Accused caterer files defamation suit against synagogue after it gives him the boot; meanwhile, Nassau County investigates fraud charges.
In the latest wrinkle involving Morrell Caterers, the Long Island kosher caterer accused of violating kosher laws, Morrell filed a $10 million defamation suit against the rabbi of the Conservative synagogue in which it operates after the rabbi recommended terminating its contract because of a “loss of trust in Mr. Morrell’s integrity.”
In a Feb. 17 letter to the congregation’s president, Rabbi Raphael Adler, spiritual leader of the Woodbury Jewish Center, wrote that he realized the allegations were unproven and that an outside organization provides glatt kosher supervision at his synagogue.
“Nevertheless,” he wrote, “the severity of these charges has created a crisis point where my congregation and I have become the objects of ridicule and scorn through actions not of our making. In the greater community, the distinction between the Woodbury Jewish Center and a separately supervised caterer are muddled and confused to the point where wrongdoing is seen as a reflection on both the congregation and me. This is an intolerable violation of halachic [Jewish law] principles.”
The rabbi’s concerns stemmed from charges leveled in a lawsuit last month against Morrell by Morrell’s former general manager, Tom Cataldo, and his former executive chef, Michael Savitsky. They alleged that Scott Morrell, the principal co-owner of the business, ordered them to prepare non-kosher food for outside parties in the kosher kitchen of Temple Beth Torah, a Reform congregation in Melville, L.I., and one of two other synagogues in which Morrell is the exclusive caterer. The other synagogue is Temple Israel in Lawrence, L.I., which is also Reform.
In addition to the kosher law violations, the two men alleged that Scott Morrell withheld wages and tips to per diem workers and substituted substandard liquor for the superior liquor clients had paid for. The rabbi said the accusation that Morrell had knowingly violated kosher laws “impugns his integrity and my congregation’s reputation. I call for the end of [Morrell] Caterers in our building. We must repair the damage to our ‘shem tov’ (good name). Replacing him with a kosher caterer of unquestioned and impeccable integrity will inspire the confidence sorely needed.”
The congregation’s president, Cynthia Matte, informed the congregation of the rabbi’s opinion in an e-mail and wrote: “Morrell may no longer cater events at the Woodbury Jewish Center.” The congregation’s lawyers then served Morrell with a termination notice and directed it to vacate the premises by March 5.
Morrell’s lawyers then sued Rabbi Adler, Matte and the congregation for defamation and obtained a temporary restraining order preventing the synagogue from enforcing its termination notice and interfering with Morrell’s business operations pending a March 15 hearing. In the meantime, State Supreme Court Justice Vito DeStefano ordered Morrell to post a $75,000 bond.
Ronald Rosenberg, one of Morrell’s lawyers, said his client is challenging the congregation’s actions because Morrell’s contract at the Woodbury Jewish Center runs through 2029 and there is “no provision for termination.”
In addition, Rosenberg said there are “no allegations that anything was done with regard to [Morrell’s] glatt kosher” business at the Woodbury. He pointed out that the establishment is under the kosher supervision of the Vaad HaKashruth of Flatbush, which holds the keys to the kitchen.
In a related development, Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice has requested that a special prosecutor be appointed to handle the fraud allegations made against Morrell Caterers by its two former employees. A spokesman for Rice said that because of her working relationship with attorneys on both sides of the case, she was making the request “out of an abundance of caution to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest.”
Meanwhile, Randy Zomberg, president of Temple Beth Torah, said that in light of accusations that his congregation’s kosher kitchen was used for the preparation of shrimp, pork and other non-kosher food, Morrell hired an Orthodox mashgiach or kosher supervisor, Rabbi Shoteil Lebovic, who kashered the kitchen Feb. 21. In addition, Zomberg said security cameras were this week installed in the kitchen.
The president of Temple Israel in Lawrence, Jim Rotenberg, said he received about 35 calls from primarily non-members who have parties booked with Morrell at his synagogue and question whether Scott Morrell “will be here for them.”
“I tell them categorically that we have no problem with Scott,” he said. “He has been meeting all his financial obligations with respect to the temple, and he just delivered to us a fairly sizeable check in payment of the 2011 utility surcharge. He pays us on time each month. He has been our exclusive caterer for at least five or six years … [and] he has always been terrific to us.”
Rotenberg pointed out that Morrell does both kosher and glatt kosher parties at his synagogue and that there are no plans to change.
“Glatt kosher events are more expensive and there are plenty of people who do not want to pay the difference,” he said. “Almost all of those who called in recent days have upcoming glatt kosher affairs and the Vaad [HaKashruth of Flatbush] stands behind those events. Those who have non-glatt parties don’t seem to be bothered by the [fraud] claims.”
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