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Kosher clash

Teaneck restaurant at center of OK, RCBC dispute

A kosher restaurant can be made or broken on the quality of its certification. In Teaneck, Ima Restaurant, open for less than a year, has become embroiled in a feud between the local rabbinical board and a national kashrut agency, each accusing the other of impropriety.

Ofira Zaken of Fair Lawn opened Ima in late May with supervision by the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County. It occupied the former site of Café Adam, a dairy restaurant that also had issues with certification that eventually led to its closure.

Ofira Zaken opened Ima Restaurant in Teaneck in May and is now at the center of a dispute between the local RCBC and the OK. Josh Lipowsky

Two weeks after the restaurant opened, the RCBC certificate disappeared from the restaurant’s window. The reason remained largely a mystery. Ima soon came under the supervision of International Kosher Council, a small agency based in New York City. In October, Zaken approached OK Labs, a Brooklyn-based international certifying agency affiliated with Chabad, which granted Ima certification after rekashering the kitchen, changing the locks on the restaurant, and giving the keys to a mashgiach tamidi, a full-time kosher supervisor.

Ima is not the first restaurant in Bergen County to use the OK; the agency also certifies Hamsa in Tenafly and Kosher Express in Fair Lawn. The Teaneck-based Kof-K also certifies Sammy’s Bagels, while Star-K certifies Noah’s Ark and Shelly’s, all in Teaneck. While the RCBC certifies a majority of the kosher restaurants in the area, it respects the decisions of restaurants to seek out other certifications, according to its president, Rabbi Larry Rothwachs.

An e-mail from the RCBC circulated among Orthodox synagogues early last month, however, warned that even under OK supervision, Ima did not satisfy RCBC standards.

“While the OK standards are generally reliable, we regret to say that in this particular instance, its hashgacha does not meet the parameters of the RCBC nor the standards to which our community has become accustomed,” the e-mail read.

The RCBC does not publicly discuss internal issues of kashrut policy, Rothwachs said in an e-mail to The Jewish Standard. The issue on Cedar Lane “concerned the working relationship between the store owner, the mashgiach, and the RCBC.”

The RCBC did not object to Ima’s seeking out OK certification, Rothwachs continued. Rather, the RCBC rabbis wanted to make the OK aware of their concerns about the restaurant before it granted supervision.

“Indeed,” Rothwachs wrote, “we were surprised — and disappointed — when we learned that the OK would certify Ima without ever having come to meet with us….”

According to Rabbi Don Yoel Levy, the OK’s rabbinic administrator, the kashrut organization called the RCBC in late October when Ima approached it for certification. The OK offered to meet with RCBC rabbis during the Kosherfest expo in The Meadowlands on Oct. 27 and 28, but the RCBC did not respond, Levy said. Rothwachs said that the invitation came too late to schedule a meeting.

According to Levy, the RCBC explained in phone conversations that the owner of Ima had fired the RCBC mashgiach and acted “chutzpadick.” Levy claimed, in a Nov. 16 statement that was circulated in the community, to have a recording of a meeting between Zaken and the RCBC mashgiach that contradicts the RCBC position that Zaken acted inappropriately. The statement also challenged the RCBC to reveal the standards, mentioned in its initial e-mail, that Ima does not meet.

In a Dec. 6 e-mail to the Standard, Rothwachs maintained that a representative of the OK told the RCBC in a phone conversation the first Wednesday of November that it would not grant certification to the restaurant. The next day, however, the OK announced it would certify Ima and that Friday, according to Rothwachs, canceled a phone meeting with the RCBC to explain the reversal.

“Frankly, we find their assertion that our concerns are without merit to be highly offensive and condescending,” Rothwachs wrote to the Standard, adding that relations between the organizations are “clearly strained.”

Rothwachs would not comment on OK allegations that the issue at Ima had to do with the salary of the mashgiach or Zaken’s behavior, but he dismissed rumors that the certification removal was to avoid competition with Sababa across the street.

The feud has caused confusion among area kosher consumers.

Rabbi Barry Schlesinger of Teaneck’s Cong. Beth Sholom spoke of the dispute during a Shabbat sermon after Thanksgiving.

“The bottom line is nowhere did the RCBC say the OK hechsher is not a good, reliable hechsher,” the Conservative rabbi told the Standard. “So if one can eat in another OK restaurant in Bergen County, nobody sees any reason not to eat in another restaurant [certified] by the OK.”

Schlesinger has had discussions with some RCBC rabbis about Ima but has not yet heard what Ima can do to reverse the RCBC position, he said. The RCBC has not been forthcoming in answering questions about the circumstances of its withdrawal and that lack of information is what his congregants are questioning, he said.

“I would assume that to go into a restaurant that has the OK on their letterhead and on their window shouldn’t be a problem,” he said. “That’s what I try to encourage people to do, to be discerning consumers.”

The debate has also split loyalties.

