The state’s last remaining kosher inspectors are looking to legislators for support and gathering petitions in a bid to keep jobs that will be eliminated on Dec. 31.
“I’m very worried,” said Andrew Wolpin, who received a layoff letter last month from the state’s Department of Agriculture and Markets, which oversees an embattled Division of Kosher Enforcement that has been at the center of two lawsuits and will be virtually obsolete after the budget cuts. “But people are saying they are behind us.”
Wolpin said he and supporters of the kosher unit hope to gather 30,000 signatures and that they have the support of the state Senate’s Republican minority leader, Long Island’s Dean Skelos, and other lawmakers.
The kosher division has been drastically reduced in recent years from 11 inspectors to just two, and the layoffs will leave none as part of a bid to reduce state payroll spending by $250 million as Albany battles a projected $10 billion deficit.
“We’re in a recession and I’m not going to make any bones about that,” outgoing Gov. David Paterson told The Jewish Week in an interview last week. “I hate having done that, and we’ll take responsibility for doing it. We’ll be very sympathetic to any criticism I get about it, but it’s gotten to the point where we have depleted our resources to reduce the deficit and have to go now into some places where we did not want to go.”
He noted that staff conducting health code, liquor authority and environmental protection inspections will also be reduced.
“I apologize to everyone that we have had to make that decision,” said the governor, who leaves office Jan. 1 after completing the term of his predecessor, Eliot Spitzer. The former lieutenant governor did not seek election to a full term.
The state’s 1915 law requiring inspections of establishments marketing themselves as kosher was in place until 2000, when a court challenge by a non-Orthodox butcher on Long Island resulted in a federal district court ruling that it was unconstitutional for a government to enforce Orthodox standards. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 declined to intervene in the case, affirming the ruling.
A 2004 law requires only that “consumers of food represented as kosher in New York be provided with information identifying the person or organization certifying that food as kosher.” The law also established a mandatory registry of “certain producers, processors, packers, distributors, retailers and certifiers of kosher food products, as well as those who prepare kosher food.”
Under the new law, inspectors were allowed only to check that establishments provide the required information.
But a second challenge to the law filed in 2008 by the same plaintiffs, Commack Self-Service Kosher Meats, claims that inspectors were exceeding their mandate by checking food already inspected by private certifiers.
While the governor cited only budgetary constraints, the Albany Times Union on Nov. 21, citing information from an unnamed Department of Agriculture official, reported that the inspectors became “obsolete in light of a six-year-old federal court decision that found New York state shouldn’t be in the business of certifying kosher food, a service that violated the separation of church and state.”
Rabbi Yosef Wikler, publisher of Kashrus magazine, said he believed the ongoing litigation against the state because of the kosher law had more to do with the demise of the inspections than the budget cut, which amounts to a savings of about $809,000, according to officials.
“People from the department themselves told me and other publications … the reason why they closed it was over the litigation,” said Rabbi Wikler. “The fact that the reduction of inspectors to zero is not in any way balanced with the reduction in other departments is a clear indication.”
The lawyer representing Commack Kosher in both lawsuits against the state, Robert Dinerstein, said his clients have “mixed feelings” about a lack of inspections.
“We feel that the state should not be involved in religious law, but we do feel that requiring the maintenance of supervisors was within the state’s purview, and we regret that will not be continued,” Dinerstein said on behalf of his clients.
The Orthodox Union wrote to Paterson in July calling on him to maintain the inspection unit.
“New York State, as a center of kosher production, distribution and consumption deserves a stand-alone agency dedicated to this,” said the OU’s deputy director of public policy, Howard Beigelman. “Aware as we are of the budget realities, we are disappointed with these additional cuts and hope that as the economy improves, this office is restored and reconstituted effectively.”
Wolpin, who has a wife and three children, said he isn’t sure where he will find work when the job is over. He said that for the last five years he has carried out some 40 inspections per week from Brooklyn to Buffalo to Binghamton. “Last week at a place in Flatbush I found them serving TempTee cream cheese in a place that [declares itself] cholov Yisrael,” he said. “Some people are very particular about cholov Israel.’
Cholov Yisrael dairy products are supervised by an Orthodox Jew from the time milk leaves a cow through the packaging process. TempTee is kosher but not cholov Yisrael.
Prior to last month’s election, Gov.-elect Andrew Cuomo’s campaign, in response to a Jewish Week inquiry, said in a statement that “we must continue to make the tough choices to get our state back on track and to live within our means. That said, a Cuomo administration would be committed to ensuring that the inspection unit remains strong and is protected.”
Paterson told The Jewish Week his successor was likely to face even more drastic choices.
“[He] is about to be put in as difficult a position as any governor in the state has ever faced as he tries to lead us out of this recession,” said Paterson. “Hopefully people will realize that he is trying to keep the state from becoming insolvent and get behind him and be supportive.”