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 CafÃ© 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.”