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  • The Scoop on Mike’s Bistro and the Tav Hayosher

    by Rebecca Honig Friedman

    The owner of two of New York’s most popular fine kosher eateries is fuming mad at what he calls unethical behavior by an organization committed to ethics, while the organization claims the restaurateur wouldn’t meet its standards.

    The Tav Hayosher, or “ethical seal,” for kosher restaurants bestowed by the Orthodox social justice initiative Uri L’Tzedek announced on its blog that “Uri L’Tzedek has removed Mike’s Bistro and Mike’s Italian Kitchen from Tav HaYosher certification effective Monday, June 15 at 6 PM.” But Chef Michael Gershkovich, the owner of the restaurants in question — the only fine dining establishments that have been on the Tav’s list — says he is the one who “opted out” of the seal, and that Uri L’Tzedek is misrepresenting the situation.

    “I elected not to be part of it,” Gershkovich told TJC Newsdesk by phone, and, he said, he is “furious” and “very insulted” over the “unethical” way Uri L’Tzedek has handled his decision.

    Gershkovich first expressed reservations about the Tav when it launched, in our newscast of May 22nd. At the time, he expressed concern that the ethical standard set was merely compliance with the law, and with the idea of participating in a program from Uri L’Tzedek, whose approach to the Agriprocessors affair in 2008 he expressed disagreement with. Gershkovich also warned that he’d not hesitate to withdraw from the opt-in program if Uri L’Tzedek were making a move to withdraw its seal from another restaurant, and thus potentially harm its business; ironically, that’s the situation Gershkovich finds himself in now.

    Gershkovich said on the phone today that he decided to opt out of the Tav Hayosher because he felt carrying the seal was becoming “too political.” He initially took on the seal as a “business decision,” Gershkovich said, thinking a sign saying he treated his workers well “couldn’t be bad for business.”

    “Only a jerk doesn’t support social justice,” he explained.

    But Gershkovich nonetheless had his misgivings about the program, which grew with negative customer response to it. Almost as soon as he began to carry the seal, Gershkovich told TJC, he began to get emails from customers who “didn’t like” the Tav’s association with Uri L’Tzedek. These customers disapproved of the Orthodox social justice organization’s response to the Agriprocessors raid — a boycott of the meat producer — and some of these angry customers threatened to boycott Gershkovich’s restaurants as long as he carried the seal, he said. One such exchange with a customer was covered in detail in the May 22nd newscast.

    However, Gershkovich was quick to note, other customers “did come just to support the Tav Hayosher.”

    In all, he said today, he felt the seal had thrown him into a “political arena” that he “didn’t want to be in,” and that was detracting from what should be his “focus on the food” over other issues.

    Though Gershkovich insists his restaurants are, and always have been, in compliance with the Tav Hayosher’s guidelines — which are simply to comply with the law, regarding which Gershkovich said he himself aims for a higher standard — he also told TJC Newsdesk that he was uncomfortable with the Tav’s inspectors looking at his books every month (the Tav’s policy is to send volunteers to inspect participating establishments’ books and interview workers every 4 to 6 weeks).

    Gershkovich claimed that when government inspectors come to check up on his business activities (which happens “once every one or two or three years,” he said), his usual practice, and, he implied, the practice of other restaurant owners, is to say the books are at another location and are unavailable for inspection. “Then you call your accountant and your lawyer to make sure everything is in order.”

    About two and a half weeks ago, Gershkovich said, he called Uri L’Tzedek co-founder Shmuly Yanklowitz to say he would no longer “allow inspections to take place,” and was shocked to see the announcement on the Tav’s blog that, he said, implies it was the Tav’s decision to remove Gershkovich’s restaurants from their list. He said he has asked the Tav to change the wording on their site and that he tried to leave a comment on the post explaining his side of the story. But, he claimed, his comment was not posted.

    When Gershkovich called Uri L’Tzedek to complain, he said the organization’s lead professional, Rabbi Ari Weiss, told him it was their general policy not to include such comments on their website. Unconvinced, Gershkovitch said, he “cursed out” Weiss.

    Weiss said of the encounter, that Gershkovich “was somewhat belligerent when he spoke to me” and that, at one point, “I asked him to stop cursing and he did.”