Rabbi Ephraim Simon, director of Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County in Teaneck and a member of the RCBC, has told the OK that he sides with the local group.

“I trust Rabbi Rothwachs implicitly,” Simon told the Standard. “I know him, I respect him, he’s a friend. If Rabbi Rothwachs and the other members of the RCBC came to the conclusion that they came to, they have my trust.”

Rabbi Berel Zaltzman of Cong. Bris Avrohom in Fair Lawn, the Chabad synagogue that Zaken attends, questioned the RCBC decision. Zaltzman initially referred Zaken to the OK and vouched for her character.

“[The RCBC] sent a letter to all the communities saying OK is not good,” he said. “It’s very not nice what they did.”

The Orthodox Union, the largest kosher-certification agency in the world, generally will not provide certification to businesses in areas with an established rabbinical board, said Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the OU’s kashrut division and religious leader of Englewood’s Cong. Shomrei Emunah. While he would not comment on the situation in Teaneck, he said OU policy is to certify a restaurant in an area with an established va’ad only while working in conjunction with the local board.

“They know their community better,” he said. “They’re also Johnny-on-the-spot in terms of getting to [restaurants]. Our idea is to promote kashrut, so we are generally there to promote and protect local va’adim.”

Any time a restaurant approaches the OK for certification and it had previously been under another certification, standard procedure is to call the previous supervising agency, Levy said. The OK has tried to reach out to the RCBC, he said, but to no avail.

“In this case as soon as [Zaken] called us up, we called the va’ad and asked them to tell us the kashrus problems,” he said.

The OK has since invited RCBC rabbis to its Brooklyn offices, according to Levy, while Rothwachs told the Standard that it is too far away to coordinate a meeting with North Jersey rabbis and the RCBC’s offers to hold teleconferences have been rebuffed.

“I am positive that had they come down to the office at that time we would have convinced them that they were wrong or they would have convinced us that we were wrong,” Levy said. “The statement that they’re making that we refused to meet with them is completely false.”

The organizations are now at an impasse and are seeking mediation.

“The OK has stated emphatically that they will not meet with us unless a third party mediator is present,” Rothwachs wrote on Tuesday. “We maintain that is unnecessary … but we agreed to that proposal in good faith nonetheless.”

For her part, Zaken would like to put this fight behind her.

“I want peace with everybody,” she said. “The community here over six months asked me to do something about the certification. I hope that the community … will accept our restaurant and the OK organization by supporting us. I want everybody together, no exceptions.”


Rabbis given training in responding to child abuse

Bergen County’s two rabbinical organizations gathered last Thursday night for a joint training session about identifying and responding to child abuse and neglect.

More than 20 rabbis from across the Jewish spectrum heard a presentation by Lisa Fedder, director of Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson, at the agency’s Teaneck office. Project S.A.R.A.H. (Stop Abusive Relationships at Home) was represented by Esther East, director of Jewish Family Service of the Jewish Federation of Greater Clifton/Passaic.

The joint training session reflected a desire for cooperation by both Rabbi Randall Mark, president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, which is made up of Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist rabbis, and Rabbi Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, president of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County. Both bodies were well represented at the session.

“We were specifically looking for something we could do positively together,” said Mark, religious leader of Cong. Shomrei Torah in Wayne, when Rabbi Amy Bolton of JFS suggested the joint training session.

“I think it’s a great precedent,” said Bolton, who is herself a member of NJBR. “Problems like child abuse and domestic violence and illness — the sort of issues JFS deals with — are cross-denominational problems.”

“Bringing the RCBC and NJBR together, sharing our thoughts and insights, was a very positive and worthwhile experience,” said Rothwachs, religious leader of Cong. Beth Aaron in Teaneck. “I look forward to participating in such events in the future. The energy at the meeting was positive and will hopefully open the door for future programming as well.”

Fedder presented a definition of child abuse and neglect: Any failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker that “results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation.”

Legally, rabbis — and everyone else — are required to report suspected child abuse or neglect to Division of Youth and Family Services of New Jersey’s Department of Children and Families. The state hotline is 1-877-NJ ABUSE (652-2873).

“Statistically, you will find it in your community,” said Fedder. “It is all around us.”

Much of the conversation revolved around what Fedder called “the gray areas” of abuse that may or may not rise to the level of “serious.”

“Is emotional abuse a mandatory reporting situation?” asked one rabbi. “There are some parents who, unfortunately, scream too much.”

Fedder’s response: “I don’t think screaming alone is reportable. But screaming can be a part of a much broader pattern of emotional abuse, which although reportable, is much harder to substantiate.

“In general, situations tend to escalate to a peak,” she said. “The ideal is to intervene before it goes up the mountain, before it reaches the point where it is clearly child abuse and neglect. That’s when the community response is really important, when JFS or a rabbi or a school can make a difference.”

