UOS appoints ombud, saying it has ‘nothing to hide’

  • Zhukovka kosher chef
The Union of Orthodox Synagogues (UOS) has appointed an ombudsman to tackle complaints and issues raised following the recent public outcry over kosher food prices and kashrut fees.
by NICOLA MILTZ | Oct 22, 2020

Kenny Rabson, the chief executive of Discovery Invest & Employee Benefits, who is also a member of the UOS board, has been appointed ombudsman to handle what appears to be festering discontent among a number of its clients and members of the public.

Rabson’s task will be to address and resolve issues and complaints specific to the manufacturing food space and kosher certification, with added attention given to smaller manufacturers to ensure that they are treated fairly.

At the time of going to print, the full terms of reference were still being drafted, but Rabson said he would be fulfilling the role of an ombudsman to ensure that issues raised were dealt with speedily, reasonably, respectfully, and with the utmost fairness.

The UOS board called an urgent virtual meeting last Sunday morning following a string of attacks and complaints online and in the media from aggrieved and dissatisfied consumers, manufacturers, and other industry players.

The complaints focused mainly on the kashrut department, the high cost of kosher food, as well as the increased kashrut fees levied to manufacturers. Disgruntled callers to ChaiFM accused the kashrut department and the UOS under which it falls of alleged underhandedness, greed, and a lack of transparency. They went as far as far as accusing it of not acting in the best interests of the community.

The furore was sparked following the Beth Din’s recent removal of a company’s kashrut licence, accusing it of a contractual breach following ongoing non-compliance. The owner of Honeyfields, George Georghiou, accused the kashrut department of “holding him to ransom” for refusing to pay increased fees for kosher certification.

In a bid to stem the tide of complaints, the UOS has appointed Rabson to act as the link between the kashrut department and its clients.

In an interview with the SA Jewish Report shortly before going to print, Rabson said, “The ombudsman will address the impasse between the kashrut department and the client looking for a hechsher.

“The reality is there are people out there who are unhappy as providers of products, and we need to make sure they are happy and that we resolve the issues. We have to look at strengthening governance and doing a better job for our clients because it’s in our interests to have as many kosher products available.”

He said his role was to make sure that anyone with an issue with the kosher department is dealt with fairly and efficiently to achieve an outcome that’s good for everybody.

He added: “We will consider bringing in other experts on a case by case basis. The terms of reference will allow us to call on independent people for advice where required.”

“The UOS takes these complaints seriously. It’s an organisation that is there to serve South African Jewry, and it has a crucial role to play. There were a multitude of issues raised, and we will be working through them,” Rabson said.

Rabson stressed that the UOS was a non-profit organisation that didn’t turn to the community to raise funds. “Some years we made losses, some years we made small profits. This next year we will almost definitely make a loss because of COVID-19,” he said.

He insisted that contrary to popular belief and numerous allegations, the kosher department wasn’t run as a profit-making concern, and any potential profit from the department wasn’t used to fund projects of the office of the chief rabbi such as the Shabbos Project or Sinai Indaba.

“We aren’t there to lose money, but also not there to make a profit. We’re there to render a service to the Jewish community and provide a necessary Jewish infrastructure in South Africa.”

“The Sinai Indaba has a separate trust account, and the chief rabbi raises his own money to run his projects,” he said, “No money goes from kashrut to pay for any of that.”

Rabson insisted that the pricing model wasn’t “haphazard”, saying it was an objectively worked out algorithm, but he agreed there were areas that could be refined, especially for smaller businesses.

He said all questions and concerns raised would be answered and published within the next two weeks. “People will get to see how this organisation is run. The UOS has nothing to hide. We’re not going to walk away from any challenges.”

However, he said the UOS board wouldn’t openly discuss individual clients, and wouldn’t put salaries out in the public domain. “We won’t disclose who earns what, it’s not appropriate or dignified.

“Contrary to the allegations, there is a huge amount of governance at the UOS, starting with a board whose members are all experienced in corporate governance. The ombudsman will add an extra level of governance to make sure that clients and consumers are dealt with fairly and are satisfied at the end of the day.

“I’m very proud to be part of this organisation and to take this on. I believe we will come out of this stronger, and everyone will benefit. Each member of the board believes strongly in doing their best in the interests of the community. We need to strive continually to make sure we are highly regarded by our clients and the community.”

The board includes: Harold Novick (chairperson) chief executive of Golden Catering Supplies; Benjy Porter, chief executive Legal&Tax Services; Steven Isaacson, chief executive Kevro; Kenny Rabson; Brad Sifris, chief executive Altrack; Tony Ellis, attorney at AM Ellis Attorneys; Saul Sackstein, director National Flag; Lawrence Brick, director NetFlorist; Adrian Chiger, owner Vusani Property Investments; and Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein.

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