OU’s First Advanced Kashrut Seminar for Women:  Food for Thought on the Intricacies of Kosher

September 3, 2009

As millions of students of all ages were enjoying their last days of summer freedom before heading back to school, the Orthodox Union got a jump on the academic year by kicking off its weeklong Advanced Kashrut Seminar for Women, the OU’s first-ever course for women. Twenty-five women participated in the program.

Sessions included: Keeping Your Kosher Kitchen Kosher; Identifying Kosher Birds; Kosher Wine and Grape Juice Production; and OU Kosher Marketing, among many others; while field trips included outings to Dougies Brooklyn, a restaurant, and the enormous catering kitchen at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Manhattan.

Among the women who not only willingly, but excitedly signed up to return to “school,” were two doctors – a clinical psychologist from Brooklyn and an MD who recently married a rabbi and returned to her native Australia immediately following the program. In addition, several school teachers; a trained chef; two graduate students in different programs at a prestigious university; several baalot teshuva (returnees to the faith); a food scientist; and even OU Kosher staff member, Ziporah Thee, who took a week’s vacation from work so she could attend this seminar.

The women unanimously agreed that the seminar, encompassing an amazing breadth of information, was a week of informative classes, interesting field trips, and dynamic teachers willing to answer any question, no matter how seemingly insignificant.

Rabbi Yosef Grossman, the OU’s Director of Kosher Education and the coordinator of the seminar, declared, “It was most gratifying to be able to be coordinate the first Advanced Kashrut Seminar for Women on behalf of the OU. Our participants ranged from near and far; from Edmonton, Canada, to Efrat, Israel, to Melbourne, Australia. They represented a broad spectrum of Orthodoxy, from modern orthodoxy to Satmar. We at the OU take great pleasure in the fact that we were able to offer an advanced, in-depth course which met the diverse kosher educational needs of our participants.”

Rabbi Steven Weil, Executive Vice President of the OU, stated in his greetings to the women on behalf of the OU staff, “At the Orthodox Union, what we do is kashrut for the sake of kashrut, providing the highest standard without the profit motive.” Rabbi Weil noted that the revenues of OU Kosher go to fund a large variety of programs worldwide, such as NCSY, the OU’s international youth organization; the Job Board; Synagogue and Community Services; educational services; the Jewish Life on Campus Initiative (JLIC); and Yachad/Our Way, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, Chief Executive Officer of OU Kosher, stated, “OU Kosher is constantly expanding its horizons in terms of the educational programs it offers to the community. The Advanced Kashrut Program for women satisfied a very real need and attracted a wide variety of participants. I commend Rabbi Grossman and the kashrut staff for their continuing and extraordinary efforts and look forward to the OU’s future efforts in the field of kosher education.”

Among the sessions was Rabbi Chaim Loike’s class on “Identifying Kosher Birds.” Rabbi Loike, an OU rabbinic coordinator and the organization’s resident “bird expert,” spoke about how to identify kosher and non-kosher birds; controversies in the world of certifying kosher birds; and touched upon his experiences studying the anatomy of different birds in the archives of the Museum of Natural History.

Phyllis Koegel, the OU’s New Business and Development/Marketing Associate, spoke to the women about traveling around the world to promote OU kosher certification companies, a job she called alternatively “glamorous and tough work.” And, despite her job traveling to cities throughout the United States and even to China to meet with industry executives, Ms. Koegel said it was the women at the seminar who were more challenging. “The women participating in the OU kashrut seminar are all extremely well-learned and took this course very seriously,” she commented. “The extent of their knowledge, made evident by their penetrating questions and incisive comments, impressed me a great deal.”

Rabbi Dov Schreier, OU rabbinic coordinator, led the women on several field trips to various sites, including the restaurant Dougies Brooklyn, where he spoke on “Going Out to Eat – What Could Be the Problem?” Among the things covered during the class was a review of a fictitious catering menu riddled with errors for a Shabbat simcha, in which Rabbi Schreier asked the women to identify the mistakes inserted on purpose. Within each meal, the women had no problem calling out potential problems, such as making sure the lettuce was pre-washed; the strawberries were checked for bugs; and catching a fish dish that was to be served at the same time as a meat dish. Rabbi Schreier stated, “Having been involved in almost all the ASK OU seminars in the last decade, I was greatly impressed with the women’s level of knowledge, enthusiasm and with the wide range of society from which they come. These women truly enhanced the quality of our OU Kosher educational programs.”

At the conclusion of the course, the women received certificates of completion for the weeklong seminar, but it was only a small, tangible item symbolizing a lot more: a week of new connections and friendships among women all passionate about kosher food and the laws surrounding it; a week of new discoveries and lessons learned; and a week of Jewish enrichment that is sure to become a regular offering.

Esther Rabinowitz, a clinical psychologist of Brooklyn, NY, said she first became aware of this course from a newspaper ad. “Since I have a scientific background in psychology, I wanted to enhance my knowledge in another science – that of kashrut,” explained Dr. Rabinowitz. “Additionally, my son is very learned and works in the food industry, and we frequently have intricate discussions about certain food issues. When I told him I was considering participating in this course, he thought it was a great idea and urged me to take it. And it really was a terrific experience.”

