Kashruth and Conscience

By Mandell I. Ganchrow, M.D.

In preparation for our 100th Anniversary in 1998, Saul Bernstein, a retired Executive Director of  the Orthodox Union and a long-time lay leader, is completing a beautiful history of the Orthodox Union.  In reading through his manuscript, what most impressed me is the amazing similarity between the challenges faced by our founders and those we encounter.  At the same time, when we take stock, we can measure tremendous strides made by the Orthodox community over the last century.

The history documents how the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, now known more commonly as the Orthodox Union, came to implement and develop its various services.  The development of the kashruth division is particularly interesting.

The Orthodox Union entered the kashruth world not for money, or glory — but to ameliorate the sad state of kashruth observance in the United States that existed several decades ago.  Hechsherim were random, chaotic and confusing, and the average kosher family had nowhere to turn for reliable information.  The Union eventually established the familiar OU symbol, representing a standard recognized as second to none.

Initially, there was no cost to the producer of certified foods.  But the overwhelming expenses of sending qualified personnel to supervise the products necessitated implementing fees in order to keep the service viable.  At no point, however, was there a profit motive that could lead to compromising our kashruth standards.  What started as a simple service, to ensure a few kosher products for a relatively small number of kosher consumers, has grown in recent years to an enormous enterprise, with well over 100,000 products now supervised by the OU and distributed worldwide.

Of course, we do not achieve this alone.  We have never tried, nor have had any desire to create a monopoly in kashruth certification.  Indeed, we have always worked with other responsible, private, national hashgachot and integrated their certified ingredients within our products.  The leaders of these hashgachot can often be found visiting the Orthodox Union headquarters, in conferences and for mutual assistance.

Because we care about the viability of the Orthodox community as a whole, we sometimes even take actions that adversely affect our finances.   For example, a large company recently told a local Vaad Hakashruth in the south that it intended to seek OU certification in order to create a national market for its product.  The Vaad approached us and explained that the loss of this company would endanger the continuation of its services.  Our commitment to community responsibility easily won over any desire for profit.  We immediately subcontracted the Vaad as our local supervisors and gave them all the funds from this company.  At times, we lose money on an established business, but we maintain the hashgachah because the local community depends upon it.

What happens to the fees we collect from food companies?

We feel it is important for the public to know what happens to monies earned by the OU from kashruth supervision.  It is important first because, as a community-based organization, we owe this information to the vast number of people who use the products we certify; secondly, we hope that our practices will serve as an inspiration, a lesson in community responsibility, to the Jewish world in general.

Fees paid to the OU first go to sustain the complex mechanism that ensures the kashruth standards to which we are deeply committed.  Heading the division is an outstanding talmudic scholar, Rabbi Menachem Genack.  Two renowned poskim, Rabbi Yisroel Belsky of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath and Rabbi Herschel Schachter, Rosh Kollel, Yeshiva University are our halachic consultants.  We currently have several hundred employees in our Kashruth Division, including administrators, rabbinic coordinators, chemists, data entry personnel, and on-site mashgichim who hail from every major yeshivah in the U.S. — talented people who are knowledgeable in sophisticated plant procedures, food technology and halachah — who are paid below what they deserve.   We have invested millions of dollars in developing a computer system that is on the cutting-edge of modern technology, tracking thousands of ingredients.  It is the largest data base of ingredients in the world.

Over the years, all remaining revenue, every single penny beyond expenses, has gone to Jewish outreach.  The golden standard we uphold is based on our long-standing conviction that a non-profit institution is obligated to use its funds to help its own community.  Kashruth must be synonymous with community responsibility, or else it becomes just another profit-motivated business.  Some examples of our kiruv projects include:

* National Conference of Synagogue Youth

Reaching 40,000 young men and women, NCSY brings the beauty of Jewish living and learning to non-Orthodox students throughout the United States.  A few weeks ago, I attended a “Yarchei Kallah” for public school students, who gave up a week of their midwinter vacations to study Torah in the warm, wholesome atmosphere of NCSY.   Tears come to my eyes as I write this, recalling the stories of these teenagers, all of whom must battle their environments to practice Torah observance.  Our deficit for this one event was over $16,000.00.  Numerous such events take place year round.  Without the support of the Kashruth Division, it is no exaggeration to say these programs would be severely impeded and could even, God forbid, come to a halt.

