Long Island rabbis accused of ‘Mafia-like’ methods in kosher turf battle
Lawsuit claims rabbis behind Vaad Hakashrus ordered observant residents to stop eating at chicken restaurant after it started using competing certification service, report says
Call them La Kosher Nostra.
A clique of rabbis on Long Island are being accused of Mafia-like tactics to maintain what amounts to a monopoly over the local kosher certification process — sparking a twisted turf war that has outraged local residents and businesses alike, The Post has learned.
A lawsuit filed last month by Chimichurri Charcoal Chicken — located on the busy Rockaway Turnpike across from a McDonald’s — claims the rabbis behind the Vaad Hakashrus of the Five Towns and Far Rockaway ordered observant residents to stop eating at the chicken joint last year after it started using a competing certification service.
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The Vaad — led by Rabbi Yosef Eisen, who is also named in the suit filed in Nassau County — even killed Chimichurri’s lucrative catering work in a retaliatory move, court papers claim.
"The existing Vaad does not want competition, is afraid of the competition, and is trying to use its power to drive them — or attempt to drive them — out of business," the lawsuit says.
The Vaad’s lawyer, Frank Snitow, told The Post the lawsuit "is entirely without merit," adding that "Rabbis have an obligation and a right under the First Amendment to guide their communities with respect to religious issues and this does constitute a religious issue."
The complaint offers a rare glimpse into a power struggle inside an Orthodox Jewish community that, until now, has been handled privately and by the rabbinical courts, sources said. But some residents are pleased to see it finally spilling into public view, claiming the Vaad has been abusing its authority to decide which establishments can claim to follow proper kosher dietary restrictions, including whether they correctly keep separate utensils for meat and dairy.
"Kosher supervising is a big business and for the rabbis it’s about power," said one fed-up Five Towns resident. "This case is about injustice and bullying."
Chimichurri claims its problems started last July after it dropped the Vaad — the dominant kosher certification operation in town — for a rival called Mehadrin of the Five Towns. Unwilling to accept the loss of business, the Vaad issued a "defamatory" statement blasting Chimichurri’s kosher food standards, the lawsuit claims.
The Vaad said it "must categorically and absolutely recommend to all of the members of our community that they avoid eating at the restaurants under that [new service]," court papers say. The Vaad specifically named Chimichurri as well as Keneret FreshMarket in Hewlett, NY, and a kosher steakhouse in Cedarhurst called FiveFifty Restaurant, according to the suit.
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The Vaad’s actions carried weight in part because it won the support of 53 rabbis from Five Towns to support the move, sources said.
Many business owners refused to openly comment for this story, citing fear of retaliation. One exception was Arthur Ashirov, owner of Keneret Fresh Market, who said he’s seen revenues drop 10 percent since the Vaad’s letter denounced his small grocery in July.
"The Vaad doesn’t want to have competitors. That’s the bottom line," said Ashirov, who says he’s unlikely to sue because it will cost too much. He said he’s sticking with the rival certification service because he thinks they are doing a good job and are less expensive.
"I have no issues with the Mehadrin," Ashirov told The Post. "They are very attentive and they charge a flat fee while the Vaad charges extra for everything they do."
Asked about the Vaad’s fees, its lawyer, Snitow, said, "I understand that people complain about the expense, but the Vaad would be hiring people with less qualifications" if it charged less.
Eisen did not return calls for comment. The Mehadrin also didn’t respond to requests for comment. The Vaad claimed in public statements last summer that it had a legitimate reason to ask observant Jews to stop patronizing certain businesses based on concerns about potential conflicts of interests, the complaint said.
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Chimichurri, owned by businessman Zvi Ben-Yoseff, claims Vaad’s edict last summer had a chilling effect on business, with customers reaching out via text to say they were being pressured to stop eating there. Catering business in Westchester and Plainview also went away, it said.
In one instance, a customer who "previously organized an enormous volume of weekly deliveries" to Westchester "indicated via text message that he had to stop doing the deliveries due to pressure from his local rabbi," the lawsuit claimed. A source told The Post the deliveries had been going to a Westchester school.
Chimichurri and FiveFifty Restaurant tried to settle the conflict last spring in rabbinical court, according to rabbinical court papers obtained by The Post. But the rabbis behind the Vaad, including Eisen, never showed up for the hearing.
Nearly a year later in April, the rabbinical court blasted the Vaad rabbis for having "brazenly abused their rabbinic pedigree by insisting that their actions and intentions are beyond mortal scrutiny," rabbinical court papers show. Accordingly, the rabbinical court took the rare step of granting permission for the businesses to sue in secular court.
Chimichurri and its owner didn’t return requests for comment. The owner of FiveFifty Restaurant also declined to comment.
Tomer Tao, owner of Jerusalem Mini Market, a small corner shop in Cedarhurt that sells challah bread and Israeli style salads, says he, too, believes he was retaliated against last year after he dropped the Vaad for a Brooklyn rabbi who was charging less.
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"I got in a fight with one of their supervisors and it got nasty — I felt extorted," owner Tomer Tao, told The Post. The Vaad supervisor, he said, "would come in two or three times a day to check for bugs in the produce at $25 an hour. We couldn’t afford that."
He claims the Vaad slandered him by telling people in the local synagogues not to shop at his store "because I’m ‘not kosher’," he said.
"I defended myself and warned them that I would sue them for damaging my business. They don’t have a right to tell people not to shop with me."