Gourmet Glatt Emporium in Cedarhurst, whose owners were forced to sell their store in a kosher dispute that prompted a boycott orchestrated by local rabbis, reopened Tuesday morning under new ownership. But the new deal didn’t stop some residents from voicing bitter feelings about the perceived strong-arm tactics and lack of transparency by the local rabbinic board that handles kosher supervision.
And in a rare acknowledgement, one prominent Orthodox rabbi admitted there had been “missteps” by the board and that it should “take stock in what we did.”One area resident, Asher Matathias of Woodmere, a professor of political science at St. John’s University, said of the board’s methods, “It leaves a very sour taste in the mouth and poisons the atmosphere. This is an issue that will not go away simply because they refuse to talk.”
He was referring to the Vaad Harabonim of the Five Towns and Far Rockaway, whose decision to withdraw its kosher certification from Glatt Emporium on Oct. 27 led to the boycott of the store. The Vaad said it acted after Glatt Emporium hired a second kosher supervisory agency. The Vaad’s lawyer, Franklyn Snitow, said that by bringing in another kosher supervisor, Glatt Gourmet had violated its “contractual obligations.”
Rabbi Yosef Eisen, the Vaad’s administrator, said any further discussion about the Vaad’s action was up to each individual rabbi on the Vaad’s board to address. Since the controversy over Gourmet Glatt erupted, the Vaad has refused to discuss its actions or whether there were kosher violations. Mark Bolender, an owner of Gourmet Glatt, said the second kosher supervisor was hired because the Vaad had threatened to withdraw its certification by Feb. 1 unless the business was sold. Bolender insisted that there were no kosher violations that led to the Vaad’s decision. It stemmed, he said, purely from a personality dispute.
Rabbi Mark Greenspan, a Conservative rabbi who is spiritual leader of Beth Shalom Oceanside Jewish Center, faulted the Vaad for refusing to discuss the reasons behind its action.
“Be honest with people,” he said. “If there is a problem with a store, tell people what it is … There is a lot of distress over what has happened.”
Rabbi Greenspan said that had the Vaad “let Conservative rabbis know what is happening,” he might have spoken differently when he told his congregants in a sermon last Sabbath that what was “happening in the Five Towns is a chillul hashem — a desecration of God’s name.”
“Kashrut has become a blunt instrument for settling scores,” he said. “It is hard to convince people to practice kashrut when those who are vouchsafed with preserving this practice seem hell-bent on making it harder and even less savory to keep kosher — and I don’t mean taste.”
But Rabbi Hershel Billet, a member of the Vaad, said he disagreed with the Vaad’s decision to say that the issue was simply a contract violation. In fact, he said, the real problem is that the Vaad “didn’t trust” the previous owners anymore.
“The business was sold to a buyer we feel we can trust,” he said. “The Vaad was happy to retain some members of the [Bolender] family because it was not personal. … In the area of kashrut, trust is everything.”
Rabbi Billet said the “Vaad was under instructions from its lawyer not to talk because of a possible lawsuit” by the Bolenders. But Matathias, the college professor from Woodmere, said in an open letter that the “Vaad should come out of its shadowy existence to confront regular, and insistent, public scrutiny of its operations.” And he said it should welcome other kashrut agencies.
“Competition is good, not only in the political arena but also, especially, in the marketplace,” he said. “In taking this last step, the Vaad would be seen not blackballing a store, but courageously making an effort to restore its good name while removing the black mark.”
Rabbi Billet agreed that the “Vaad has a lot to learn and missteps were made. The whole organization has to take stock in how we did, and we have to be in touch with our lawyer because we are dealing with issues of libel and restraint of trade. We’re walking a fine line, but there are better ways of doing things like this where the community would feel less in the dark. … You learn from your experiences.”
Chaim Bolender, Mark’s brother, said in a phone interview Tuesday that he and a sister, Andrea, would continue to work in the store. Bolender said he would be in charge of the store and that Andrea would continue to handle payroll. He said the new owner, Henry “Chezky” Kauftheil, had hired two new key people and that Mark and another sister, Marlene, no longer work at Gourmet Glatt. But all other employees will keep their jobs, he said.
“He doesn’t want any changes,” Bolender said of Kauftheil, who was in Israel and could not be reached for comment.
Kauftheil’s lawyer, Paul Sod, said he expects to complete the sale of the business by the end of the month. He declined to disclose the price, but cited a prepared statement from the Bolenders in which they said there had been a “fair, in fact generous, arrangement for all sides.”
“We feel that our personal interests and the interests of our community, which we love and which we have faithfully served for 27 years, are being well represented,” the statement added.
Chaim Bolender declined to discuss the actions of the Vaad because of an agreement he signed not to disparage the group. But he said he was hopeful that the store’s business, which he said had been cut almost in half by the boycott, would return.
“I would say that today we are maybe 20 percent down” from the pre-boycott level, he said.