Bergen County has a lot of kosher restaurants.
More than 30 restaurants bear rabbinic approval, and that doesn’t include the various Dunkin’ Donuts, the Cinnabon, and bakeries. Almost all are under the supervision of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, while some are under other local certification. For the most part, the big names of kashrut the Orthodox Union in New York, Kof-K in Teaneck, and OK in Brooklyn have stayed out of the area’s restaurants.
Kosher Express in Fair Lawn switched to the OK in November, when new owner Shing Cheng took over. When Kosher Express took on the OK, it dropped its RCBC certification. A call to the restaurant’s management inquiring about the RCBC was answered simply with "No more."
Tenafly’s Hamsa opened in ‘006 with no certification. Its owner, Rafi Cohen, insisted at the time that because the restaurant uses only glatt kosher meat and closes on Shabbat, the restaurant did not need supervision.
Six months ago, he received certification from Rabbi Yaakov Spivak of United Kosher Supervision, based in Monsey. For weeks now, rumors have been buzzing about the restaurant’s upcoming new certification.
"We decided to upgrade hashgacha and go with OK," Cohen said. "There is a demand for it. We know that nothing will change; we are glatt kosher anyway. But people care about the certificate and they want to see it in the window. We can do that."
The mashgiach will cost Cohen an extra $60,000 to $80,000 per year. Unlike Spivak, who came to the restaurant two to three times per week for surprise inspections, the OK mashgiach will work in Hamsa full time and control the keys to the restaurant.
"We are trying now to go this way," Cohen said. "I hope everything will work out the right way."
Because Hamsa has always used meat from kosher distributor Alle Processing, the restaurant will not undergo a lengthy kashering process. Cohen said on Monday that he expected the OK supervision to go into effect in one week.
These developments do not signal that OK is looking to expand its operations in Bergen County, however. As a general policy, OK does not certify restaurants where there is an existing va’ad, or rabbinical board, unless that board provides a companion certification, said Rabbi Chaim Fogelman, director of public relations at OK. Kosher Express presented a special case because the new owner’s family already owns a handful of restaurants throughout New Jersey under OK supervision.
According to Hamsa’s Cohen, it was Rabbi Mordechai Shain of Tenafly’s Lubavitch on the Palisades who convinced him to seek the OK.
Shain said he encouraged Cohen to get supervision but he didn’t voice a preference between OK and RCBC.
"They’re both glatt kosher," he said. "Whichever one he prefers will be sufficient for us and the whole community."
Fogelman said that because of Shain’s position in the area, an accompanying local hechsher is not necessary.
"As we understand it, Rabbi Shain is the one calling the shots in Tenafly," Fogelman said.
For its part, the RCBC is not making a fuss that it has been passed over.
"We have no objections to another place coming in," said Rabbi Michael Taubes, a past president of the RCBC. "We’re here to serve the community. No one in the RCBC makes any profit off the certifications we give. If a particular proprietor wants to get OK, OU, or anybody else, it’s certainly their right."
Still, the big three kashrut organizations all have policies about interacting with area rabbis.
"We would not give certification to a restaurant in a community that has an existing local va’ad without the permission of the local va’ad," said Rabbi Yehuda Rosenbaum of Kof-K. Sammy’s Bagels in Teaneck has been grandfathered in, since it used to be part of a chain of bagel stores under Kof-K supervision. The Kof-K does not certify Sammy’s Deli or the new Sammy’s restaurant expected to open soon, Rosenbaum emphasized.
Cinnabon in Hackensack is officially a Carvel store. Kof-K is responsible for that chain across the country, so it can supervise the Hackensack store without the RCBC.
Similarly, the Orthodox Union will not certify restaurants in areas with an established va’ad unless the va’ad asks it to, said Rabbi Menachem Genack, rabbinic administrator/CEO of the OU’s Kashrut Division and a resident of Englewood.
"Many of us live here in town and we’re very friendly with the local rabbonim," Rosenbaum said. "It behooves us to be friends with them and do the right thing. We work together with them whenever the opportunity presents itself."