade coffee,” he said, noting that it helped bring the issue to his attention.

Prince spoke positively of Equal Exchange, which embraces the “hierarchy of needs” espoused by Maimonides. “Their approach is to empower the growers,” he said, “to help them become better farmers and lead better lives.”

The shop-owner — whose store boasts a kosher, fair trade coffee counter as well as a variety of other fair trade products — said he visited an Equal Exchange café in Boston to learn how best to brew its coffee.

The extent of the composting and recycling was “breathtaking,” he said. “We spent a full day and a half watching every process.”

He added that not only does he serve the coffee, but he gives educational materials about fair trade to customers. Last month, he sponsored a lecture on the subject, attracting about 30 attendees.

“People do care about it,” he said, adding that his goal is to carry as many fair trade products as possible.

“The Jewish tradition teaches us that when we buy and sell goods, we must treat our partners fairly and honestly,” said Ruth Messinger, AJWS president. “One product at a time, choosing fair trade is a step toward building a global system that treats all producers equitably and embodies the Torah’s vision of a just society.”

All Better Beans products are certified kosher by the Orthodox Union, the Kashruth Council of Canada, or Rabbi Abraham Hochwald, chief rabbi of the Northern Rhine-Germany. For more information, visit www.ajws.org/betterbeans.

 
 

Kosher restaurants put ethical standards on the menu

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Kosher diners are starting to think about what goes on behind the counters where they eat, according to the Orthodox ethics organization Uri L’Tzedek. Three Bergen County restaurants have thus far signed up for the organization’s year-old ethical kashrut seal and a fourth will be announced later this month.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, then a student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, N.Y., founded Uri L’Tzedek in 2007. The organization unveiled the Tav HaYosher — the ethical seal — last year to reward businesses that recognize what its Website refers to as “The right to fair pay. The right to fair time. The right to a safe work environment.”

So far, 39 restaurants in New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Illinois have signed up.

“It’s the next wave of 21st-century Jewish activism,” Yanklowitz said. “The simple act of a consumer choosing where to buy a sandwich is a matter of Jewish ethics. The act is so easy and the effect is so meaningful.”

Locally, Teaneck’s Noah’s Ark and Shelly’s Café and the frozen yogurt retailer 16 Handles at the Westfield Garden State Plaza in Paramus have signed up for the certification. A third Teaneck restaurant is expected to be announced next week, Yanklowitz said, adding he could not disclose any further details of its identity.

In addition to the businesses that have received its certification, Yanklowitz said Uri L’Tzedek has received commitments from synagogues, federations, schools, and other organizations and individuals to patronize only restaurants that have the seal. The recognition also sends a message to the non-Jewish community that watched the Agriprocessors scandal unfold in the media, he said.

“Many consumers have become disillusioned by the ethics of the kosher community,” Yanklowitz said. “By upholding the name yashrut, ethics, it expands the kosher clientele.”

When a restaurant signs up, a Tav Yosher compliance officer — one of some 60 volunteers — reviews the business’s payroll and other records and speaks privately with the employees. These inspectors are trained to review business ledgers and fluent in other languages to better communicate with non-English-speaking workers. The inspectors then return every two to three months to check the books and interview employees. The certification is free to businesses.

The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, which oversees the kosher supervision of most of the area’s kosher restaurants, would allow restaurants to make their own decisions regarding the seal, said its president, Rabbi Larry Rothwachs of Teaneck’s Cong. Beth Aaron. Rothwachs declined further comment until he could learn more about the certification.

Calls to the manager of the 16 Handles Paramus branch, which received the Tav HaYosher last week, were not returned. The 16 Handles in Manhattan also carries the certification.

Noam Sokolow, owner of Noah’s Ark and Shelly’s, told this newspaper that the community was outraged by ethical violations uncovered in recent years and wanted reassurance about local establishments.

“We’ve always felt we want our restaurants to be on a level where everyone feels comfortable,” he said. “It was an opportunity for us to have an additional agency supervising an aspect we feel is important.”

Neither of his Teaneck restaurants nor his Manhattan Noah’s Ark restaurant, which also carries the certification, had to make any changes before Uri L’Tzedek awarded the Tav Yosher, he said. After the certificate appeared in his stores’ windows, however, customers began thanking the management, he added.

“They want to see people here locally are following the rules,” he said.