    Weiss told TJC Newsdesk the organization does not currently have any plans to change the wording on their website about the two restaurants, and that their understanding of the situation is different from Gershkovich’s, though he would not comment on the details of that understanding. “We take our processes very seriously,” Weiss said, “and part of that is not talking to the press about why we removed a certain establishment.” However, Weiss did say it was their understanding that Mike’s Bistro and Mike’s Italian Kitchen staff “continued to say he was part of the program until we removed him.” Regarding Gershkovich’s attempt to leave a comment on the blog, Weiss said that their blog is a moderated forum and that the comment was not posted “because we felt there was some not factual information in it.”

    Gershkovich, however, claimed that the Tav Hayosher is using his defection as a power play. “Why do they write they took me off the list?” Gershkovich asked rhetorically, answering it’s because “they want to become a powerhouse.” And while there’s no disputing that Uri L’Tzedek’s goal is for the seal to become influential (Yanklowitz is quoted in the May 22nd broadcast saying its goal is “to take over Manhattan”), it’s also true that Gershkovich’s two restaurants represented the most substantial establishments the Tav had successfully courted to participate.

    Uri L’Tzedek, Gershkovich claimed, is trying to make it look like Mike’s Bistro and Mike’s Italian Kitchen are no longer in compliance with their guidelines.

    “I understand why they did it,” he said, “everybody has to take care of themselves, including the Tav Hayosher.” But, he asserted, their behavior does not behoove their purported ethical goals. “They are mistaking their own good intention,” Gershkovich said.

    Weiss said that the Tav Hayosher continues “to want to partner with Mike and other kosher eating establishments.” When asked what it would take for them to resume a partnership with Gershkovich, Weiss said, “we’d have to insist that Mike live up to all the processes of the program.”

    June 18, 2009 | Read more Newsdesk posts. 26 Comments »

    Comments

    26 Comments »

    1. Oh no! I really liked Mike’s. I hope they get the Tav back soon.

      Comment by David — June 18, 2009 @ 6:40 pm

    2. David- how are you associated with the Tav?

      Comment by Sharon — June 18, 2009 @ 6:44 pm

    3. Good coverage! Please keep on top of this story.

      Comment by E — June 18, 2009 @ 6:51 pm

    4. It was great to read Mike’s Bistro’s side of the story. However, this felt less like a news report or even a blog story than a transcript of Mike’s words.

      Why not email the Tav HaYosher folks and ask for their opinion, too? If you’re reporting a story, it’s always good to remember that there’s almost always two sides to it.

      Comment by Matthue — June 19, 2009 @ 5:33 am

    5. Matthue – Try reading the whole thing again. RHF spoke to Tav HaYosher over the phone and printed pretty much everything they had to say, as well.

      Comment by Steven I. Weiss — June 19, 2009 @ 5:35 am

    6. Hi,
      I don’t understand Mike’s arguments. Regular inspection is part and parcel of being in compliance. I loved Mike’s Bistro – I don’t live in New York but will be spending several weeks there this summer. Withdrawing from the Tav will cost them my business and the business of my family. This is very sad…

      I lived in Jerusalem and only ate at restaurants with the Tav Chevrati. In Israel this sort of social consciousness is as mainstream as can be – many prominent rabbis endorse the Tav. Why is this controversial in America?

      Comment by David W. — June 19, 2009 @ 5:59 am

    7. Thanks for the reply, Steve. Something like 3/4 of the article is straight quotes from Mr. Gershkovich, and there doesn’t seem to be much critical thought involved in processing these questions — just in giving him a place to speak.

      Comment by Matthue — June 19, 2009 @ 5:59 am

    8. Matthue – It’s called reporting. You print what both sides have to say, and let the readers come to their own conclusions. If Tav HaYosher had more to say, there’d be more quotes from them, but they don’t. But do tell — just what “critical thought” would you apply here?

      Comment by Steven I. Weiss — June 19, 2009 @ 6:34 am

    9. Asking some follow-up questions.

      Comment by Matthue — June 19, 2009 @ 6:53 am

    10. Matthue – Of course follow-up questions were asked. And everything that each side claimed was brought to the other. Which ones don’t you think were asked? I don’t think what you’re angling for here is reporting, but advocacy for Tav HaYosher and/or an assertion that it’s in the right. But that’s not a journalist’s job. If you want to take from this that Tav HaYosher’s in the right and should be supported, that’s certainly your prerogative and a choice that other readers here are obviously making. Similarly, a reader could go the other way. But it’s our job to report the facts and claims that are credible and let the readers make those choices.

