A proud moment: When WJW refused to duck


A few months after John Kennedy was inaugurated as president, I came to Washington to be a law clerk for a Supreme Court justice. I furnished sparsely a bachelor apartment on Capitol Hill, within walking distance of Rabbi Simon Burnstein’s Southeast Hebrew Congregation, a shul that could barely scrape together a minyan on Shabbat. Eager to learn what Jewish Washington was like and where I could find kosher provisions, I promptly bought a copy of Washington’s Jewish weekly. Its ads were then more important to me than its local news.

They located for me Silbert’s Kosher Supermarket and Delicatessen and the New Yorker Bakery. (I was the only law clerk of Justice John Harlan’s who ever got along with his crotchety secretary because she confessed to me that she missed the special “Jewish cake” she had been buying from a kosher bakery on the East Side of Manhattan before moving to Washington. I would, each month, give her a fresh seven-layer cake that I bought for 45 cents from the New Yorker Bakery.) Before long, I subscribed to the paper and have been a reader of WJW ever since.

A clipping from the April 18-24, 1974, issue of the Jewish Week and American Examiner stands framed in my home. I am pictured, beardless but with bushy black sideburns and narrow rectangular glasses, in a feature written by the paper’s local reporter. He graciously describes me as “well-known as a defender of civil rights and civil liberties.” No wonder I’ve always been partial to the paper through its succession of owners.

I should add, in the interest of full disclosure, that my wife Rikki wrote a gossip column for the Washington Jewish Week in the ‘70s and was a photo editor in the ‘80s. My daughter Na’ama both wrote and took photos for the paper after my wife stopped working there. Only once – when I wanted to answer in WJW a New York Times op-ed castigating Sholom Rubashkin and was told by the editor that WJW’s policy was not to permit its pages to be used to answer opinion pieces written in other papers – did WJW refuse to print my prose. [Editor’s note: This is still WJW’s policy.]


I loved the paper most when it was most hated by the Orthodox establishment. In 1989, the paper was owned by Leonard Kapiloff, who had made his fortune in Washington real-estate and who is remembered on Wikipedia only as a renowned philatelist. He and his younger brother also purchased Montgomery County newspapers as a hobby, and in 1983, Kapiloff bought WJW from the Hochstein family.

Leonard Kapiloff encouraged staff and reporters on his suburban newspapers to investigate. While he owned it, the Montgomery Sentinel discovered facts and published stories that ultimately resulted in a Supreme Court ruling freeing the Giles brothers, African-Americans who had been unjustly sentenced to death for allegedly raping a white teenager.

A Chinese-style kosher restaurant opened in Washington in September 1988. The Rabbinical Council of Washington (the Vaad) gave its hechsher and installed Michael Mayer as the restaurant’s mashgiach. One morning Mayer discovered a surprisingly large number of ducks hanging in the restaurant’s freezer. Kosher duck was, at the time, in short supply, and its cost was significantly higher than the treif variety. Mayer also found in the restaurant’s office several receipts from a nonkosher Chinese meat supplier. Mayer then calculated that much more duck had been provided to the restaurant’s customers than had been purchased from kosher suppliers. When he reported his findings to the Vaad, the restaurant was shut down for a week.

It reopened with no public acknowledgment of the reason for its temporary closure. In its issue of Sept. 14, 1989, WJW blew the story wide open. A detailed account headlined “Food fraud or frame-up” reported that the Vaad had rekashered the restaurant’s kitchen, and, at the same time, fired Mayer and was investigating “allegations of kashrut violations.”

The Vaad’s rabbis were furious. A New York Times reporter described the community’s anger over the revelations in WJW: “The community paper was given tongue-lashings in local synagogues. Hundreds of people canceled their subscriptions. Local businesses muttered about pulling their advertising.” Referring malapropically to the Washington Post’s historic Watergate disclosures, a leading member of the Vaad said of WJW: “They think they’re Woodward & Lothrop.”

Leonard Kapiloff was undaunted. Over the following year, he authorized many stories and letters in the WJW covering what one magazine called “The Case of the Smoking Duck.” WJW’s coverage was even-handed. In July 1990, after the restaurant was sold by its Chinese owner, WJW published accounts provided to it by both sides.

The Hebrew Academy of Greater Washington had decided, before the controversy erupted, to honor Leonard Kapiloff at its annual dinner that year, and I had agreed to introduce the guest of honor.

The rabbis boycotted the dinner, and attendance hit an all-time low. But I was particularly proud to be a participant in giving tribute to what I believe was one of Washington Jewish Week’s proudest moments.

Nathan Lewin is a Washington lawyer who was president of the Greater Washington Jewish Community Relations Council from 1982-1984.

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