The Jewish community as a whole reacted very responsibly following the Agri fallout and has overcome the challenges it presented, he said.

“As long as we can move forward and do something constructive with the information that we have, we become better people,” Sokolow said. “It’s an evolution.”

 
 

Rubashkin legal team vow to fight conviction, sentence

WASHINGTON – For years Sholom Rubashkin made his living as an executive in the country’s largest kosher meatpacking company. Now to keep him out of prison, his defense team is arguing that the judge in his financial fraud case made treif use of federal sentencing guidelines.

The judge, Linda Reade, who sits on the federal bench in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, used a federal point system in deciding this week to sentence Rubashkin to 27 years in prison.

Sophisticated crime? Check, that’s 2 points.

Fraud in the $20 million to $50 million range? Check, that’s 22 points.

Was he a boss of the criminal enterprise? Check, that’s 4 points.

Did he perjure himself? Another 2 points.

Reade determined that Rubashkin’s final score was 41 points, which according to the federal guidelines earns a sentence of 324 months to 405 months. The judge handed down the former — 27 years — plus another five years probation. Rubashkin also will be required to make restitution of nearly $27 million to several financial institutions.

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Sholom Rubashkin Courtesy of Rubashkin family

Rubashkin was convicted of defrauding two banks that had extended lines of credit to the slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa. The ex-Agriprocessors executive contended that he was desperate to keep the business afloat and would have repaid the advances if he had the opportunity. Reade assessed the fraud at close to $27 million.

Rubashkin’s lawyers said the 27-year term amounted to a life sentence for the 51-year-old father of 10, and that that they planned to appeal the sentence — on top of an appeal of the conviction.

“This is a stain on American justice, and it gets to be a bigger and bigger stain all the time,” defense attorney Nathan Lewin told JTA.

Defense lawyers dismissed claims that anti-Semitism underpinned the case.

“Nobody responsible has made that allegation,” Lewin said.

Instead, the lawyers said, the “overzealousness” of the prosecution had more to do with the profoundly negative publicity in the lead-up to the May 2008 federal raid on the Agriprocessors plant.

In particular, Lewin cited “defamatory” media stories that described alleged abuses of the immigrants who worked at the Agriprocessors plant; claims by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that the cattle suffered immensely; and opposition from local unions because the shop was not organized.

Lewin said Rubashkin’s team planned to appeal for support through rallies such as the one he addressed Monday evening in the heavily Orthodox Borough Park section of Brooklyn.

“This is a man who did a lot more good for the Jewish community than not,” Lewin said. “He made kosher meat available for Jews in far-flung places.”

Lewin said he planned to appeal the sentence based on what he described as Reade’s adherence to mandatory sentencing guidelines, which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in 2005.

However, Reade in her ruling appeared to say that she treated the guidelines as advisory, which the Supreme Court said was permissible.

“The court finds that a sentence within the computed advisory guidelines range is firmly rooted in credible evidence produced at trial and at sentencing,” she said.

Prior to the sentencing hearing last month, six former U.S. attorneys general and 17 other Justice Department veterans sent a letter to the judge criticizing prosecutors’ recommendation that Rubashkin receive life in prison.

The letter writers noted the “potential absurdity” in prosecutors using the federal sentencing guidelines to calculate a recommendation of life in prison for Rubashkin, saying the guidelines can produce sentencing ranges that are greater than necessary and “lack any common sentencing wisdom.”

In his interview with JTA, Lewin said he would show on appeal that Reade did not apply an “individualized process” in determining the sentence. She did not address motive, he said, nor did she take into account family issues or sentences for similar crimes.

Reade did not cite similar cases, and she dismissed motive outright in rejecting defense requests for “downwards adjustment” of the sentence. She did acknowledge, however, that the defense presented “substantial” evidence that Rubashkin was not motivated by greed but “out of a sense of duty to maintain his family business for religious purposes” — to maintain the supply of kosher meat.

“No matter defendant’s motive, he defrauded the victim banks out of millions of dollars,” Reade wrote. “He unlawfully placed his family business’s interest above the victim banks’ interest.”

Reade did address Rubashkin’s family situation, particularly his relationship with his autistic son. She rejected defense arguments in this case, saying that in the precedents, courts made it one of several factors.

