Rabbi Moshe Perlmutter

OU Rabbinic Field Representative Rabbi Moshe Perlmutter inspecting Allen Flavors Inc. in New Jersey. Photo: Meir Kruter

 

It’s 2:30 am on a summer Motzaei Shabbat and Rabbi Moshe Perlmutter’s work for the week is just beginning. He managed to find mashgichim to cover three catering jobs that Shabbat, but he will be on the road most of the week doing plant inspections throughout northern and central New Jersey. He says it’s tough to find mashgichim willing to supervise kitchens on Shabbat, and even harder to find people to work in food service since Covid hit.

Working at non-kosher venues, such as catering halls or hotels, Rabbi Perlmutter needs to be available at odd hours. Referring to the 2:30 am Motzaei Shabbat job, he says, “It was a lot of pressure because the hotel had an event until 11 pm Saturday, and the kitchen was not available beforehand.” The chefs in this case needed the ovens ready at     6 am Sunday to start cooking for guests arriving at 11 am. In situations such as this, he often starts right after Shabbat and pulls an all-nighter.

“The life of a mashgiach is not easy,” Rabbi Perlmutter admits. To hear him describe his job is reminiscent of a doctor on call. Known as OU Kosher’s “kosherization expert,” Rabbi Perlmutter has been an RFR for the OU for about thirty years, overseeing catering jobs, conducting inspections, and kosherizing factories and food facilities; his areas of expertise include chemicals and flavorings, bottling, and oil companies. Additionally, he is often involved in educating future and current mashgichim at OU seminars on topics ranging from “Kosherization 101” to “Industrial Kashering and Equipment.”

Rabbi Perlmutter’s assignments often entail hours of driving; he used to sleep at roadside hotels for an entire week until the job was completed. Six times a year he goes to the Connecticut and Massachusetts border from his home in Passaic, where he has lived for the past thirty-five years; to beat traffic, he leaves at 5 am. Last month, during a bad rainstorm, it took three and a half hours for him to get home. “When I arrive at a plant, I don’t need coffee; I have a mobile office with everything in my car.”   

The intricate process involved in kosherizing a plant and getting a product labeled with the OU certification mark requires not only skill and patience but an unparalleled dedication and commitment. Most of Rabbi Perlmutter’s jobs nowadays are local, but when he worked with spray dryers (expensive equipment used to convert liquid solutions into powder) for a certain flavor factory, he stayed for a week every month to kasher the dryer and supervise the production. Heading out there on Sunday night, he stayed until the first shift Friday to make it home for Shabbat. “I just went round the clock for three shifts a day in the quaint town of New Milford, Connecticut,” he says. “I would go back and forth throughout the day, sleeping only a few hours, and I wouldn’t see my family for a week every month.”

Although Rabbi Perlmutter received extensive “on the job training” when he first joined the OU, he credits his OU mentor, Senior RC Rabbi Avraham Juravel, for being his rebbi in kashering. But Rabbi Perlmutter, who grew up in Brooklyn and Long Island, notes that being a former plumber as well as being mechanically inclined have proven to be invaluable assets as a mashgiach. His in-depth understanding of complex piping systems makes him uniquely suited for his career and gives him a serious advantage when visiting plants.

When you’re a mashgiach in the field, you are an ambassador for the OU and for the Orthodox world.

“The handier you are, the more you look at things differently,” says Rabbi Perlmutter. “When I walk into a factory, I’m fascinated by its workings, and I understand things beneath the surface. Sometimes the manager forgets to mention something, such as whether a tank was heated or cooled or used at ambient temperature, and I need to recognize it on my own. Also, the ability to use a blowtorch safely is essential. As food technology advances, kashering gets more complicated. The equipment that is used to simplify food production can sometimes make it more challenging for the world of kosher supervision. Moreover, the technology is always changing. People assume a mashgiach is a rabbi, without any particular expertise, sitting in a restaurant. But it’s a far cry from that.”

Rabbi Perlmutter recalls the first day he walked into a factory and noticed a pareve margarine line that was connected to a dairy line in three different places, which could lead to cross-contamination. “A mashgiach needs to know basic piping; there could be miles of pipes one needs to follow to trace where it’s all going,” he says.

Rabbi Perlmutter visits one factory that produces both kosher and non-kosher jams. Nearly every week, the factory requires kashering as it switches back and forth. He gets up 4 am and arrives at the plant at 5 am to kasher early enough for them to start their run. He kashers three sets of tanks as well as the fillers (the equipment that fills the food products into their containers). “You have to kasher everything from the beginning of the process, from the path of the first ingredient, to all the equipment it touched,” he says.

At the OU’s annual ASK (Advanced Seminars in Kashrus) OU Summer Kashrus Training Program—an intensive, three-week internship program—and a second, weeklong educational program for those interested in gaining an in-depth, expert-level understanding of kashrut, Rabbi Perlmutter gives a tour of a local factory, where he demonstrates kashering on the industrial level. He always stresses that “someone can know all the halachot of kashrut, but if you can’t discern that there’s a non-kosher tank or steam pipe going right into the system, you are likely to miss crucial things.” Additionally, he speaks at OU Kosher mashgichim conferences, at AKO (the Association of Kashrus Organizations) and to diverse audiences, from YU semichah students to members of the Satmar Kollel in Monroe, New York, at OU Kosher educational seminars held year round.

Rabbi Perlmutter once did an initial inspection at a fatty-acid plant outside Boston, which used treif animal fat, as the company wanted to produce a kosher line in addition to its non-kosher line. The challenge was navigating four floors with close to 100 tanks. “It was a maze of miles of pipes,” says Rabbi Perlmutter. He spent three days there, ensuring that all the pipes were segregated. “The piping was very complicated. I found three places that their engineer missed.”

“The best mashgichim are the plumber types, you know, the kind of guy who installs his own baseboard heating when the heating in his home breaks down,” says Rabbi Yitzchok Gutterman, an OU RC. “That’s because you need someone who understands how the systems work,” he says.

Rabbi Perlmutter’s most exotic visit was to a factory in Iceland, where he oversaw a herring run. But while the field can have its share of excitement, there are also significant occupational hazards. He once arrived at a factory and set out to boil water for the purpose of kashering the equipment. Despite his years of experience in kashering, the water shot up like a geyser and he suffered burns on 11 percent of his body, scalding his back, neck and arms. “I’m okay now,” he says. Subsequently, he delivered dozens of seminars on safety during kashering for the OU.

But this story attests to a little-discussed truth: the extraordinary mesirut nefesh that mashgichim must have while traversing the globe to ensure kosher food is available and accessible.

Another quality essential for a field mashgiach is an ability to interface with plant employees. Rabbi Perlmutter’s friendly, genial nature enables him to create cordial relationships with plant managers and personnel. He admits that plant personnel often confide in him since they view him as a spiritual leader. “They’ll tell me things like, ‘My mother is sick.’” Especially during Covid, when people were dying unexpectedly, employees at the factories sought him out for comfort and advice.

But Rabbi Perlmutter doesn’t mind. He knows that a mashgiach’s role demands far more than just expertise in using a blowtorch. “When you’re a mashgiach in the field, you are an ambassador for the OU and for the Orthodox world.”

 

Sara Trappler Spielman is a freelance writer living in Florida.

 

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This article was featured in the Winter 2022 issue of Jewish Action.
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