If a stranger had come to the Beit Hatavshil Hall in Bnei Brak three weeks ago, he may have thought that the “city of Torah and Hasidism,” as the ultra-Orthodox community refers to it, was on the verge of an apocalypse. Dozens of rabbis had gathered for an assembly “to fortify the walls of religion and the character of the city of Bnei Brak,” as the sign said.
But throngs of secular people were not descending on the city, just outside of Tel Aviv, nor were non-kosher supermarket chains poised to open branches along Rabbi Akiva Street, the city’s main thoroughfare.
The story is actually much simpler, involving an economic struggle: Several banquet halls in the city had broken ranks and abandoned the city’s premier kashrut organization, known as Rabbi Landau’s certification establishment, and had instead engaged rival, less pricey organizations – She’erit Yisrael and Kehillot – for the certification process.
“They are prepared to shatter and destroy all the work done year all these years, the entire holy reality of Bnei Brak,” one of the speakers shouted. “They seek destruction because of money.”
But this battle – which included posters condemning the “rebellious” halls on the one hand and their hiring of PR people on the other – did something beyond just stimulating a discussion on which kosher chicken brand is cheaper; it focused a spotlight on the conduct of the Landau kashrut organization.
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An investigation by Haaretz raises several questions about what’s going on there. Along with the question of prices it emerges that even though the organization is a public agency, funded by the municipal budget, it is siphoning millions of shekels to a private company, whose owner is a senior municipal official.
The Landau hekhsher, for decades headed by the city’s late chief rabbi, Rabbi Moshe Yehuda Leib Landau, is a well-known ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) certification establishment. But it differs from the other, private Haredi certifications in that until very recently it had the imprimatur of the Chief Rabbinate and was thus its certifications were considered the same as official local rabbinate certifications; establishments and products supervised by the Landau company didn’t legally require any other certification. It seems that the agency became a semi-public, semi private hybrid.
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To understand how this happened, one can start with the Bnei Brak municipal budget, which shows that 13 million shekels ($3.77 million) are transferred from the city coffers annually to the agency as a subsidy. Of this, 2.5 million shekels is allocated to Rabbi Landau’s bureau and the rest for “salaries of ritual slaughterers and monitors.” In practice, this sum is divided up among butcher operations and the kashrut supervisors, and covers other expenses.
In theory, some of this outlay is meant to be returned to the city; since it is a public agency, the fees it charges are meant to be transferred to the city. Indeed, around 3 million shekels is paid to the city for “chicken slaughtering fees.”
But documents obtained by Haaretz raise questions about another 5.5 million shekels, which is paid by the Glatt Ofe slaughterhouse to the agency. These funds are not paid forward to the city but go to the bank account of a private company called H.S.B. Brak Ltd. The company was founded in 2014 by Raphael Dranger, Bnei Brak's kashrut chief. The company’s address is 3 Haggai Street, which is the residence of Yehuda Aryeh Sheinfeld, whose name will be further explained later on in this story.
In response to Haaretz’s queries, the Landau agency and the company said that money is designated for butchers' salaries, and that they are not employed by the municipality but by the company. The reason given is to avoid having an employer-employee relationship between the supervisor and the slaughterhouse. This reason is suspect however, because if the butchers are employed by the municipality there also is no problematic dependency relationship, and the city budget shows that it is, in fact, paying the butchers’ salaries.
When questioned about this, the company added that high allocation for butcher salaries also includes “dozens of pensions for butchers and supervisors who have retired.” Despite repeated requests, the agency and the company refused to provide documents that back up this story.
In recent years the city has issued tenders for a series of kashrut positions and has hired at least 15 new employees to replace those who had left. Internal communications obtained by Haaretz show that Dranger, the head of the kashrut branch, instructed the woman responsible for the tenders which job should go to who regardless of who responded to the tender.
Thus, for example, in May 2014, she sent Dranger a list of 10 names, and next to them, she wrote, “in the interest of proper order and to remove doubt, please write me details of the jobs of the following candidates.” In response, Dranger wrote who should get which job. An examination of the documents shows that the agency added more workers in ensuing years – for example three kashrut supervisors and two chief inspectors, who “won” tenders in July 2016 after Dranger recommended them.
“For a long time I’ve been demanding answers on behalf of Bnei Brak residents,” complained Yaakov Wieder, a Likud city councilman. “Where have the millions of shekels earned by the kashrut agency gone? Who are these ‘butchers.’ But I never get an answer, which is against the law.” Wieder blames the city’s legal adviser, the city manager, and those responsible in the Interior Ministry.
“They remain silent and allow hundreds of millions in public funds to stream uninhibited to uncertain destinations. It says in the Torah ‘Thou shall not steal.’ That applies to city activists, too.”
Cost of living
Everything that involves the Landau certification establishment has a great influence on the cost of living in Bnei Brak. Despite the large subsidy the agency gets at the expense of city residents, it is one of the most expensive supervisory agencies in Israel. Products under its supervision cost considerably more than those of its rivals, She’erit Yisrael and Kehilot; for example, a caterer will pay 83 shekels for a kilo of asado beef under Landau’s supervision, but only 48 shekels for the same meat supervised by its competitors.
A kilo of chopped meat cost 64 shekels with the Landau hekhsher, while similar products approved by other establishments cost only around 40 shekels. There are also substantial differences in the prices of chicken breast, kababs, salmon, leafy greens like lettuce and coriander, and peeled onion.
The kashrut agency said of the price gap that the supervision it provides is of higher quality. But there may be other issues involved.
This is where we return to Yehuda Aryeh Sheinfeld, who plays a major role in the Landau hekhsher. Officially he is not employed by the agency, but in fact he works with Dranger to manage it. Sheinfeld owns a company called A.L.Y.S., which specializes in marketing broiled chicken livers, and is registered to his personal address, 3 Haggai Street, just like Dranger’s company. Livers must be broiled for kashrut reasons, and Sheinfeld’s livers are the only ones the Landau hekhsher permits.