In the case cited by the defense, the defendant had made “extraordinary efforts at restitution” — something Rubashkin did not , she argued. Reade also said that “in the vast majority of cases” that she has considered, loved ones are adversely affected, and that in this case — unlike in many others — Rubashkin’s son enjoys “a loving and competent mother as well as an extremely tight-knit, supportive extended family, all of whom are obviously devoted to him and accustomed to working with him.”

Another factor likely to be critical to the appeal of the sentencing is also central to the appeal of the conviction, the lawyers said: The judge allowed allegations of immigration law violations to be introduced both in the trial and sentencing stages, although she had earlier dismissed the immigration charges. Rubashkin was separately acquitted earlier this month of state charges of labor violations related to the alleged employment of immigrant children.

“Here’s the fallacy in all that — he was never convicted in any immigration charges,” Guy Cook, another of his attorneys, said in a conference call with Jewish media on Monday afternoon, after Reade had released her decision.

Bob Teig, a prosecution spokesman, said that the jurors considered the alleged immigration violations only as they pertained to the bank fraud charges. Teig said that Rubashkin had pledged to the banks to abide by the law, yet was in violation of immigration laws by knowingly accepting false identification documents.

“The jury finding was that he knew illegal aliens were being harbored at the plant and that he lied about that to the bank,” Teig said.

Reade cited the immigration law violations in making the case that Rubashkin knowingly defrauded the bank, but declined a prosecution request to add to the sentence because of the violations. However, the judge embedded a warning in her decision that she might change her mind if she is ordered to re-sentence on appeal.

“In the event the court is required to re-sentence Defendant, it reserves the right to revisit these upward departure provisions to determine whether their application would be appropriate,” she wrote.

Bring it on, Lewin said.

“If she’s warning us, it’s an empty warning,” he said. “We’re appealing it and we’ll get it reversed.”

JTA

 
 

Y’all will like this new cookbook

Just in time for summer cooking and entertaining — and thinking ahead for the early onset of the High Holy Days (Rosh HaShanah is Sept. 9), here’s a taste of “Simply Southern — With a Dash of Kosher Soul.” Tracy Rapp and Dena Wruble are the editors of the book, a fund-raiser for the Margolin Hebrew Academy/Feinstone Yeshiva of the South (formerly the Memphis Hebrew Academy) in Memphis, Tenn. The book showcases “traditional kosher recipes turned Southern and traditional Southern recipes turned kosher.” Cooks can learn about Jewish life in the South through personal stories of some of the contributors and color photographs accompany many of the Jewish “soul food” recipes.

The book is a compilation of almost 300 Southern cuisine “classic” recipes, adhering to kashrut, chosen from 1,500 entries by the book’s editorial committee at the school, a small Orthodox day school. More than 2,500 copies have been sold since the book’s release in December.

The hard-covered, spiral-bound book is available at bookstores, Judaica shops, including the Judaica House in Teaneck, and online at http://www.simplysoutherncookbook.net.

Here’s a nice summer choice, perhaps even for a Shabbat lunch if you are serving meat. I am sure you could substitute chicken or maybe firm tofu instead of steak.

Molasses Marinated Meat Salad With Poppy Seed Dressing

Meat and marinade

1/2 cup molasses

1/4 cup coarse grain mustard

1-2 lb. skirt steak

Blend molasses and mustard. Pour over steak. Marinate for two hours or overnight. Grill or broil to desired degree of doneness. Cut steak into thin slices.

Dressing

1 cup vegetable oil

3/4 cup sugar

1 tsp. dry mustard

2 tbsp. chopped onion

1/3 cup apple cider vinegar

1 tsp. salt

1 tbsp. poppy seeds

Whisk together oil, sugar, mustard, onion, vinegar, salt, and poppy seeds until smooth.

Salad

1-2 packages Bibb, romaine, or iceberg lettuce

1 cucumber, diced

1 cup cubed mango

1 red onion, chopped

1/2 cup dried cranberries (optional)

Sliced apples

Arrange lettuce, cucumber, mango, red onion, and cranberries on platter. Place meat slices over salad. Drizzle dressing over all. Garnish with sliced apples.

Yield: four servings

Carmelized Onions
and Pecan Green Beans

(Two savory delights from the garden in one easy dish!)