      Comment by Steven I. Weiss — June 19, 2009 @ 8:09 am

    11. The reason why American Orthodoxy, including myself, is so opposed to enforced social justice of this nature is that the people behind the so-called Tav Ha Yosher are the same people behind feminism, pluralism and a nunch of other anti-halachic things promoted by the radical left wing of Modern Orthodoxy and Yeshiva Chovevei Torah. This is a bunch of left wing MO mishegoim.

      Comment by Daniel — June 19, 2009 @ 8:52 am

    12. No, I don’t. I do think Tav Hayosher is a great idea. But I like everything I’ve heard about Mike’s Bistro, too, up until this point. As a reader, I’m just looking for something to my news reports more than I could read on one of the subject’s personal blogs.

      Comment by Matthue — June 19, 2009 @ 8:55 am

    13. Matthue – I don’t get it. What reporting would you like to see that isn’t here? If there are questions you think we haven’t asked, we’ll certainly ask them. But reporting is often about simply running the facts and claims that are available, and that’s what was done here. What questions weren’t asked that you want asked?

      Comment by Steven I. Weiss — June 19, 2009 @ 9:28 am

    14. I’m sure the Tav HaYosher folks have plenty more to say, but they’re not interested in creating a public fight. It looks like Mike is. Unfortunate. Unfortunate that Mike bowed to pressure from people like Daniel who are blind to the Jewish people’s responsibility to the world. Treating workers with dignity and respect isn;t “left wing MO mishegoim” – it’s Torah, it’s halacha, and it’s right. I support restaurants that do that.

      Comment by David — June 19, 2009 @ 10:39 am

    15. I am so confused- All the Tav HaYosher asks is for resaurants to quasi follow the law. Mike’s Bistro is continuing to follow the law, that of paying their employees legally, they just don’t want to deal with the red tape of the Tav on a regular basis. They are still following the law, (which also means that they are abiding by the “ethical regulations” that were set by the Tav- and the US government). Unless we hear more from the Tav, one cannot assume that Mike’s Bistro is in the wrong at all.

      This sounds similar to kashrut organizations who pull their hashgacha. Oftentimes, the restaurant is still following the laws of kashrut, and decided to go with a different either less invasive or less expensive hashgacha. I have experienced such scenarios numerous times.

      The question that I have is did Mike choose to remove his restaurant from the Tav as is stated in this article, or did the Tav remove Mike’s Bistro as is written on their blog?

      Comment by Sharon — June 19, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

    16. David- you didn’t answer my question- are you affiliated with the Tav? Do you volunteer for them? Do you serve an official capacity?

      Comment by Sharon — June 19, 2009 @ 3:26 pm

    17. Mike was a part of the Tav HaYosher program until we removed the seal. Customers were calling, emailing, and asking in the restaurant if he had the Tav and he reported to them that he did. Did Mike receive pressure from people who don’t like the Tav that made him uncomfortable? Sounds like he did. Did that stop him from telling others that he had it? No. Mike said that he had the Tav to some people and then turned around and said he had “removed himself” when it was convenient for him.

      One other point for clarification – The reasons why we remove a Tav are because of non-compliance with Tav standards or non-compliance with Tav process. We have not, nor will not, release the specific areas where a restaurant was not in compliance. This is to protect restaurant workers, restaurant owners, and Uri L’Tzedek.

      We’re not looking to create a fight or cause controversy. Mike’s Bistro and Pizzeria are two premier restaurants – believe me, I’m not happy they’re off. However, the record needs to be set straight. I hope we can move forward in a positive way. We are hopeful that Mike will rejoin the program.

      Comment by Ari Hart — June 20, 2009 @ 9:12 pm

    18. Fact:
      I told shmulie and ari (the ones who signed me up) well over 2 weeks ago that i wanted out for various reasons.

      Fact:
      I did not allow an inspection to take place because i no longer wanted to be part of the program.

      conclusion:

      The Tav could have just removed my name from the list and written nothing. They chose to write that THEY elected to remove mikes bistro from the list.That is simply UNTRUE and unacceptable and it implies wrong doing on my part.

