King of kosher

Rabbi David Shawel is not an imposing figure. Standing only five feet and four inches, he talks fast and rarely stands or sits in one place for long. But lately it is Shawel who has had powerful grocery chains hopping.

Shawel is The Man--that's The Macher in Yiddish--in Dallas when it comes to certifying that food has been prepared under strict adherence to the kosher dietary laws. The orthodox rabbi is the chief administrator and inspector for Vaad Hakashrus, a Dallas organization of families who keep kosher kitchens.

In his seven years leading Vaad, Shawel has helped transform the organization from a club for a few Jewish families looking for kosher meat into a 400-member, nonprofit consumer institution--the only one of its kind in north Texas. In the past few years, Shawel has begun charging large, corporate grocery-store chains more than $100 a month for consultations about kosher dietary laws. Kosher, considering Dallas' nearly 40,000-strong Jewish community, is big business.

Not surprisingly, the rabbi, who wields so much power, has burnt a few bagels--so to speak--along the way.

"Felix, could you come over here," barks Shawel, as he strolls confidently through the baking kitchen at Minyard Food Store grocery on the corner of Forest Lane and Preston Road. The Minyard store is the most recent addition to the rabbi's growing roster of establishments that have hired him as a consultant on kosher food. The rabbi is seeking the worker's attention because he has found, during this early morning, unscheduled spot check, a violation of the kosher laws.

But even the rabbi admits it's a small infraction: a worker has loaded onto the same cart trays that are to be used only for dairy meals and ones are designated pareve--the Hebrew term for food products that can be consumed with either milk or meat meals because they contain neither. In addition to forbidding the consumption of pork (or other animals without cloven hooves), shell-fish and other specific foods, kosher laws bar observant Jews from mixing milk with meat and poultry. In order to ensure that dairy and meat products don't ever commingle, a kosher kitchen must have separate sinks, plates, cookware, and flatware--one marked for meat, one for milk, and another for pareve preparations.

At Minyard's new bakery, where the corporate chain's owners installed a custom-designed five-part sink to separate properly the washing of milk and meat dishes, Shawel wants the dairy and pareve baking trays also segregated when they are stacked on carts.

"Do you have any idea how this got here," Shawel asks the bakery worker about the misplaced trays. "Do you know who I should speak to about this?"

The worker moves the offending trays and tells the rabbi he will talk to his supervisor about the oversight. Satisfied, Shawel moves on to another concern. The bakers have failed to label donuts as dairy products. Without the proper identification, Shawel explains, a kosher-buying customer could unknowingly use the baked goods with a meat meal. The workers tell the rabbi that the dairy label must have inadvertently been clipped off. Shawel doesn't leave until he sees the workers affix a dairy label to each of the donut boxes.

Some 15 establishments--restaurants, hotel, grocery stores, and bakeries--have hired the Vaad and Shawel to certify their kosher preparations of food. Shawel's fees vary according to the size of the establishment, Shawel says. But each store gets the right to use labels with the Vaad Hakashrus symbol of approval--a small K inside a larger D (K for kosher and D for Dallas)--a marking that all the kosher cognoscenti can easily recognize.

Beyond the fee, the downside for the businesses is that they must submit to regular and rigorous visits from Shawel. He stops by the two grocery stores on his list, Minyard's and the Tom Thumb Food & Pharmacy establishment across the street, nearly every day. At those two large stores, which offer a wide variety of kosher products, his list of chores is lengthy, the rabbi says. He must stamp the smoked beef pastrami and other deli meats with a special kosher mark, check to see that workers are wearing double gloves, and make sure no treif, Yiddish for nonkosher food, has somehow slipped into a refrigerator designated for kosher meats.

At other concerns, like Highland Park Bakery, where no meat products are used in the preparation, Shawel visits less frequently, often less than once a week. A lemon juice factory north of Dallas merits a spot check just once a year. "What can you do wrong with just lemons?" the rabbi asks.

Shawel, who was raised in Newport News, Virginia, got his training and credentials for his specialized profession at the Talmudic University of Florida in Miami Beach. As a rabbinical student, he chose the relatively uncommon path among orthodox Jews in the United States these days of also acquiring certification as a shochet, Hebrew for an expert qualified to oversee that animals are slaughtered according to the kosher practices. He also earned his stripes as a mohel, a rabbi trained to perform circumcisions on infant boys at the post-birth Jewish ceremony known as a bris.