2 pounds green beans

4 tbsp. margarine

1 cup coarsely chopped pecans

1 large onion, halved and thinly sliced

1 tbsp. sugar

1 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. pepper

Bring pot of water to boil. Add green beans and cook five minutes. Drain and plunge into ice water. Green beans will be al dente. Melt margarine in a large skillet over medium heat. Sauté pecans about five minutes until toasted. Remove from skillet with a slotted spoon. Add onion to skillet. Cook and stir 15 minutes until caramel-colored. Stir in sugar. Return pecans and add green beans. Add salt and pepper. Cook five more minutes.

Mississippi Mud Brownies

(We’ve been told by someone who grew up in the South that this is a typical Southern dessert. Bring your sweet tooth to dinner!)

1 cup chopped pecans

2 sticks butter or margarine

1 (4-oz.) semi-sweet chocolate baking bar, chopped

2 cups sugar

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

4 large eggs

1 tsp. vanilla

3/4 tsp. salt

1 (7-oz.) jar marshmallow fluff

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place pecans in a single layer in a shallow pan. Bake 8-10 minutes until toasted and fragrant. Place butter or margarine and chocolate in a large glass bowl. Microwave on high power 1 minute, stirring at 30-second intervals or until smooth. Whisk in sugar, flour, cocoa, eggs, vanilla, and salt. Pour batter into a greased 15x10x1-inch jelly roll pan. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and spread marshmallow fluff on top.

Chocolate Frosting

1 stick butter or margarine

1/3 cup milk or soymilk

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 (16-oz.) package powdered sugar

I tsp. vanilla

Melt butter or margarine in a saucepan. Whisk in milk and cocoa. Bring to boil, whisking constantly. Remove from heat. Gradually add powdered sugar, stirring until smooth. Stir in vanilla. Immediately drizzle frosting over warm brownies. Sprinkle with toasted pecans.

Yield: 16 servings

 
 

Southern roots run deep for 30-year New Jersey resident

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The 3- 4-year-old B’nai B’rith Jacob kindergarten class of 1951. Of the 28 kids in the class, 14 came to the 65th birthday party.

We came to Savannah, Ga., from near and far last month to celebrate our coming of age. No, we were not welcoming our entrance into adulthood at age 13 at b’nai mitzvah, or age 21 to drink legally —we were celebrating the arrival of our Medicare cards, at age 65.

We all grew up in a very small Savannah Jewish community, where we spent most of our time in JEA Canteens (Jewish Educational Alliance, the JCC of Savannah) and in our synagogue youth groups, YOU at B’nai B’rith Jacob Synagogue, USY at the Agudath Achim Synagogue, and TYG at Temple Mickve Israel (which holds the oldest Torah scrolls in the United States). We started in kindergarten together, moved on to first and second grade at the Hebrew day school, and then attended public school, high school and college. We went to all the bar mitzvahs, birthday parties, and celebrations. (There were no bat mitzvahs at the time we were growing up. I was allowed to do one or two prayers in front of the bimah, at a lower level, and that was it. It was the 1950s and women were relegated to a different role than we have now.)

We knew each other’s families — grandparents, mothers, dads, sisters, brothers. We lived in each other’s lives. It was a wonderful, nurturing environment, and while we may not always have gotten along, we loved each other. We became a family.

And so it was not surprising that so many of us traveled from New Jersey, New York, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, Maryland, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, West Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina to see one another at this time in our lives. It was quite a reunion for everyone, who had last joined as a group for our 50th birthday and before that, our 40th birthday. But what is amazing is that everyone has kept in touch after all these years.

“There is definitely a bond with Savannah and all the kids we grew up with,” said Ellen Schneider Goodrich, who drove in from Milledgeville, Ga. The weekend events were planned by Savannah residents, who kindly shared their homes at Tybee, Savannah Beach, for the reunion. We ate hush puppies, boiled peanuts, grits, kosher Krispy Kremes, and fried chicken with Johnny Harris Barbeque sauce (which just recently received kosher certification).

“What better way to celebrate our return to Savannah than to spend it at the beach?,” said Sydney Solomon Ratnow, who flew in from Suffern, N.Y., with her husband, Steve. Sydney met Steve through her Savannah friends who were at Emory in 1962. There were at least five couples who grew up together in Savannah and are now married. But most people came from outside of Savannah. Texan attorney Arthur Geffen called his photos of the group “AKs from Savannah.”

Of the six kids in my second-grade Hebrew day school class, four of us were at the party.