Fedder stressed that Jewish Family Services, as well as DYFS, have resources to help struggling families. “If you call DYFS in a borderline case, where the child’s not really at risk but it’s not a good situation, then DYFS will try to put supports in place, such as classes in parenting skills,” she said.

“You have an opportunity, when you see problems early on, to get involved,” she told the rabbis.

This week’s training session marked a milestone in formal cooperation between Bergen’s two rabbinical bodies, but the two sets of rabbis have individually promoted awareness of domestic violence and sexual abuse under the auspices of Project S.A.R.A.H.

Both rabbinic bodies are promoting Project S.A.R.A.H.’s fifth annual breakfast on March 27, at Cong. Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck. The event will recognize eight physicians who have partnered with Project S.A.R.A.H., and will feature Dr. Susan Schulman, a contributing author in a new book, “Breaking the Silence: Sexual Abuse in the Jewish Community.”


RCBC OKs Ima’s new certification

Teaneck restaurant is first in Bergen County for OU

The Orthodox Union is the latest kashrut-certifying organization to put its stamp on Ima Restaurant, a move meant to end an almost year-long feud between the Teaneck restaurant and the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County.

Ima is also the first restaurant in Bergen County to receive OU certification. The organization typically does not supervise restaurants in communities with local rabbinical boards, said Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the OU’s kashrut department and religious leader of Cong. Shomrei Emunah in Englewood. Supervision, he said, is best left to local rabbinical councils because they know their communities. But because of Ima’s strained relationship with the RCBC, Genack said, the OU thought its involvement “would help rather than hinder.”

“Kashrus is not just food; it has to do, like everything in life, with relationships,” Genack said.

Ima opened in May 2010 with RCBC certification. A few weeks later, the agency withdrew its supervision. RCBC president Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, religious leader of Teaneck’s Cong. Beth Aaron, previously told The Jewish Standard that the issue concerned “the working relationship between the store owner, the mashgiach, and the RCBC.”

In October, restaurant owner Ofira Zaken approached OK Labs, a Brooklyn-based international kashrut agency affiliated with Chabad, which granted certification. An e-mail from some RCBC rabbis circulated later that month, however, warned that even under OK supervision, Ima did not satisfy RCBC standards.

The OK is an acceptable certification, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, religious leader of Englewood’s Cong. Ahavath Torah, told the Standard earlier this week, but it is generally expected that an outside kashrut organization would first consult with the local agency to hear its concerns.

“Because that didn’t take place, the RCBC found itself in a position where it could not endorse the situation,” he said.

Retired Teaneck businessman Perry Langert saw that the restaurant was hurting because of the feuds and, after speaking with Zaken about the strained relationships and their effects on business, he approached the OU to intervene.

“It just bothered me so much that a sweet person like that, who is such a great cook, should have such problems,” Langert said. “I thought it was a matter of misunderstanding and that’s what it was. We came to a wonderful decision and everybody’s happy.”

Langert credited OU President Simcha Katz, a Teaneck resident, and Goldin for brokering the deal and smoothing the restaurant’s relationship with the RCBC. Goldin, Langert said, explained to the RCBC that it was important for shalom baiyit, peace in the home, to straighten out the situation.

When Langert recounted Ima’s history to Katz, he concluded that the dispute was hurting Zaken’s livelihood. “I don’t know what happened earlier on between the RCBC and Mrs. Zaken, I just know it was unfortunate,” Katz told the Standard earlier this week. “It would be a shame if a person could lose a business.”

Katz blamed the ensuing row between the RCBC and the OK on a lack of communication. The OU, in turn, has been transparent with the restaurant and the va’ad, he said.

The restaurant’s mashgiach has been retrained to OU rules, but in order to satisfy an OU stipulation that all restaurants it certifies have a Sabbath-observant owner, Zaken had to take on a shomer Shabbat business partner. Langert, who had run a kosher hotel in Asbury Park nearly four decades ago, volunteered to become a partner.

The changes appear to have satisfied the RCBC.

“Having had the opportunity to be in direct, personal contact with representatives of the OU and to discuss all the relevant facts with them, the RCBC is fully satisfied that the issues which we raised concerning Ima’s have now been properly addressed,” Rothwachs said in an e-mail to the Standard this week. “The RCBC has therefore withdrawn any and all objections to patronizing this restaurant.”

Ofira Zaken’s husband, Nachum, described Langert as a good man who “just wanted to help.” He and his wife are “very happy” with Langert’s efforts to restore the restaurant’s standing in the community.

“We came here to open a restaurant, to bring delicious food from Jerusalem,” he said. “That was the purpose — to bring in family, that’s why we called it Ima [Hebrew for mother]. When the whole thing happened we didn’t feel very comfortable with it.”

“We changed [certifications] because we want peace with everyone, so everyone can come,” Ofira Zaken said. “I want to be good with everyone.”

Ima will hold a grand reopening on May 1 and, said Langert, welcomes “everybody who eats traditional kosher, Orthodox kosher, Reform kosher — anybody who enjoys kosher food.”

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