A kashrut supervisor who was fired from his post at a Montefiore Medical Center kitchen says he paid the price for exposing what he claims were kosher violations at the Bronx hospital.
But an executive of the Orthodox Union, which placed him there, insists any infractions were routine and that the mashgiach, Robert Frank, tried to use them as bargaining chips to deal with disciplinary measures taken against him by the hospital.
The tangled tale of allegations and counter allegations raises the specter of conflicts of interest that could arise when supervisors rely on those they supervise for their livelihood.
Both Frank, 55, and his boss, Barry Kwiatkovsky, assistant director of food services at the hospital’s Weiler Building, came to Montefiore via the Orthodox Union, but were later hired by the hospital, Kwiatkovsky in 1992 and Frank in 2004.
Frank says he was constantly at odds with his superior at Weiler, which is kept kosher under an agreement with Yeshiva University because students in its Albert Einstein Medical School work there. The kitchen prepares food for a cafeteria as well as patient meals.
Frank claims the prevailing atmosphere at the kitchen was to avoid rocking the boat.
“I was powerless to do anything, but I could not remain silent,” he said. “And the OU doesn’t back you up as a mashgiach. They tell you to keep your mouth shut.”
He said Kashrut inspectors in the kitchen face a conflict because they “serve two masters” the OU and the hospital.
Frank said he had refused to sign a confidentiality agreement, and when he went over Kwiatkovsky’s head to the Orthodox Union, which had overall responsibility for kashrut, he was rebuffed.
Frank said he had brought his concerns directly to the OU on several occasions, but the OU’s executive rabbinic coordinator, Rabbi Yaakov Luban, who visited the hospital about a year ago, said he only learned of Frank’s concerns when he heard that the mashgiach was raising questions to cafeteria patrons about the kitchen’s kashrut.
“The bottom line is I wasn’t able to substantiate anything he said,” said Rabbi Luban. “There are four other mashgichim, and they all disagreed with his presentation. They all felt things were under control.”
Frank provided video clips to The Jewish Week that he said showed non-kosher food items in Kwiatkovsky’s office.
But Rabbi Luban said it was not uncommon for food distributors to erroneously send non-kosher items to kitchens as substitutes for unavailable items, and it is the responsibility of a mashgiach to intercept them.
“Ultimately your control point is not at the distributor; it’s at the point of delivery,” said Rabbi Luban.
Kwiatkovsky referred a call on Tuesday to the hospital’s spokesman, Steven Osborne, who declined to discuss personnel matters, but insisted the kashrut violations claims were unfounded.
“The Orthodox Union inspected the kitchen and found the rabbi’s claim to be false,” said Osborne.
Frank, who is not a rabbi, said all mashgichim at the hospital were referred to as such regardless of whether they are ordained.
He worked at the Weiler kitchen for four years, during which time he filed several complaints with the state’s Division of Human Rights, claiming his disability of a herniated disc was not accommodated and that his religious practice was infringed upon. In his most recent complaint, filed after he was fired, he said a supervisor told him that he should pray during his own time and not while on the clock. He was also accused of being verbally abusive to staff in the emergency room.
Last month he contacted two Jewish bloggers, Failed Messiah and Luke Ford, with information about conditions at the hospital. He did so on the advice of his brother, a reader of those blogs.
His reports, which were printed on the blogs, included an incident in which a sink was rendered unkosher because of food from an employee party and an inspection that showed roach infestation.
Apparently as a result of violating hospital policy about making negative statements to the public, he was suspended on Dec. 4 and fired two weeks later.
After he was fired Frank sought more media coverage, characterizing himself as a whistleblower.
In the most serious allegation, Frank says he once found empty packages from non-kosher Tyson chicken in a Dumpster outside the kitchen. “What was it doing there if it wasn’t cooked?” he asks.
The OU says it has no record of having received that complaint from Frank.
Rabbi Luban told The Jewish Week that Frank said he would go back to the blogs and say the kosher conditions were cleared up if the OU intervened with the hospital over the disciplinary reports against Frank.
Frank said the hospital’s report against him was inaccurate.
“The last [disciplinary notice] I received, a few days before I was terminated, stated that I told visitors that the place wasn’t kosher,” says Frank. “I didn’t say that, but said there were kosher problems and that you couldn’t eat there on Shabbos because food is cooked on Shabbos. Only sick people are allowed to eat food cooked on Shabbos.”
He also said that meat and dairy dishes and pots were washed in the same dishwasher, non-kosher food items were delivered to the kitchen and that he and other kosher supervisors were assigned to do kitchen work unrelated to kashrut, such as lining trays with placemats.
Rabbi Luban said it was “common” in the kashrut supervision business for supervisors to be paid by the food establishment. He acknowledged that this arrangement created a potential conflict of interest, but said it was necessary because if a mashgiach becomes injured in a workplace, he cannot collect workers’ compensation if he is not an employee there.
But Rabbi Luban said the supervisory agreement stipulates that a mashgiach can’t be fired without the approval of the OU. He also noted that state and federal whistleblower laws prevented retaliation against employees who expose wrongdoing.
Frank said Kwiatkovsky constantly discouraged him from talking to the OU about his concerns. He admits his job was not endangered, however, until he violated the hospital’s policy against releasing information to the public.
When he visited the Weiler kitchen, Rabbi Luban said, he found “a lot of tension there” between Frank and a supervisor whom he did not name but appears to be Kwiatkovsky.
“We were able to defuse the situation at the time,” said the rabbi. “Everything was on track until a few weeks ago when [Frank] appeared in an article on one of the blogs that said the hospital was serving unkosher food to the patients. I thought we had worked everything out. He said the hospital told him he was not allowed to talk to me, and I said, ‘Why did you go to the blogs, which is worse?’”
An account by both Frank and Rabbi Luban suggests that on his last day of work, Dec. 4, the OU and hospital were trying to accommodate both his disability and his desire to closely inspect food shipments. Rabbi Luban said he arranged for a hospital worker to help Frank dismantle a shrink-wrapped pallet of food that arrived early in the morning from the distributing company.
Rabbi Luban said Frank’s video of unkosher food in Kwiatkovsky’s office proves that food was intercepted and removed from the kitchen, was not used and was awaiting return to the distributor, and disproves Frank’s allegation of indifference.