It is difficult to explain to my New Jersey friends what it was like growing up in Savannah being Jewish. Most people don’t understand. There is a special connection we feel. It’s a real homecoming, and even though we may not see one another for years, we reconnect as though it were yesterday. It is a tribute to the Jewish community of Savannah that we have bonded and stayed in touch in such an extraordinary way over all these years.

Plans for the 70th birthday celebration are already floating around Facebook.

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A group of former classmates gather at the June 11 reunion in Savannah. Simone Wilker is in the front row, far right.
 
 

Can Kutsher’s, the Catskills’ last kosher resort, be saved?

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The lake at Kutsher’s offers boating and fishing. Uriel Heilman

For Yossi Zablocki, it was the phone call of a lifetime.

Last February, the manager at Kutsher’s Country Club, the last kosher resort hotel in the Catskill Mountains, called him in a panic with news that owner Mark Kutsher was thinking of retiring and closing down the place.

Zablocki, 37, had spent his summers growing up at the famed resort in Monticello, N.Y., graduating from camper to lifeguard to gabbai and leader of High Holiday services. Suddenly he had an opportunity to realize a lifelong dream — and he jumped at it.

“He always dreamed of taking over Kutsher’s,” Zablocki’s wife, Daniela, said between bites of egg salad in Kutsher’s dining room. “He really does think of it as a second home. When the opportunity to take it over came up, he asked me, but I think it was a given this was not something I could say no to.”

Now a criminal defense attorney for the New York Legal Aid Society and a general contractor living in Elizabeth, N.J., Zablocki saw the opportunity to run Kutsher’s not just as a third job but as the fulfillment of a calling.

Within days, Zablocki was booking guests for Passover and laying plans for the summer high season — when his endeavor will undergo its real test. If his new programming and marketing approaches work, Zablocki may be able to restore Kutsher’s lost sheen as a thriving retreat for kashrut-observant Jews. If not enough summertime guests show up, the Catskills likely will lose its last kosher resort.

Half a century ago, Kutsher’s was part of a thriving Catskills culture that served as a summertime haven for city Jews to stay cool, eat well, be entertained, and revel in the company of landsmen from near and far.

“In the past, these hotels opened the doors and guests just fell in from the sky,” Zablocki said. “Everyone was coming to the Catskill hotels. They didn’t have to sell themselves.”

But the advent of air conditioning, the end of restricted hotels, and the assimilation and gentrification of American Jewry changed all that, turning many Jewish Catskills resorts into ghost towns. Over the past couple of decades the few remaining Jewish resorts in the region have shuttered their doors, been sold to non-Jewish owners or become chasidic summer camps.

Zablocki is seizing Kutsher’s status as the only kosher resort left in the mountains to draw new customers who require the services of a kosher hotel. His vision is to bring guests back to this relic of American Jewish life with a combination of new programming and aggressive marketing. His target audience is a younger, modern Orthodox crowd that may not know from the Borscht Belt.

“I have someone calling every single yeshiva day school in the Northeast saying, Why don’t you come up to Kutsher’s instead of going to some roadside Best Western and bringing in your Torahs, kosher caterer, etc.? Come here. We have everything,” he said. “You don’t have to bring food, siddurim, or even Shabbos candles. You don’t have to worry about electronic key cards or walking around without an eruv. Everything is taken care of.”

In addition to indoor and outdoor swimming pools, an 18-hole championship golf course, a health club, a lake, boating, tennis, bocce ball, shuffleboard, children’s activities, an eruv enclosure, and, of course, lots and lots of food, Zablocki’s “new Kutsher’s” is booking entertainers like singer Neshama Carlebach, comedian Yisroel Campbell of the off-Broadway show “Circumcise Me,” and the Orthodox rock band Soul Farm, as well as magicians and entertainers for kids.

Zablocki also is updating the resort: He has added a hot tub to the indoor pool, brought in spa treatments, and fixed up the children’s playground.

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Helen Kutsher, whose son Mark owns the Catskills resort that bears their name, is flanked by Yossi Zablocki, right, and the resort’s caterer, Mickey Montal. Uriel Heilman

Yet in many ways, walking around Kutsher’s on a summer weekend is like traveling back in time. Gray-haired tuxedoed waiters still whisk around dishes of chopped liver, schav, pierogi, and, of course, cold borscht. There’s still a cosmetics shop in the lobby called Justine’s Makeup Counter, an Automat, and vending machines that date back to the 1950s. And Jackie Horner, who served as the inspiration for the hit 1987 film “Dirty Dancing,” is still leading dance classes, exercise routines, and “Bingo for Bucks.”

