Friday, August 13, 2010

Taking off the gloves; Playing with fire... for the sake of Elul...

In the last edition of this Column, you may recall that we spoke of a "Community" Kashrut company, who, while calling themselves "Orthodox" or "Frum", or whatever term they wish to use to describe their sacred and extreme high level of observance, was caught with their proverbial hand in the cookie jar, when in my presence, they were seen and heard extorting money from a small restaurant owner in the San Fernando Valley, before the Community (a code word for their real name) would let them reopen.

Incensed, I wrote about the incident in this Column and was almost immediately besieged by e-mails from readers; almost all of them positive in that it was about time that someone supported the "little guy"; some offering help in "getting the big guys"; and one e-mail, from a dear friend and Colleague warning me against "playing with fire", and one, from a reader in Chicago that accused me, angrily, of sticking my nose into other people's business.

Playing with fire? Are we not talking about Rabbis? With long black coats, disheveled beards, big hats and Tzitit hanging from their pants? They would hurt someone physically?? RIGHT BEFORE THE MONTH OF ELUL???

Friends: Is it not our job as Rabbis, Cantors, Educators and administrators to teach, inspire and try, however we must, to make living a Jewish life easier for those who seek to rejoin our Communities? Is it not the job of all of us to remember that Talmud teaches us that Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh be Zeh? That ALL Jews are responsible each of us for one another? It is our job; it is our duty; it is our lot; period. Failing to believe this; failing to act accordingly and failing to take this responsibility seriously is simply, not very Jewish.

This week, Chaverai, on Rosh Chodesh Elul, on the day that we are supposed to be beginning our Slichot, our asking of others to forgive our behaviour from the past year; I learned that the Kashrut authority in Agoura Hills has caused the Falafel Grill on Kanan Road to abandon their distinction as a Glatt Kosher restaurant. Due to an almost three fold increase in the cost of Kosher meat from the only supplier that the Conejo Chabad will accept as Kosher, as well as significant increases in the costs of their supplies across the board, we, as a community, have lost another Kosher business.

Is it maybe not time to take off the gloves? Is it not time to maybe play with a little fire? Is it not time, my friends, to take off the gloves and fight for what is right? Is it not time for US to take control and follow the most simplest of all Mitzvot - veAhavta et Reecha kaMocha - and you shall love your neighbor as you do yourself. And, is it not time for us to take control and protect our brothers and sisters who are being wronged, not just in our own community, but by our own PEOPLE?

I suggest that we take back our playground. I suggest this by visiting Kosher restaurants and supporting them, at the same time making it clearly known to the restaurant owner(s) that you support them for providing a place for us to dine, but that you are not in support of the Mafia-Like thugs who pressure them.

I suggest that you forward this week's edition of Normal is Overrated to your e-mail contact list; I suggest that you leave a comment here for all to see pledging your support of our community; and I suggest that we all contact Kehilla Kosher in Los Angeles and voice our opinions on their business practices. And, when doing so, I suggest that we let them know that we forgive their sins and their transgressions in how they treat their clients, in that it is the month of Elul, after all. Just because they act with complete disregard for Yiddishkeit, does not mean that we will.

Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh be Zeh. It is our job; It is our responsibility and it is our duty.

Shavuah Tov, Wishing you a great week from Sunny Southern California. As always, I send Ahavah u'Vrachot, Love and Blessings...

--Rabbi Alan Abrams

Sunday, August 1, 2010

When a "Community" hurts "THE" Community

Dear Friends:

Over the course of the many months that I have written this Column, I have had occasion to write about happy and sad times; I have had opportunities to introduce you to new artists and community events; and even have taken you into parts of my life and shared them with you.

None of these, however, even begins to compare with the sadness and shock of an event that I witnessed this past week, when a Jewish company took such advantage of another Jew, that the ugliness of their practices bodes us to not only pay attention, but to take action, before it is too late.

This "Community" company, (whom I may not name directly, under threat of reprisal from them), labels itself as amongst the most Observant of the most Observant; a company that in fact places itself at the highest level of Holiness by judging who is Kosher and who is not; and providing Hashgacha, on site inspectors who supervise a restaurant's activities.

