Keeping Kosher : Rules Get Tougher After Major Store Loses Its Certificate

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rabbi Leo Erlich, a kosher meat inspector, doesn't often climb into trash dumpsters. But when he does, he can find the strangest things, like boxes from non-kosher meat companies.

According to his account, that's what happened two months ago when he followed up a tip about fraudulent meat sales at Emes Kosher Meat Products on La Cienega Boulevard, the biggest kosher retailer in Los Angeles.

The discovery led to the cancellation of Emes' kosher certificate and the closing of the store, whose name means truth in Hebrew. Orthodox rabbis say that plans were already in the works to raise standards of kosher enforcement before the Emes case attracted headlines, but that the effort gained momentum as a result of the publicity.

Last week, the 47-member Rabbinical Council of California, the largest kosher inspection agency in the state, adopted a set of toughened rules governing the eligibility of butchers for kosher certification and providing for expanded inspections.

"I think the (Emes) scandal took us a long way. It was really an important stimulus," said council member Abner Weiss, chief rabbi of Congregation Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills.

"I'm still sick from that Emes business," said Erlich, 66, a short, wiry man who wears a straw hat as he makes his rounds of 15 kosher butcher shops on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley on behalf of the Rabbinical Council.

"People tell me, 'You're a hero. You caught him,' " said Erlich, speaking in a sharp Polish accent. "I say, 'I'm no hero.' It's a bad feeling when a Jewish person does it to other Jewish people."

Semion Rachshtut, owner of the now-defunct Emes, has denied any wrongdoing, and there are no state charges pending against him or any other kosher butcher.

The untrained eye may find it hard to tell the difference between kosher and tref, or non-kosher--the real thing tastes saltier and looks duller--but the difference is obvious in the price.

The intricate routine of ritual slaughter, draining, salting and deveining can add a dollar or two a pound to the cost of meat or poultry, and the opportunity is there for the unscrupulous to make a quick buck.

Erlich, who was trained at a yeshiva, or seminary, in Sosnowicz, Poland, said he tries to look in on each of his 15 shops at least once a day, but at variable hours.

Despite the occasional disappointment of finding a dishonest merchant, Erlich, the Rabbinical Council's No. 1 inspector for butcher shops, said he gets a certain satisfaction from his job.

No one is sure exactly how many of Los Angeles County's 600,000 Jews observe traditional dietary laws. But a survey released by the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles said that 5% identify themselves as Orthodox, while 33% said they belong to the middle-of-the-road Conservative wing of Judaism. Both groups advocate adherence to the dietary laws.

During a recent visit to Rahamim's Kosher Meats on Pico Boulevard, Erlich walked carefully across the brick floor, slippery with water and blood, and stepped into the walk-in freezer, where he shrugged into the green sport coat he carries folded over his arm.

Inside, he pointed to a quarter of beef hanging from a hook--"Look here. It has a kosher seal on all four corners"--and poked at a pile of chickens in a wooden box to make sure the ones on the bottom did not come from a non-kosher source such as a supermarket.

"Business is very, very good, especially since they closed Emes," said owner Yoram Cohen. "I've got three or four times the business I had before."

At Century City Meats, another shop nearby, Erlich watched as butcher Ezra Gamzu wielded a curved blade to trim the fat that hides three forbidden veins that must be removed before meat can be sold as kosher. The meat must also be soaked in water for an hour and a half, covered with salt for an hour and rinsed three times to remove as much blood as possible.

A small number of butcher shops and bakeries and about 40 kosher restaurants in Los Angeles County get their certification from smaller, independent rabbinical groups rather than from the Rabbinical Council.

Other eyes are watching, too, and not necessarily Jewish ones. Under a state law enacted in 1985, county inspectors routinely check delivery invoices at kosher butcher shops to make sure shoppers get what they pay for.

The sale of anything else would amount to false advertising, said Paul Branum, an official of the state Department of Food and Agriculture, which administers the $70,000 kosher inspection program in Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Santa Clara, San Francisco and Alameda counties.

Unlike the Rabbinical Council and its competitors, government inspectors are not concerned with the rituals and ancient rabbinical rulings that govern the preparation of kosher food. Instead, they check the records that butchers keep to prove they bought their merchandise from kosher producers or packing houses.

Those who cannot account for their merchandise may be fined or closed, said senior Assistant Atty. Gen. Herschel Elkins, who works with Nahan Gluck, head of the county Department of Weights and Measures, to enforce the law in Los Angeles.

Erlich credits a county inspector with tipping him to possible violations at Emes, whose wide variety and low prices attracted customers from as far away as Texas.

Despite the work of kosher inspectors, Jews who care about their religion's dietary laws still have to trust their butcher, said Rabbi Joshua Berkowitz, newly named chairman of the kashrut (the noun form of kosher) committee of the Rabbinical Council of California.

Scheduled to go into effect over the coming year, the new rules will require shop owners to be strict observers of the Sabbath. Those who are not observant Jews will be required to have a full-time inspector on their staff in order to keep their kosher certificate.

Out-of-state wholesalers whose kosher standards are questionable will be banned, said Berkowitz, associate rabbi at Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills.

"L.A. was somewhat behind other communities, and I think it has come finally to the recognition that L.A. is the second-largest (Jewish) community in the U.S., and we don't have to act . . . like a backwater," Berkowitz said.

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