Except Jackie is now in her 70s, the old chairlifts on the ski hill haven’t worked in years, and the grand stage in the cavernous Stardust Room is dark except on weekends.

But dozens of elderly Jews from Florida still flock here every summer to take up their usual places in the dining room, the kitchen is open, tickets are on sale for the High Holidays and next Passover, and comedians from the city are making the two-hour drive up from New York to coax laughs out of overfed Jews. The Catskills culture lives.

It’s something you can’t take for granted, Zablocki warns. Kutsher’s almost didn’t open at all this year.

“Once this era is gone, the Borscht Belt will be completely forgotten,” said Mickey Montal, who runs the kitchen at Kutsher’s. “You can go to a Sheraton anytime. We want to preserve the kosher hotel and the nostalgia of the area. It’s an intimate part of Jewish life in America. People that come here enjoy it immensely.”

If things go well, Zablocki hopes he won’t just be saving an American Jewish icon but also creating an avenue for his other dream: making aliyah with an American salary. Though he immigrated with his family to Israel at age 12, Zablocki came back at 18 and has lived in the United States ever since.

“As crazy as it seems, I will have an easier time making aliyah and running a hotel in the Catskills than if I wasn’t running a hotel in the Catskills. If it works out, I can leave my other jobs,” he said. “The new Zionist dream is to work in America and live in Israel. My legal aid career doesn’t really allow for that, nor does the construction business. Since most of what I do here during the fall, winter, and spring is phone-oriented and computer-oriented, I could do it.”

Whether that’s a pipe dream remains to be seen. The hotel still needs some work, and Zablocki still has a formidable challenge in making back the money he invested to open the hotel and lease it from the Kutsher family.

Most important, the guests must materialize. The hotel has 250 operational rooms; Zablocki figures he needs an average of 150 of them occupied on summer weekends — about half that midweek — to break even.

Zablocki says he has lost about 30 pounds since taking control of the hotel.

“I’ve stopped eating. I used to come here for the food, but I can’t enjoy a meal. I’m constantly doing everything,” he said. “There’s definitely much more to running the hotel than I initially thought.”

If anyone can do it, Zablocki can, his sister says.

“Yossi’s a bulldozer,” Chana Zablocki told JTA. “When another brother of ours had a brain tumor everybody said was inoperable, Yossi was the one who got on the phone and found a surgeon in Arizona who had done 200 of these surgeries. And today, thank God, our brother is married and healthy.”

Ultimately, success or failure will hinge on whether the American Jews of today are interested in what Kutsher’s has to offer.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people that come here are coming to have a version of the Catskills hotel experience: as much food as you can eat, entertainment, shows. We’re figuring out how to recapture and capitalize on that,” Zablocki said.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel. People should have a nostalgic feeling when they come here. We’re keeping this as a Catskills-style resort.”

JTA

 
 

Days of awe

Keeping kosher — but just on holidays

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Kosher food manufacturers depend on the Jewish holidays for the bulk of their annual sales Photo by Sue Fishkoff from Kosherfest 2008

When I’m invited to a Shabbat or holiday meal in a Jewish home, I always bring kosher wine. Not just that, I try to make it Israeli.

It’s not because I keep kosher. And it’s not because the people I’m visiting necessarily keep kosher either. So if wine by any other name smells as sweet, why bother?

I know I’m not alone — plenty of Jews who ordinarily ignore the laws of kashrut buy kosher wine for Shabbat, stock their pantries with kosher-for-Passover food every spring, and pay extra for kosher catering at their simchas.

First Person

Hypocritical? Yes, if you believe that procuring and ingesting kosher food has merit only within the context of a fully observant lifestyle.

But that construct holds sway today mainly at the far ends of the observance spectrum, among those fervent Orthodox who don’t tolerate any deviation from kashrut and the few remaining “Classical Reform” Jews who are hostile to Jewish rituals in general, including kashrut.