After stints in the North, including two months of duty as a shochet at a kosher poultry farm in Pennsylvania, Shawel jumped at the chance to return to his native South in 1984 when Dallas needed a mohel. During his early days in Dallas, Shawel did not work full time for Vaad. Instead, he occupied his time performing at the circumcision ceremonies and teaching at Akiba Academy, a private Jewish school.

In 1989, the Vaad needed a new administrative rabbi, and Shawel fit the bill. At the time, only a few hotels, one bakery, one butcher, and Preizler's Deli & Bakery, a North Dallas eatery, had sought and paid for the Vaad's approval and certification.

But under Shawel's administration, and as a result of Dallas' Jewish population growth--the community had added some 15,000 to its population since 1973 for a total of roughly 38,000, according to the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas--the Vaad has become a bigger, more powerful, and notably more criticized presence. And Shawel has been accused of abusing his newly acquired power.

"I threw him out three and a half years ago," says Abe Preizler, the owner of Preizler's Deli & Bakery on Preston Road and LBJ Freeway.

In the deli business in Dallas for 15 years and under supervision from the Vaad for 10 of those years, Preizler had a falling out with Shawel when the Vaad agreed to provide supervision to Tom Thumb's deli and bakery--a major competitor of Preizler.

According to Preizler, Shawel passed the names and addresses of his distributors along to Tom Thumb managers. Shawel says Preizler just didn't like the idea of kosher-certified rival in such close proximity to his store.

"He took away the bread and butter from a Jew and gave it to a gentile," Preizler says of the rabbi's decision to certify Tom Thumb.

"I am not an egomaniac or power hungry," Shawel says of his mission. "My position is to look out for Mr. Schwartz and Mrs. Goldberg, and the little girl who goes to the Jewish school."

Both men agree that an epic yelling match over a bucket of microwaveable french fries--which occurred shortly before Preizler kicked Vaad out--was not the central issue. But both men vividly remember the altercation, which, like keeping kosher, meant more symbolically than it might seem. Shawel had objected to the french fries because they were not approved kosher food. Preizler had pledged to remove them from the refrigerator and, the deli owner says, he had indeed moved them to a basket near the door so he could get credit from a distributor. Shawel says he was concerned that the offending item remained in the store after he had expressed his opinion about it.

"He wasn't really listening to my direction," Shawel says of Preizler. "Meanwhile I was working with Tom Thumb. I'd ask them to jump and they'd say, 'rabbi, how high?'"

Preizler's Deli has company in its status as formerly certified kosher establishment. Whole Foods Grocery at Beltline and Coit and Best Bagel Bakery on Arapaho have both lost Shawel's certification recently. Nathan Snyder, a shift manager at Whole Foods, says his store didn't see enough demand for kosher baked goods to warrant the hassle of keeping certification. A partner of Best Bagel confirmed that his operation had lost certification.

Just in case an unsuspecting kosher shopper walked into Best Bagel and reached for a challah bread, Shawel dispatched postcards last month to his members warning, "!!!Vaad Consumer Alert!!!" at the top and stating that the bakery had been dropped. Shawel says he took the store off his list after he discovered that a worker had taken a ham sandwich into the supervised baking kitchen. But the problems at Best Bagel were more endemic than one ham sandwich, Shawel says. A partner in the North Dallas baked goods wholesaler also owns an unsupervised restaurant, The Deli News, which is only two doors away. The proximity of the unsupervised food preparation presented a constant threat to the integrity of the kosher baked-goods store, the rabbi says.

At this point, any animosity between the rabbi and Best Bagel pales as compared to still-smoldering sentiments over the Preizler's battle.

Indeed, Shawel has even hinted that Best Bagel might possibly return to the fold. "Pending a possible relocation of their premises, supervision may be reinstated in the future," he wrote to his members last month.

The diminutive rabbi may not have the power to part the sea--as some businessmen fear he is starting to believe--but Shawel may prove he can do something nearly as formidable: get a bakery to move its kitchen.


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