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, the largest and most widely recognized certifying agency. We hope to focus on Rabbi Berel Wein and Rabbi Yacov Lipschutz in a future issue. The article below is adapted from a profile that appeared in the spring 1998 edition of Jewish Action.
Business in the Orthodox Union Kosher Division is booming. The phones are ringing off the hook and e-mails are piling up, as each day brings in more and more applications for OU certification.
Our multimillion-dollar computer system is in place, and the programmers are entering the kashrut status of thousands of ingredients. Hundreds of mashgichim are out inspecting manufacturing plants located in countries all over the world. The ubiquitous OU symbol can be found on thousands of products almost anywhere one travels. Many of the largest and best-known brands—Nabisco, General Mills, Nestle, Hershey’s, M&M and Coca-Cola, to name a few—are tied to the OU symbol.
How did all this come about? It can safely be said that one man, with unique ability, dedication and persistence, consumed with a sense of mission, played the leading role in the development of kashrut certification, first in America and then throughout the world. That man was Nathan K. Gross, z”l.
Nat was born in Brooklyn on June 16, 1911. His father was American-born and his mother came to the US as a small child. Nat was college educated and had a law degree. He played a significant role in a wide range of communal activities. For example, he served for many years as the president of Congregation Ohab Zedek in Manhattan and was deeply involved in supporting Beis Avrohom, the Slonimer Yeshivah in Israel. He was also very close to the Slonimer Rebbe. But the crowning achievement of his communal labors was unquestionably his critical contribution to establishing kashrut supervision in America on a solid basis during the years between 1950 and 1984, when he served as chairman of the OU’s Kashruth Commission.
The name Nathan K. Gross is inextricably linked for all time with the growth of kashrut certification. Nat—or, as he was popularly referred to, “Mr. Kashrut”—was a legend in his time.
And yet, the shidduch between Nat and kashrut was odd, to say the least. It surely does not appear, at least on the surface, to have been a match made in heaven. For all his wisdom, Nat had little formal religious education. The sophisticated and detailed intricacies of the laws of kashrut were not part of his academic upbringing. Nor, for that matter, did any phase of his education, either formal or informal, touch on the increasingly complicated field of food technology.
Moreover, the protracted contract negotiations with prospective companies applying for certification, as well as the constant soothing of egos that was required in his position as chairman of the OU’s Joint Kashruth Commission for so many years, seemed to contradict his activist personality.
But when we delve beneath the surface, it becomes evident that Nat’s unique talents, combined with his understanding of the special needs of kashrut certification, were the perfect fit to meet the challenges facing the American Jewish community in the mid-twentieth century.
To appreciate this apparent anomaly, we have to travel back to the ‘40s and ‘50s and take an honest look at the status of kashrut in America at that time.
There was virtually no kashrut supervision, and even when there was, anarchy often prevailed. The certification process was in large part—but, fortunately, not entirely—in the hands of individuals who were less than models of knowledge, commitment or integrity. One need not be an expert in the laws of kashrut to sense the cynicism concerning kashrut certification in both the manufacturing and consumer areas that were all too prevalent in the kosher food market.
Nat accepted the challenge and made it his task to bring order and integrity to the process. With his characteristic clarity of vision, he recognized the enormous impact the availability of kosher products could have on an emerging Orthodox Jewish community.
On a personal basis, Nat concluded that kashrut was the perfect vehicle through which he could express his love of his people and his religion along with his vision of a dynamic age of Jewish communal ascendency in America.
To this task, Nat brought his very considerable gifts of energy, integrity, patience and the rare quality of diplomacy. It was as a diplomat that he was at his best. It was a joy to sit back and watch him apply this G-d-given talent—an art that he had developed over the years—to the personalities on all sides of the table. Whether it was the rabbinical personage who held one view, the manufacturing representatives sitting across from him or the manufacturing plant manager who approached the negotiating table with trepidation and concern that some black-frocked, bearded rabbi quoting ancient, foreign tomes was going to hamstring his plant routine and make life unbearable, Nat was equipped for the challenge. His style was unique: more compromise than confrontation but always bearing in mind the goal he wished to achieve.
When the subject was a halachic matter, he was stolidly unyielding, impacted in large part by his awe of Torah learning. But at the same time, he had an almost radar-like instinct for knowing when to defer to rabbinical authority and when to separate politics and administration from the spiritual.
Nat Gross, in his own way, was a gadol hador. His work left a lasting impression on Jewish communal life, and the community will remain forever in his debt.
“Nathan Gross was the chair of the OU’s Kashruth Commission for many years. He was an astute businessman of deep integrity who refused to allow the OU’s decisions to be tainted by financial considerations. When I came to the OU, he was the elder statesman who guided us, and his advice was always on target. Everyone who met him immediately saw his great dignity; he was the consummate gentleman. At the time I took on the position of rabbinic administrator of the OU Kosher Division, our most significant company was Procter & Gamble. Each year, we would meet with Marshall Pollock, an executive at Procter & Gamble, to negotiate our contract for the coming year. I could see how highly Marsh regarded Nat—his dignity and intelligence shone through. He was the essential piece in this partnership and in many others the OU developed. The growth of the OU over the last decades would not have been possible without Nat Gross’s leadership.”
—Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO, OU Kosher
Rabbi Julius Berman is a former president of the OU and a former chairman of the OU Kashruth Commission.