Increasing numbers of American Jews, however, do not consider the kosher diet a divine commandment but an expression of Jewish identity, a mark of membership in the tribe. As such, it is a moving target. Putting kosher food on the table does not signal one’s denominational affiliation or level of observance so much as the strength of one’s connection to Jewish history, Jewish community, and even the land of Israel.

It’s a different, very modern, and specifically Western way of looking at Jewish dietary practice.

Let’s look at the numbers. According to the Mintel International Group, a market research firm that releases periodic reports on the kosher industry, more than 40 percent of the food sold in American supermarkets is kosher-certified. The group’s January 2009 report claimed that $195 billion of the previous year’s $400 billion in food sales came from kosher products, an astounding figure given that Jews make up less than 3 percent of the population and most don’t even keep kosher.

Sure, most of that kosher-certified food represents mainstream products such as Heinz ketchup and Tropicana orange juice that consumers buy without regard to its kosher status. More telling is the same report’s figure of $12.5 billion in sales within the dedicated kosher market, meaning products bought because of the kosher label.

Who’s buying this food?

Many are non-Jews who believe that kosher food, especially kosher meat and poultry, is safer, healthier, and of higher quality than its non-kosher counterpart. Others are non-Jews whose moral or religious beliefs are satisfied by kosher certification: Muslims who buy kosher meat when halal is unavailable and vegetarians who seek a “D” symbol indicating a meatless product fall into this category. They might be lactose-intolerant, assured by a pareve label that a product contains no dairy; the reasons are myriad.

But many of the people who buy kosher food on purpose are Jewish but nonobservant. Some of them buy kosher products for the same reason as non-Jews; they believe it’s safer or of higher quality. Many more, however, do it for reasons of community, tradition, and Jewish identity.

This is particularly true on the Jewish holidays, which have become times for nonobservant Jews to connect with their history by setting Jewish food on the table. Many Jews who don’t keep kosher the rest of the year buy kosher wine and matzoh for Passover, sometimes out of respect for parents or grandparents, sometimes because it makes them feel more Jewish, and sometimes because of an inchoate feeling that it would be wrong to do otherwise.

For its January 2009 report, Mintel surveyed 2,500 adults about their food-buying habits. Thirteen percent, or 335 respondents, said they regularly buy kosher food.

Of the 86 percent who said they were not observant Jews, 25 percent said they buy kosher food out of respect for their own or their partner’s family traditions. Researchers interpreted that to mean they are Jewish, simply not kashrut-observant. And more than half said they buy kosher products “occasionally,” which the researchers chalked up to Passover, Rosh HaShanah, and impending visits by the in-laws.

Food manufacturers are well aware of this holiday shopping phenomenon. Manufacturers of so-called traditional kosher foods such as matzoh and gefilte fish typically do 40 percent of their business strictly at Passover. Spokesmen for the Manischewitz Company put that figure at 50 percent.

When I was researching my book about kashrut and the kosher food industry, “Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority,” I spoke to many self-described nonobservant or partially observant Jews who bring out the kosher food on sacred occasions.

One woman in Glenview, Ill., told me that she keeps a kosher-style home, meaning she does not bring in pork or shellfish, but she will buy packaged food products without kosher symbols. She keeps “kosher by ingredient,” reading the labels to make sure a product contains no lard or other clearly non-kosher ingredients.

But when her children were growing up, she said, she made the family home kosher for Passover every spring. They’d put all the bread, pasta, cereals, and other non-Passover foods in a pantry, which she would lock for the duration of the holiday. The kids would draw skulls and crossbones on the door to indicate it was off-limits for the next eight days. She also bought kosher-for-Passover food items, even though those same foods without kosher symbols were good enough the rest of the year.

“Partly it was how I was raised,” she told me. “Partly it’s a way to identify as Jewish. And partly it’s to honor my forefathers and foremothers.”

So why do I seek out kosher Israeli wine for Shabbat and Jewish holidays? Probably because I miss Israel, where I lived for many years as a kibbutz volunteer and newspaper reporter.

Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin explains this as the (illusory) power of the artifact to collapse the distance between producer and consumer. When I hold a bottle of Yarden Cabernet, I feel a physical connection to the soil, the grapes, and the workers who produced it. And when I pour it into my cup and make the kiddush, I feel connected to the generations of Jews who have broken bread together over the years and are doing so today no matter where they live.

Illusory? Not to the soul. Names do matter, no matter how sweet the drink.

JTA

 
 
 
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