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.”