I was hired as an RC in 1987. Rabbi Julius Berman, then chairman of the Kashrut Commission, interviewed me for the job. At the time, I was essentially the account representative for 100 OU companies.
Soon after I was hired, OU mashgiach Rabbi Chaim Goldzweig of Chicago flew to Hawaii to supervise a factory of the Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut company. He needed some information about an ingredient, so he called me. It was 12 am New York time, and I was the new guy on staff. I said to him, “Well, how do you expect me to know that?”
All of this information is available now through our highly advanced computerized system, and the job of mashgiach has therefore evolved quite a bit; a mashgiach can now simply look up any ingredient online. Back then, we communicated with mashgichim around the country via phone, and they would report back with handwritten notes. And we didn’t have mashgichim all over the world. To supervise one of our first international companies, we sent a rabbi from Brooklyn to Morocco!
We had one fax machine for the entire department. It printed on shiny paper, and if you didn’t copy down the information quickly, the writing would fade and become illegible. Accounting had an index card system for billing. If you couldn’t locate the card, you were in big trouble.
Now our entire operation is digital, and everything is stored in the cloud. In fact, when the OU moved into its new headquarters in downtown Manhattan this past May, we didn’t transfer any paper files. Our level of professionalism has also changed dramatically. An OU Kosher rabbinic coordinator is a professional, no different than a lawyer or an accountant.
The fact that we are so technologically advanced was extremely helpful during a very challenging time: the pandemic. Our whole program is based on mashgichim visiting facilities. We had to pivot and go entirely remote—within about a week. We never envisioned doing business this way, and it was no small miracle that we pulled it off. The challenge is diminished now, but not entirely. We supervise 500 facilities in China, and the country still isn’t functioning as it was before Covid.
It’s much easier nowadays to go kosher. It’s no longer a big drain on a company’s time or resources. Part of this is because we are totally transparent with our rules and processes. We have no secrets to keep, and we pride ourselves on that. Years ago, we also didn’t have the availability of kosher ingredients we have now. Back then, we needed the companies more than we need them today—because we wanted kosher food to be available. Today, we clarify our policy to a prospective client, and if they say, “We can’t do that,” we say, “Sorry, it won’t work.”
Unlike other food fads that have come and gone, kosher has remained popular. Which is why companies come to us. Many of us remember when the Oreo cookie became kosher back in 1997. Oreos were a prime example of a classically treif food item. Oreos going kosher proved that kosher had become mainstream.
Looking to the future, we have a few challenges in the kashrus field. Firstly, the food industry, like all industries, is dynamic. We don’t know how food will be made five years from now, twenty years from now or fifty years from now. We have to be on top of manufacturing processes.
Secondly, we have to hope the world will still want kosher food. The success of the OU is a miracle of sorts. Despite the fact that the Jewish population is relatively small, companies still come to us for supervision. We need to make sure it remains that way.
Thirdly, there’s the need to keep up with changing demands; the kosher consumer of the twenty-first century is entirely different from the kosher consumer of the twentieth century. When I was growing up, there were things that were kosher and things that were not—and we were okay with that. People’s needs were simpler. Nowadays, people don’t want to do without. In the early years, we felt the need to certify products because Jews might not keep kosher otherwise. Today, kosher consumers are more observant; they’re looking for a high standard of kashrus. And the observant community is also much larger than it once was. At the same time, kosher consumers want everything. There is a demand for foods to be kosher that we never imagined being kosher, and we have to keep up. Meeting the needs of kosher consumers is our goal.
Today, kosher consumers are more observant; they’re looking for a high standard of kashrus.
Rabbi Genack has done an incredible job leading the OU. He established the largest kosher agency in the world—probably in the history of the Jewish people. And alongside him, the lay leadership of the OU has been supportive of our programs. With every chairman [of the OU Kashrut Commission], the common denominator is how much I’ve learned from each of them.
In my view, the OU is very special. What makes it special? A few things: Rabbi Genack has assembled a rabbinic staff made up of sincere, intelligent talmidei chachamim who are professionals. What is also remarkably unique, particularly in the polarized world in which we live, is that every yeshivah is represented here at the OU. Our staff is a veritable United Nations, where rabbis from Yeshiva University to Satmar all work in great harmony for the same goal. To have such a staff is unheard of and is undoubtedly a major factor in our success.
Secondly, we are a nonprofit organization. Once expenses are covered, the funding goes back into the wonderful programs the OU administers to help Klal Yisrael. This helps us make the right decisions because the money isn’t going into anyone’s pocket. Financial decisions at OU Kosher are not based on financial gain.
Thirdly, I’m often asked how I define a strong kosher organization. My answer is: a strong kosher organization is one that can say no. If we get an application we’re not comfortable with, we don’t have a problem rejecting it. Similarly, if there’s a company we certify that we no longer feel deserves to be certified, we can walk away.
I’ve been very blessed spending my days here. It’s truly a berachah to be able to do something I enjoy while knowing that every day we are accomplishing something for the Jewish people.
Rachel Schwartzberg is a writer and editor, who lives with her family in Memphis, Tennessee.
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