* Yachad, our program for the developmentally disabled.

The high ratio of advisors to Yachad’s 1000 members contributes to the heavy expenses of this program.  The Union has been successful not only in affording developmentally disabled youth the opportunity to participate in Jewish life, it has been successful in raising the consciousness of the community to this crucial need.

* Our Way for the Jewish Deaf is a nationwide program, affording both religious and non-religious hearing-impaired Jews a vital connection to our heritage.

* Israel Center in Jerusalem, provides a full array of outreach programs for Russian, Ethiopian and English speaking olim.  As the battle for the soul of Israel reaches a more and more fevered pitch, our outreach work there takes on critical importance.

* The Joseph K. Miller Center in Kharkov, Ukraine, is an outreach magnet to hundreds of Ukrainian Jews who have no access to Jewish life and culture.  Aided by Yeshivat Sha’alvim, we currently run a community center, a yeshivah high school, adult classes at all levels, Shabbat and holiday observances, a summer camp and numerous other programs that are literally saving scores of Jews from total assimilation.  Our success can also be measured in the high rate of aliyah among out Kharkov “graduates.”

Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt”l, attested that when one sees the OU emblem on a food product, it testifies not only to its kashruth, but to the vitality of the entire American Jewish community.

These are only some of the kiruv programs sponsored by Kashruth dollars.  We are proud that the funds provided by our Kashruth service are plowed back into the community and play a crucial role in helping thousands of people find their way back to our ancient and precious heritage.

But there is much work to be done to combat assimilation.  While the Kashruth contribution to these kiruv programs is substantial, it still does not meet this great need.  Were it not for the generous contributions of thousands of concerned Jews, these programs would never survive.  We can truly say that our programs must continue to grow, via Kashruth and private donations, until the 52% intermarriage rate in America is halted in its tracks.

A Solid Structure of Accountability

It is fitting for the kosher consumer to know also how the internal structure of the OU Kashruth Division operates, particularly in regard to halachic standards and finances.

Safeguards have been built into the system to separate the halachic concerns and financial issues.  Thus, a Rabbinic Board of the Rabbinical Council of America, composed of rabbis not employed by the OU and who in no way gain financially from its certifications, regularly meets to review applications and discuss halachic standards.

In addition to this independent Rabbinic Board, there is a lay board of senior Orthodox Union officers who volunteer their time to interact with staff and help decide non-halachic policy matters.  The three consecutive chairmen of this committee, Nat Gross, a”h, Julius Berman and Shimon Kwestel, have coordinated the Kashruth Division and helped it reach the high standards that the world today recognizes as our hallmark.

This system of checks and balances continues as the Kashruth Division is responsible to the President of the OU, who is responsible ultimately to the Board of Directors who serve as representatives of the broader Orthodox community.  Eventually, this accountability responds to you, the consumer.

Kashruth Lishmah”

We are ever mindful that the OU must never forsake its original purpose for the formation of the Kashruth Division — “Kashruth Lishmah,” kashruth for its own sake.  Our mission has always been, and will continue to be, to make kosher foods available to the public at no increased cost to you, the consumer.  We also keep before us the mandate to provide the highest level of kashruth possible, even if it means losing a client-company that won’t comply with our standards.

And because we have always striven to serve in the best interests of the Jewish community, the community has responded in kind, awarding us the highest honor it can bestow — its trust.  Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt”l, attested that when one sees the OU emblem on a food product, it testifies not only to its kashruth, but to the vitality of the entire American Jewish community.  As a non-profit kashruth organization we have erected twin “golden standards”: one for unquestionable kashruth supervision; the other, demonstrated by our history, that a morally responsible kashruth organization must respect and help the community from which it derives its strength.  These are standards which any community-based kashruth organization must attain if it is to be accepted by a wise and discerning Jewish public.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Spring 1996.