A local Conservative leader says his movement has been left out of the loop as state legislators and Gov. George Pataki set out to draft new kosher-consumer legislation to replace the law struck down by federal courts because it favored Orthodox standards.
"We have reached out to [Assembly Speaker Sheldon] Silver’s office and Pataki’s office as well as Attorney General [Eliot] Spitzer’s office, indicating that we have not been part of this process," said Bruce Greenfield, president of the Metropolitan Region of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
"So far we have not been invited to anything. I hope it doesnít mean business as usual: a one-group monopoly."
The U.S. Supreme Court last month upheld a ruling by lower courts that New Yorkís 88-year-old law empowered state employees to make a religious decision by defining kosher as adherence to "Orthodox Hebrew requirements."
The Conservative movement is the only other denomination that recommends observance of kashrut to its members and whose rabbis perform kosher supervision duties.
The ruling came after two Long Island butchers, Jeff and Brian Yarmeisch, who employed a Conservative mashgiach, or kosher supervisor, challenged the law after they were repeatedly fined by the Kosher Law Enforcement Division of the stateís Department of Agriculture and Markets.
Last week, Silver and Spitzer for the second time convened a panel of experts that included Orthodox figures and noted lawyers, but no one representing Conservative Judaism.
"We should be at the table," said Greenfield. "Conservative Jews in the State of New York want to be assured that their level of kashrut will be equal to all, and that Conservative rabbis will be on a level playing field."
In an interview Monday, Silver did not rule out future consultations with Conservative leaders, but said it was still too early to do so.
"When we get to that point we might just do that," said Silver. "Right now we are just trying to understand the parameters of where we are going."
He noted that Marc Stern, the expert on religion and law for the American Jewish Congress, attended the meeting. Stern filed a brief in support of challenging the law, which was later co-signed by the United Synagogue.
"I don’t have any reason to believe there will not be an invitation extended to the Conservative movement when we get beyond where we are," said Stern.
Silver said he was inclined to move slowly on crafting a new law to ensure that it would not be challenged, and said a bill already proposed by Pataki was not significantly different than the last one.
"He’s trying to be cute with language," said Silver.
Robert Dinerstein, the lawyer for the Yarmeisch brothers, said "the law, from what I have been told, is fundamentally the law that was declared unconstitutional with some cosmetic changes."
Pataki’s Jewish community liaison, Herbert Berman, said that definition was "patently untrue."
"The governor’s proposed law deals with the issue of [consumer] expectations, not religious definition, and as a consequence we believe it meets the measure of constitutionality," said Berman.
In another development, a former Pataki aide said this week that a longtime enforcer of the erstwhile law was responsible for the court decision to nullify it because he targeted non-Orthodox establishments.
Jeff Wiesenfeld, the governor’s executive assistant in New York City from 1995 to 2000, said the late Shulem Rubin, an Orthodox rabbi and former director of the Kosher Law Enforcement Division, made it "his mission" to shut down establishments that were not Sabbath observant or employed Conservative rabbis.
Wiesenfeld added, however, that violations at Orthodox establishments were occurring "with equal frequency."
"[Rabbi Rubin] openly expressed his disdain for non-Orthodox kosher supervision," said Wiesenfeld.
In a letter to The Jewish Week and in an interview, the former aide said Rabbi Rubin "decided that he would pay extra close attention with his inspectors to kosher delicatessens that were open on Saturdays."
In their successful court challenge, the Yarmeisch brothers insisted their butcher shop, Commack Kosher, was targeted for violations because they had a Conservative mashgiach.
"There is no doubt the late director abused his power to harass non-Orthodox kosher establishments," said Dinerstein. "The language of the statute effectively gave him license to do so."
Rabbi Rubin, a congregational rabbi from the Bronx, was replaced as director of the kosher enforcement division in 1998 by Luzer Weiss, a chasid from Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Wiesenfeld said Weiss has since been "universally regarded as fair and equal in his enforcement."
Wiesenfeld, an adviser to Pataki on Jewish issues, said that although Rabbi Rubin (appointed by Gov. Mario Cuomo in the 1980s) was "supported by influential members of the Orthodox community," he now wishes he had lobbied the governor to replace him early in his administration.
"Rabbi Rubin’s legacy is that he is singularly responsible for the legal collapse of these exemplary laws," said Wiesenfeld. "Rubin believed what he believed, but these beliefs were not the law of New York State."
In Rabbi Rubin’s defense, Silver said the rabbi "did a monumental job in undertaking the enforcement of kosher laws. It’s sad that Jeff wants to defame someone who is deceased and canít defend himself and doesn’t need defending."
Stern of the AJCongress noted that the Yarmeisches were not the only opponents of the law.
"It’s awfully hard to say that if not for [Rabbi Rubin] it wouldnít have happened," said Stern. "Whether itís true or not, it’s incidental at this point."