The closing of the only kosher butcher shop on the Main Line underscored the declining number of non-Orthodox Jews who keep kosher and exposed a rift over kashrut supervision. Find out the story behind the story.
It was the day before Chanukah and sufganiyot lined the tables at Main Line Kosher Meats in Narberth. A steady stream of customers filed in. But they weren’t coming primarily to buy homemade latkes or meat for Shabbat. They were coming to say goodbye.
After 15 years, the family that ran the only kosher butcher outfit in the Main Line area was closing up shop. And their loyal customers weren’t happy.
“It’s like the end of an era,” cried Varda Dizengoff. “How can you be doing this during Chanukah?”
The owners, too, weren’t happy. It was not an easy decision but it was the only one, said Hanni Nitzan, who took over the business end of the operation after her father, Arie Lipinsky, died in February.
She listed several factors in the family’s decision: a dearth of customers, competition from nearby supermarkets that sell kosher meat and other products cheaper — and politics.
The closing of the butcher shop underscored the declining number of non-Orthodox Jews who keep kosher and also exposed a rift in the community over kashrut supervision.
The primary source of Main Line Kosher’s business, which included catering small events, came from area Conservative synagogues. Only 10 to 12 individual customers came in on a daily basis, Nitzan said.
Although they had a hechsher, or kosher certification, from an Orthodox rabbi, most of the Orthodox Jews in the area didn’t buy from the store. Rumors of improper kosher practice had apparently spread over the years.
Rabbi Isaac Leizerowski of the Northeast initially oversaw the shop’s kashrut, which started in Overbrook Park and moved to Montgomery Avenue 11 years ago. Ten years ago, he withdrew the certification because he claimed he found unkosher chicken boxes in the trash outside their store, according to Nitzan. She contends that what he found wasn’t theirs.
“We definitely never sold non-kosher food,” she said, telling her story as a stream of saddened customers entered the store to buy jars of pickles and sauces and to pick up one last order of freshly slaughtered meat. Many walked over to give her and her mother, Rivka, long and tearful hugs.
At the end of May, she said, a few local Conservative rabbis came to talk to her. They expressed concern that her current mashgiach, Rabbi Yaakov Roth, was not on the premises full time.
Rabbi Neil Cooper, of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood and a member of the Rabbinical Assembly’s local kashrut commission, said his Conservative committee had begun to think that the caterers and purveyors of kosher food “would benefit from regular and more scrutinizing supervision.”
He emphasized that “there were no specific issues they were addressing” when they went to talk to the owners of Main Line Kosher. “We were only trying to protect and reassure the community that those purveyors that we recommend were in fact being recommended with certainty that everything was proper.
“To standardize and stabilize supervision,” he said, they recommended that Main Line attain a hashgachah tamidit, or full-time kosher supervision.
Nitzan said she was happy to oblige but wanted to get certification from a source that would be acceptable among the growing Orthodox community on the Main Line in order to expand her business. She said she was willing to start from scratch — replace all her equipment, throw out the meat in the store and have full-time supervision on the premises.
They approached the Community Kashrus of Greater Philadelphia, the organization that is considered the standard by most of Philadelphia’s Orthodox community. But three months after their first meeting, she said, the body rejected her request.
The reason, she said she was told, was that it would be a halachic violation because her business was located too close to two supermarkets with kosher departments. But, she wondered, how can that be when she was there first?
Rabbi Aaron Felder, president of Community Kashrus of Greater Philadelphia, confirmed that he and the other four rabbis who serve on the committee had met with Nitzan and decided not to work with her. But he declined to say why. “We made a decision that we could not handle it. All I can tell you is they approached us and we had several meetings,” said Felder, religious leader of B’nai Israel-Ohev Zedek in Northeast Philadelphia. “We don’t discuss it with anybody. It was a closed meeting among the rabbis."
Felder added that, with a number of major supermarkets having full kosher sections, “there is more than enough in Philadelphia. You don’t think Philadelphia has enough places for people where they can go and buy kosher?”
But Nitzan refused to give up. With the help of some local rabbis, she found another Orthodox group that she was led to believe would give approval. But in the end, that fell through, too.
Rabbi Tzvi Alutsky of Northeast Philadelphia confirmed that, on multiple occasions, he was approached by Main Line Kosher Meats to take over supervision of the butcher shop.
Alutsky, who runs his own kosher certification agency and works for National Kosher Supervision, a New York-based company overseen by Rabbi Aaron Mehlman, said they ultimately declined because Leizerowski “advised me not to do it for a lot of kashrut violations they had in the past.”.
“It actually does bother me,” that Main Line Kosher Meats is being forced to close, said Alutsky, who attends Bais Medrash HaRav/B’nai Jacob-Dershu Tov, the Northeast Philadelphia shul headed by Leizerowski. But he added it was impossible for him to go against his rabbi’s wishes.
At press time, Leizerowski was en route to Israel and could not be reached for comment.
Leizerowski’s brother-in-law, Rabbi Dov Brisman, is one of five rabbis who sits on the committee of the Community Kashrus of Greater Philadelphia.
The final straw for Main Line’s bottom line, according to Nitzan, came right after Simchat Torah, when Har Zion Temple pulled the shop from its approved list of kosher caterers. That decision came from the synagogue’s interim rabbi who was new to the community and was apparently not aware of the history of the butcher shop or the consensus among the other Conservative rabbis that it was a reliable kosher outlet.
Rabbi Samuel Kieffer said the synagogue leaders had "sent out a word of caution" to certain Har Zion members warning them not to use Main Line Kosher Meats for the time being. The reason, said Kieffer, was that Main Line was in between mashgiachs.
"If a kosher establishment is without a mashgiach, for that period of time, they cannot call themselves kosher," he said. "We weren't passing judgement on them.We were anxiously awaiting news of their resolving this."
Kieffer added that he and several conservative rabbis had planned to meet with the owner last week and were surprised to hear of its closing.
Felder, of the Community Kashrus, said he didn’t know that Main Line Kosher had announced it was closing. He postulated that fewer non-Orthodox Jews were buying kosher meat, making it almost impossible for a kosher establishment not frequented by the Orthodox community to survive.
Lisa Eckman, who belongs to Congregation Beth Hamedrosh, an Orthodox synagogue in Wynnewood, said she mostly gets meat at ShopRite, R&R, Giant, Acme and Trader Joe’s. “Many people order meat or go to Lakewood or Baltimore.”
But those who depended on Main Line Kosher see the store’s closing as a real loss — and an outrage. Ellen Haupt, a longtime customer, spent the last few days before it closed on Dec. 7 at the store, lending support and lamenting the situation.
“This issue pertains not only to this little space and place and time, but it pertains to the problems of kashrut in general,” she said. “It’s a turf war. It seems dirty to me.”
Cooper, of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, called the closing a big loss for the community. He said it was unfortunate that “when political considerations and personalities becomes the issue, it becomes very divisive. We all agree we want high standards; but if one denigrates one mashgiach over another, it gets very hurtful and divisive, and in the end, it doesn’t help the consumer.”
“This is hurtful to us because this butcher did serve our community,” he said, noting that he had received numerous calls and emails from people wanting to know why the rabbis couldn’t do anything.
“And the fact is,” he said, “we couldn’t do anything.”
Jewish Exponent staff writer Bryan Schwartzman contributed to this report.