Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Rabbi Arye Stern at Independence Day dinner, April 22, 2015.
(photo credit: SHLOMI COHEN)
The battle being waged by Jerusalem’s Chief Rabbi Aryeh Stern to reform kashrut supervision in the capital was stepped up a notch on Wednesday when concerns regarding the management of the Jerusalem Religious Council, which has opposed his initiatives, were brought in front of the Knesset Internal Affairs Committee.
During the hearing, Police Fraud Office Superintendent Isaac Simon said his department was examining whether or not to open an investigation into the irregularities within the Jerusalem Religious Council and its kashrut department.
Since being elected in November 2014, one of Stern’s priorities has been to improve the Jerusalem rabbinate’s kashrut supervision service and he requested staff in his office to examine the reliability and efficacy of the more than 300 kashrut supervisors appointed by the Jerusalem Religious Council who are supposed to provide daily supervision to some 1,500 kosher restaurants and businesses in the city.
The rabbi’s staff found, however, numerous deficiencies, including supervisors who did not turn up to the establishments under their supervision and serious kashrut issues at some restaurants and businesses with kashrut certificates from the Jerusalem rabbinate.
In one of the restaurants, a well known cafe in central Jerusalem, it was discovered that the designated supervisor visited the site approximately once a week, despite the fact that, in most restaurants, supervisors are required to visit at least once a day, usually for an hour. For the restaurant in question, the requirement was three hours a day.
There, Stern’s staff discovered that the flour used for baking bread and other products was not generally sifted and that there were insects present in the flour, which would be a clear violation of kashrut laws.
The supervisor in question was fired but this evoked the ire of the chairman of the Jerusalem Religious Council, Yehoshua Yishai.
Yishai suspected that one of the kashrut inspectors, responsible for overseeing the performance of kashrut supervisors, informed Stern’s staff about the problems at the cafe and Yishai then called the inspector in for a disciplinary hearing. Yishai backed down, however, after being reminded by the inspector of a letter he wrote in 2012 detailing these exact concerns to Yishai.
He also summoned Stern’s chief of staff Avinoam Kutscher to a disciplinary hearing and threatened to fire him from his position. The State Comptroller intervened, however, and instructed Yishai to cancel the hearing and not to fire Kutscher.
In addition, Yishai directed the secretary of the kashrut department to send a WhatsApp message to the 15 kashrut inspectors in Jerusalem explicitly instructing them not to cooperate in any way with any official from Stern’s office unless the inquiry came directly from the rabbi himself.
Kutscher argues that the message was intended to shut down Stern’s efforts and prevent him from implementing his reform agenda.
Stern’s staff also has raised concern about the appointment of the kashrut supervisors themselves, which include three brothers, one brother-in-law and the father-in-law of the current secretary of the kashrut department of the Jerusalem Religious Council, who is himself a kashrut supervisor.
Elad Malka, a member of the Jerusalem Municipal Council for the Hitorerut Jerusalem party who filed a complaint to the State Comptroller’s Office regarding the various irregularities in the kashrut department discovered by Stern’s staff, told the committee that since filing the complaint he has been subject to legal and political threats.
There is “thick and heavy smoke” above the Jerusalem Religious Council, “which indicates there is an inferno and not just a fire,” Malka said.
Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie, who called for the Knesset committee hearing, said it was the Knesset’s responsibility to protect whistleblowers and those attempting to expose corruption in government institutions.
“The severe suspicions require deep examination and correction on an organizational level, as well as [addressing] the quality of the kashrut [service],” she said.
“The reality in Jerusalem demonstrates institutional failure between the chief rabbi [of Jerusalem] and the religious council. Those who expose corruption must not be harmed and I am here to lead a process of reform in Jerusalem and in other religious councils.”
Committee chairman and Likud MK David Amsalem asked that the hearing be expedited because “there are more important hearings to follow,” but did say he welcomed the intervention of the State Comptroller and agreed that efforts should be made to protect anyone exposing irregularities in the kashrut system.
Yishai did not respond to a request for comment by The Jerusalem Post
During the Knesset committee hearing, Yishai said he had addressed the issue of kashrut supervisors who do not visit the restaurants they are assigned and said “many supervisors have been fired.”
According to Stern’s office, however, only two supervisors have been fired, including the one fired by Stern himself.