With 2023 marking 100 years of OU Kosher, throughout the year, Jewish Action will profile personalities who played a seminal role in building OU Kosher
Like any rabbi with thorough semichah training, Rabbi Berel Wein, a Chicago-born musmach of Hebrew Theological College (better known as “Skokie Yeshiva”), studied the required fundamentals of the laws of kashrut, particularly the Shulchan Aruch’s rulings on basar b’chalav (meat and milk). But he had no particular interest in working full time in the kashrut field.
In 1972, when he came from a pulpit position in Miami to New York City, becoming the OU’s executive vice president, he had no idea what the future would hold. Within months, Rabbi Alexander Rosenberg, the legendary rabbinic administrator of the OU’s Kosher Division, passed away. “Suddenly,” without warning, says Rabbi Wein.
Descending from a line of distinguished Hungarian rabbis, Rabbi Rosenberg, with his meticulous and uncompromising image, had modernized and shaped the Division for twenty-two years and was considered irreplaceable.
The OU and the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) turned to Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik and asked for advice as to who would be the best candidate to assume Rabbi Rosenberg’s position, recalls Rabbi Julius Berman, a former OU president and longtime OU lay leader who was a close talmid of the Rav. The Rav agreed that Rabbi Wein should take over the reins of the Kosher Division, which had an office staff of three people at the time. A lay leader of the OU told Rabbi Wein that if he took on the leadership of the kashrut arm of the agency, he “would save the OU,” remembers Rabbi Wein.
‘There was no uniformity and there were many certifications that were questionable. The challenge was to set the standard.’ Which the OU ultimately did.
Rabbi Wein agreed and served as rabbinic administrator of the OU’s Kosher Division until 1977. “I knew I would do a good job,” says the rabbi, who had a law degree (from DePaul University) and legal experience that he would put to good use as a kashrut administrator. His previous experience as a mashgiach at hotels and at OU-supervised food producers in Miami also came in use, he says; he knew a kosher supervisor’s job from a micro-level, on-the-ground perspective—in addition to the education he had received from Rabbi Rosenberg. Rabbi Wein had worked closely with Rabbi Rosenberg, who taught by example what being the head of a major Jewish organization’s kashrut division entailed. He learned from Rabbi Rosenberg the political, practical and not-so-glamorous aspects of the job. One piece of advice from Rabbi Rosenberg made a deep impression on Rabbi Wein, recalls Rabbi Menachem Genack. A dispute had arisen about a certain matter, and Rabbi Rosenberg resolved it with the words, “Ober vos vil G-t—but what does God want?”
Working “24/7” in his new OU role, Rabbi Wein handled various negotiations, dealt with the RCA as well as the mashgichim at the OU, traveled quite a bit and was responsible for myriad other duties—in short, he did everything that OU Kosher’s now-much-larger staff does. “He was the best man for the job,” says Rabbi Berman, “because of his personality and because he’s brilliant.” Plus he had a legal background. Rabbi Genack concurs with this assessment. “Rabbi Wein is well-known as a highly popular historian and rabbi, but less known is the fact that for a few years he made use of those same significant skills and talents to oversee the OU’s kashrut enterprises.”
Recalling the difficulties of those years, Rabbi Wein says, “The challenge was to create an orderly, efficient and corruption-free organization in a field that still was chaotic and a little wild west. Everybody was on their own, forming their own kashrut organizations; there was no uniformity and there were many certifications that were questionable. The challenge was to set the standard.” Which the OU ultimately did.
Rabbi Wein is best known now for establishing Congregation Bais Torah and Yeshiva Shaarei Torah in New York State’s Rockland County, for his subsequent series of popular books on Jewish history and as founder of the educational Destiny Foundation. But the rabbi, who made aliyah in 1997, says his biggest accomplishment during his five-year tenure at the helm of the Kosher Division was putting the OU “into the meat industry.” The owners of two meat-packing houses, whose kosher products were under the supervision of other kashrut agencies, approached the OU with an interest in switching to OU supervision, explains Rabbi Wein. He handled negotiations with the two businesses and with OU leaders, some of whom were reluctant to add the meat industry—kosher slaughter and the other halachic requirements of kosher meat are much more complicated than those of dairy or pareve products—to the OU’s kashrut supervision responsibilities. The rabbi’s negotiations were ultimately successful.
Since leaving the OU, Rabbi Wein has maintained his interest in kashrut, frequently giving public lectures and classes on the spiritual significance of keeping kosher. “The consumption of only kosher food has been one of the main contributors to the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people over the ages,” he wrote in an essay two years ago on the yeshiva.co website. “It has given us a deep realization that being a Jew relates also to the body and internal organs of a person, and not only the cerebral notion of religion that many people have.
“Difficulties in maintaining proper standards in kosher food and the abandonment by many secular Jews of the entire concept of kosher food,” continued the rabbi, “have inevitably contributed to the rates of assimilation and intermarriage of their succeeding generations. One of the great blessings of our modern time is the abundance of all types of kosher food.”
Rabbi Wein’s kashrut work at the OU helped make kosher observance more extensive, says Rabbi Moshe Elefant, COO of OU Kosher. “The world of kashrut when he came [to his new position] was very different from the world of kashrut today.”
“When Rabbi Wein served as the rabbinic head of OU Kosher,” Rabbi Elefant says, “the world didn’t realize how important kashrus was.” With his skill set, “he was instrumental in making kosher [food] accessible to many people.”
Steve Lipman is a frequent contributor to Jewish Action. Special thanks to Toby Klein Greenwald for helping to prepare this article for publication.