      We will continue to value our employees, they are essential to the success of our establishments.
      I have always considered myself a member of the team and i enjoy being their equal rather than their boss.

      Comment by michael gershkovich — June 21, 2009 @ 11:21 am

    19. Mike,

      When we spoke, you expressed concern about the Tav. However, you decided to wait and see. Then, you continued to tell customers you had the Tav well after those two weeks. You can’t have it both ways. When you were telling people you had the Tav, but then did not meet the agreements that we both signed to be on the Tav, we removed it.

      Ari Hart

      Comment by Ari Hart — June 22, 2009 @ 3:36 am

    20. enough already. I removed the certificate weeks ago from the door.

      When i rejected your attempts to inspect my premises, it was because i wanted out and needed to get out to avoid further offenses to my clientel.

      Here’s an idea, why dont you come on in and inspect my premises… when you find me to be in compliance with your standards of morals and ethics i’ll be glad to opt out of the program.

      you guys act like lawyers not like rabbis.

      im done with this.

      Comment by michael gershkovich — June 22, 2009 @ 1:30 pm

    21. [...] following the Mike’s Bistro and Tav Hayosher story will be interested to know that the Tav’s R’ Ari Hart has commented on the [...]

      Pingback by Tav Hayosher & Mike’s Bistro - TJC Newsdesk — June 23, 2009 @ 2:26 pm

    22. It sounds to me like the Tav Hayosher’s own business practices would never pass the “strict regulations” that they require of their participating companies. It does pain me however to see the name of such a noble organization as Yeshivat Chovavei Torah dragged through the mud on account of the dubious practices of these young & inexperienced Rabbis. Rabbi Weiss Shlita (R’ Avi that is not Ari Weiss) would never approve of their self serving duplicity, misinformation and targeted character assassination be it intentional, accidental or otherwise. The Tav seem to have fallen into Orwellian trappings the likes of Animal Farm. Instead of replacing the questionable oversight practices that have plagued Kashrut Organizations for decades, they themselves have resorted to unethical, libelous and anti-Torah practices. The Torah teaches us to acknowledge our own wrongdoings and right them…that is the Derech Hashem. If they want their organization to ever be considered anything more then a self-serving, bullying, power hungry sham, I suggest that Rabbis Ari Hart, Shmuly Yanklowitz & Ari Weiss themselves “awaken to justice” and make a very public apology for the bitul Torah they have stirred up here with the good & charitable folks at Mike’s Bistro. Here’s to Shalom b’Yisroel…
      AMEN!

      Comment by Arieh White — July 12, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

    23. I used to work at Mike’s Bistro. This thief was taking tips from all the waiters and used it to pay us in the kitchen. Also he deducted taxes on our paychecks but we never got any tax forms by the end of the year. He didn’t allowed the waiters to punch in and out on Saturdays and they never got hourly paid on that day. It is sad such talented chief (he is without doubt) has been taken over by profit and money making. Such a low ethical standards even for New York…

      Comment by ex-emploee — July 15, 2011 @ 10:28 pm

    24. [...] Uri L’Tzedek’s blackmailing community organizers in the door discover that they can’t leave without being subjected to a smear campaign. Its latest “victory” was won on behalf of the Industrial Workers of the World, a radical [...]

      Pingback by DANIEL GREENFIELD: THE LEFT WING MOVEMENT TO HIJACK KOSHER FOOD…THE SWINE BEHIND IT…IS IT SOROS? | RUTHFULLY YOURS — May 14, 2012 @ 2:19 am

    25. [...] Uri L’Tzedek’s blackmailing community organizers in the door discover that they can’t leave without being subjected to a smear campaign. Its latest “victory” was won on behalf of the Industrial Workers of the World, a radical [...]

      Pingback by Shmeeze » New Kosher Certification Label On Foods To Use Al Sharpton-like Tactics, Hardly Kosher » Shmeeze — May 14, 2012 @ 11:15 am

    26. You liberals really need to keep quiet. Save your crap for someone who cares. I have worked for mike and he is a class act. I repeat a class act. Always looking out for his employees as he would his friends. He holds himself to the highest standards and will not settle for anything less. This certification is a bunch of crap and way too political for any owner to want to get involved. Their MO is to take over manhattan, at least thats what they say they want to. Any employee that says he steals is full of crap.

      Comment by Josh — December 18, 2012 @ 6:46 am

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