After Kosher Practice Questioned, O.U. Limits Certification of El Al Food

The Orthodox Union is limiting its certification of kosher meals aboard El Al flights after two incidents in which nonkosher food was brought onto planes. Officials at the union, which certifies the kashrut of meals provided by El Al’s New York-based food service subsidiary, Borenstein Caterers, will certify only Borenstein’s double-wrapped “Regal” meals that are prepared and packaged under the supervision of Rabbi N.E. Teitelbaum.

O.U. officials say the move is an effort to ensure the kashrut of the food served to passengers following incidents in Newark and Budapest in which it was compromised.

Passengers now will be offered a choice between the double-wrapped food and meals served in single-sealed or open trays. The Orthodox Union, the largest kashrut certifying agency in the world, previously certified Borenstein meals served open or with a single seal.

The union never certified all of El Al’s food, only that prepared by Borenstein for flights out of New York, Chicago and Miami. Other El Al food remains under the overall supervision of the chief rabbinate of Israel.

The airline, for its part, insists it takes appropriate measures to ensure the kashrut of its food.

“El Al goes so far above and beyond to maintain the world’s only kosher airline,” El Al spokeswoman Sheryl Stein said, adding that the airline even makes sure to observe the special kashrut laws for Passover. “The food meets the highest standards of kashrut.”

Recommending that observant passengers only eat meals that have been double wrapped is “the only way we can guarantee the integrity of that meal,” said Rabbi Leonard Steinberg, the rabbinic coordinator overseeing the O.U.’s Borenstein account.

Because the double-wrapped meals are fully sealed, they can theoretically be heated even in a nonkosher oven without risk to their kashrut status.

The O.U.’s Web site notifies visitors of the changes.

The Orthodox Union has been engaged in discussions of kashrut issues with El Al for some time, but the policy change was sparked by two specific incidents.

Late last year, a group of travelers flying from Chicago to Israel on an El Al plane that was having mechanical problems found themselves stranded for several hours aboard the aircraft in Newark.

Recognizing that many of the travelers were hungry, at least one crew member left the plane and returned with pizzas.

Passengers, many of them Orthodox Jews, asked if the pizza was kosher, and were told that it was.

“They went around the plane offering the pizza,” said one woman on the flight, who didn’t want to give her name but is a sister of Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, a rabbinic coordinator in the O.U.’s kashrut division.

Most of the observant travelers decided not to eat the pizza, which turned out to be nonkosher, according to the woman.

She also said that some staffers ate the pizza in the airplane’s kitchen.

Also, on a flight grounded this fall in Budapest while Israel’s Histadrut labor union was on strike, “the entire plane was served nonkosher cheese sandwiches,” Steinberg said. “There was no announcement that it was not kosher.”

El Al officials acknowledge the incidents, but insist they were isolated and in no way reflect company policy.

Emphasizing that the crew members, who are trained to handle on-flight kashrut issues, acted completely on their own, Stein said, “Proper repercussions were taken against the flight attendants involved.”

O.U. officials remain supportive of El Al, but say there may be systemic deficiencies in the airline’s overall approach to issues of kashrut.

“We found many serious problems,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, the O.U. kashrut division’s rabbinic administrator. “When things go wrong, you have to investigate it.”

For example, Steinberg noted, El Al warms up both meat and dairy meals in the same ovens. While crew members use special inserts to cover the meals, theoretically there could be problems of food spillage, he said.

Steinberg also said El Al crew members were known to serve wine to first-class passengers in a manner that does not meet stringent kosher standards.

El Al officials continue to defend the airline’s kosher food services.

“All ingredients, preparation and delivery of all of Borenstein’s meals remain the same,” El Al said in an Oct. 27 statement, which also noted that “every ingredient is certified by the Orthodox Union and is of the highest quality.”

Stein told JTA that the special “Regal” meals El Al passengers can order 24 hours before a flight already had been an option for observant passengers. El Al will continue to offer the open meals as well.

At the O.U.’s recent convention in Israel over Thanksgiving weekend, Genack said leadership from the union and the Rabbinical Council of America, an organization of centrist Orthodox rabbis, met with El Al’s chief executive officer, Amos Shapira; its vice president for service, Itamar Bartuv; and its supervising rabbi, Avshalom Katzir.

Genack said he believes El Al management is listening to the Orthodox Union’s concerns.

“They were very accommodating on this issue,” he said.

Several observant Jews who are planning to travel soon to Israel told JTA that they would only order the double-wrapped meals. The meals don’t cost travelers more, but are more expensive for El Al to order, Stein said.

Hillel Moskovits, who lives in Jerusalem and flies often to the United States, said that what concerns him most is that the union didn’t take action sooner.

“I don’t see El Al being at fault, really,” he said.

Others, like Ephrem Hecht of Queens, N.Y., said by e-mail that while he always has flown El Al for reasons such as security and the desire to support Israel, “I am now considering using alternate airlines. Many are cheaper and when I request a kosher meal, I am certain that I will obtain one.”

But Stein noted that — unlike on other airlines — all passengers on El Al receive kosher food.

Milton Markovitz of New York City, who also feels more comfortable with El Al’s security, said in an e-mail message that he would continue to fly Israel’s national airline.

“Hopefully El Al will soon rectify the negligence which created this unfortunate situation,” he said. “All that is necessary is compliance and respect.”

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