Rather than opine at the moment, please permit me to simply tell you what happened this past week, and how it transpired before my very eyes and ears:

I went into a known Kosher restaurant in the Los Angeles area around 2:30pm one day this past week. I approached the counter, looked at the menu on the wall and ordered the "Lunch Special" which consisted of a hamburger, fries and a fountain drink. I was told by the counter girl that she could not prepare that for me as the "Rabbi was blessing the place". She looked over to three men sitting at a table and I approached, introduced myself and made it known that I have eaten there before; that I know it to be Kosher; and that I was accepting of the fact that a "Re-Hechshering" was in progress, but that I trusted the owner to not sell me non Kosher food, and asked that they please prepare the hamburger for me.

When I exited the restroom, I was again told that they could not prepare this order, but that I could have some Shawarma from earlier in the day, before the procedure had begun. Not wishing to find a different restaurant, I ordered the Shawarma and sat down to eat.

While seated, I heard the three men talking. The restaurant owner was pleading with the other two men, one American and one Israeli, to allow him to open and sell food. The two men say there and listened, but offered no solution. Two or three minutes later, the American said "I understand that you are upset. Let's do this, if you agree to buy the pans now, you could be open in no time. In fact, you could be open right now if you would just buy the pans."

My friends, I thought that Tony Soprano was sitting at that table. I felt as if I was in a scene from a Coppola movie, or that Ray Liotta was going to jump out of the back with a sawed-off and save the day. Did I hear right? Was the owner of this small Falafel stand being extorted?? And, if so, could this possibly be done in the name of Torah??? NO WAY, I told myself, and then, I felt compelled to ask these guys, and ask I did.

"Why are you keeping this man's restaurant closed?" "Because he is not yet Kosher", I was told. "Why is he not yet Kosher?", I asked, "He has been Glatt Kosher for YEARS", I continued. Their answer blew me away. According to this man, Larry Somebody, the restaurant was not Kosher enough, and the pans in question (drip pans used UNDER the Shawarma Rotisseries, NOT for food that would be eaten) might have come in contact with something bad, I was told, and therefore, the restaurant was not Kosher until he said that it was Kosher.

Welcome to Extortion 101.

I returned the following day and the owner thanked me for trying to help him. The Israeli man was back and sitting at the same table, while playing with his iPhone and getting up occasionally to make a plate of food (which, no he did not pay for). This "on site inspector", by the way, earns $15 per hour, paid by the restaurant, which is in addition to the $675 per quarter that the restaurant pays the "Community" for their super supervision.

I asked the owner what had transpired. Why did he feel compelled to change Kashrut companies and was told by him that he had been approached and advised that were he to not change to this "Community", "The Ashkenazim would not patronize his store", thus, causing him financial loss.

Those are the facts. That is what I saw and what I heard. I called this "Larry" person on Wednesday morning, and informed him that I was going to write about this incident in my Column, and was warned that should I publish this piece, I could be hurting my new friend the restaurant owner. Now that this has published, let's see what happens.

My friends, we all know that we live in a time when we cannot afford to fight each other. We are constantly and consistently being threatened by both Arab States and renewed World Anti-Semitism. We are facing possible passing of a maniacal new law in Israel that could affect the legal conversions of thousands of Jews, and we are living in an ages where the Presidential Administration, for the first time in history, is clearly Anti-Israel and Pro-Palestinian (read: Terrorist).

We are facing the largest number of Jews who are non-affiliated in history, and every day, we hear of yet another Shul closing its doors.

These are the times that we must be united. This is not the time that we can sit back and watch the world go by. This is the time that we must stand strong, together, and take action to prevent these situations. I ask and urge you to speak with the restaurants owner(s) the next time that you dine in a Kosher restaurant. I urge you to ask who supervises them, and I implore you to ask them if they have been treated in such a way and to pay attention to their answers. I urge you to speak with your friends and neighbors; your Rabbis and teachers. I ask that you please forward this Column to everyone that you know and that you make this serious issue known throughout your Community. Maybe it can be a start to ending this corrupt and horrible behaviour.

As a footnote, I can tell you that in looking at the Community's website this evening, I noticed that several pages (listing which restaurants which they supervise, for instance), have been removed, and that in the past few days, much of their website is no longer functional. Maybe this is a good thing.

I thank you for listening. I thank you for reading and above all, I thank you for helping us all bond together to prevent this crime from continuing to plague our brethren.

With Ahavah u'Vrachot, Love and Blessings from the Left Coast and Sunny Southern California, I bid you Shavuah Tov; a good week. May magical good wishes find you as always.

--Rabbi Alan Abrams