“Sheinfeld and Landau don’t allow their clients to buy fresh livers [to broil themselves], which would lower the price by around 60 percent,” said a man familiar with the details. “They market only broiled livers whose price is much higher.”
It’s not only livers which they market this way. Peeled onions with the Landau certification are supplied by only one company, which demands 50 percent more for the product than companies with other certifications. “Unfortunately, despite all our efforts to bring in another supplier for peeled onions, the efforts have failed,” the Landau organization said.
“There is no conflict of interest in any of the branches or departments in the kashrut system. The kashrut system is not managed by any of the suppliers and does not give exclusivity to any of them either. Kashrut supervision in Bnei Brak has been supported and assisted throughout all the years of its existence by a friends committee whose members are loyal to the system and who sacrifice a great deal for it, and Yehuda Sheinfeld is one of them. Any business owner prepared to work under the terms of Landau kashrut is invited to do so.”
But apparently three of the city’s banquet halls were not prepared to put up with the prices and decided to take measures. First they approached the Landau agency and asked to lower its prices. After the agency refused, they abandoned the certification company and took their business to its competitors. This led to a local trade war, in which the Landau organization hung posters condemning the hall's owners, calling them “evil people” and claiming that their goal was to “undermine” rabbinic authority in the city.
Local rabbis signed a document published in the Haredi press, saying they no longer bore any responsibility for those banquet halls, adding, “we view very gravely the move that deals a serious blow to the rabbinate and the character of the city of Bnei Brak.”
Stormy responses notwithstanding, the Landau agency apparently isn’t interested in having any other banquet halls use rival certifying agencies. Recently the organization announced that it was planning to “update” its prices – meaning to lower them.
From father to son
For decades the Landau hekhsher was considered immune from criticism. This started to change, at least publicly, with the death last year of Rabbi Moshe Yehuda Leib Landau. At his funeral in March 2019, Mayor Avraham Rubinstein announced that he would be replaced as the city’s chief rabbi by his son, Rabbi Haim Yitzhak Isaac Landau, and Rabbi Shevah Tzvi Rosenblatt. There was no process for choosing the chief rabbi and no consultation with city council members. Not everyone was pleased by this.
Sources familiar with the situation say these appointments were not made in a vacuum. Rubinstein and members of the Landau organization are determined to make theirs the leading kashrut certification organization in Haredi world, particularly at the expense of rival She’erit Yisrael.
That’s why Rosenblatt, who was a member of She’eris Yisrael’s kashrut committee was named to the chief rabbinate post, the sources said. Then, a few months ago, Rubinstein’s son-in-law, David Weisel, was appointed to a senior position in the Landau organization.
The recent developments in Bnei Brak lit some red lights in the corridors of the Chief Rabbinate. At first the Chief Rabbinate Council had authorized the younger Landau to be the official kashrut supervisor of Bnei Brak, a role his father once held. But a few weeks ago the rabbinate’s legal adviser, Harel Goldberg, announced that this authorization had been withdrawn, because the younger Landau did not meet the criteria for providing municipal kashrut supervision. It also turned out that the agency had begun certifying businesses outside the city and certifiying imported meat, effectively acting as a private kashrut agency.
This had immediate ramifications for local businesses. By law any establishment claiming to be kosher must be certified by a local rabbinate even if it carries a Haredi certification; it cannot be certified solely by a private agency. “As of now, the Landau hekhsher cannot provide certification without another certificate from the Chief Rabbinate,” said a source familiar with the issue. “Businesses in Bnei Brak carrying only the Landau kashrut can be fined, and it’s very possible that the Chief Rabbinate will start enforcing this in the city.”
The Bnei Brak municipality, in response to questions about the rabbinical appointments, said that “the mayor works on the issue of kashrut as part of his duties,” adding that after the elder Landau’s death, “there was a historic opportunity that didn’t exist before to create unity in the city on this issue, and thus the mayor acted at the behest of the Torah sages. The mayor has no connection to the company or the nonprofit association affiliated with the Landau kashrut.”
With regard to the mayor’s son-in-law, the response was, “David Weisel is a private person, who works as a volunteer with no salary, as part of the committee of activists appointed by the rabbis of the various Torah communities in the city, both Hasidic and Lithuanian.”
The municipality said it would look into the questions raised about the Landau agency and respond in accordance with its findings. It added that the management of the kashrut and the private company was the result of “a historic and technical arrangement that was meant to assure meticulous kashrut through levies whose collection was guaranteed by the company and transferred to the public coffers.
It should be clarified that as part of a comprehensive reorganization, an examination is being conducted with the aim of formulating a different and innovative organizational structure for kashrut issues, through which the public interest will be preserved.”
The Landau agency responded by saying, “The H.S.B. Brak company conducts itself with full transparency, and manages in a solely technical fashion the additional payments to the slaughtering system to preserve all the stringencies demanded by the city’s rabbis. The company is not meant to profit and isn’t profitable at all.”
The agency added that “no product of Rabbi Landau and no food manufacturer is funded by the municipality, the only thing funded is the supervision of the stores and food businesses in Bnei Brak, with the municipality getting the kashrut fees from the stores. The kashrut in Bnei Brak managed by Rabbi Landau and Rabbi Rosenblatt is the only kashrut [agency] in the country that is not for profit and its entire aim is to bring the city’s residents the highest level of kashrut.”
The Interior Ministry said that “in light of the data presented in the article, the Interior Ministry, through its district director, has contacted the Bnei Brak municipality to get its response to the issue. When this is received, it will be checked and dealt with as required.”