Tamara Rice, of Washington Heights, NY, was told of the program by her husband, a rabbinical student at Yeshiva University, who this year will coincidentally be studying kashrut with Rav Herschel Schachter, Rosh Kollel at YU and OU Kosher halachic consultant. Rav Schachter delivered a shiur (class) on “Halachos (Jewish laws) of Kashrut,” to the women before moderating an “Ask the Rabbi” session. “Since my husband spent the whole summer preparing for learning this year,” said Mrs. Rice, “I decided to take the opportunity to learn the issues he was studying myself – and even ended up sharing one of his teachers.”

Her friend Rachelle Schoenfeld, of Woodmere on Long Island, is about to begin her last year of graduate studies in an occupational therapy program at New York University; when Ms. Rice asked if she wanted to join her in the seminar, she immediately jumped at the chance. “Even though I’m on vacation from school right now,” said Ms. Schoenfeld, “I was immediately interested in taking this seminar, and I did receive quite an education. When I came home the first day and my mother asked me what I learned, I truly did not know where to start!”

Ms. Schoenfeld wasn’t the only student using the summer months to continue her education. Shayna Weiss, of Washington Heights, NY, is set to begin her second year of a five-year Jewish Studies program in the graduate department of NYU in just a couple of weeks. “Since learning about this program from Drisha Institute for Women, where I used to be a full-time student, I knew I wanted to get the OU’s take on exploring the cultural and social implications that kosher food has with people, something I study in school,” explained Ms. Weiss. Ms. Weiss said she liked learning best the cultural interaction of kosher food and people; how OU Kosher markets itself to a higher standard, which OU sales expert Phyllis Koegel touched upon in her talk; and Rabbi Loike’s experience of visiting the Museum of Natural History to explore the anatomies of many of their different birds to better understand the differences between kosher and non-kosher members of the species.

All the participants are passionate about kosher food, but two of them have helped make it hip to the 21st century. Esti Berkowitz, of Kew Gardens Hills, in Queens, NY, is a “mom blogger and kosher food advocate” who maintains several blogs about parenting and kosher food, especially traveling with children and keeping kosher on the road. Ms. Berkowitz, who is often asked about kosher food while networking with other bloggers and attending national conferences on blogging, said she hopes this course will allow her be even better-prepared to answer the numerous questions she receives. “When I’m educating other people about kashrut, I have to be the best resource I can possibly be,” she explained. “I also hope that this course not only solidifies my kosher food education but helps me connect with other people who are as excited about kosher food as I am.”

And Arlene Mathes-Scharf, of Sharon, MA, who holds a Masters in Food Science from MIT, was the first person to post real-time kashrut alerts on the Internet 13 years ago. Though a standard service now of kashrut agencies, just a little over a decade ago no one was utilizing the emerging technology of the Web to call kosher consumers’ attention to mislabeled products. “When my friend told me about a pepperoni pizza in a local grocery store that had an OU label on it,” she remembered, “I knew it was obviously mislabeled. And though I called the attention of the OU to it, and they published a notice in our local Jewish paper, I realized that people who didn’t subscribe to it or read it would remain unaware.” And so, she began posting mislabeled products online, which soon grew into a full-scale website called Kashrut.com. The site receives up to 40,000 visitors a month, a number that doubles around Passover, when she posts lists of Kosher for Passover food items and links to the sites of kosher organizations that also have extensive lists.

All the women who attended the Advanced Kashrut Seminar traveled to OU headquarters or the sites of the field trips every day, but it was Alizah Hochstead who initially had the longest commute – all the way from Efrat, Israel. “I scheduled some other things to do in America at the same time as this program” explained Mrs. Hochstead, “but the course was the primary reason of why I decided to come.” Mrs. Hochstead, who is on the Religious Council of Efrat and serves as a mashgicha (kosher supervisor) for the restaurants and other kosher establishments in the town, said, “I am always looking to increase my knowledge, especially in areas of kashrut. As I expect that Efrat will keep growing, and more kosher places will be set up, I am especially interested in learning more about the industrialization and catering sides of the kosher industry, two areas that we studied in great detail this week.” Her only complaint about the course? “It was too short,” she noted.

Rochel Bomzer, of Albany, NY, is the rebbetzin of Congregation Beth Abraham Jacob, a synagogue that is over 150 years old. Besides being one-half of the spiritual leadership of the synagogue and of Albany’s Orthodox community, Mrs. Bomzer also serves as a mashgicha (kosher supervisor) for the kosher establishments in Albany, including the kosher kitchen in the University of Albany and a small bagel café that operates in a Price Chopper Supermarket. “Because I have 20 years of experience in supervising the kashrut of different kosher places in Albany, I was interested in strengthening my knowledge about what goes on in a catering facility or restaurant,” said Mrs. Bomzer. “And while the Grand Hyatt tour was particularly fascinating, I ended up learning a tremendous amount about all different aspects of kashrut, particularly from Rav Schachter.”

For Leonie Hardy, a medical doctor and native of Australia, taking this seminar was only one endeavor amid many other life-changing ventures in recent weeks: she got married a month ago and is in the midst of packing all her belongings to move back home to Australia, where she and her husband are to become the rabbi and rebbetzin of a local synagogue. “I spent the last two years in the Graduate Program for Women in advanced Talmudic Studies at Stern College for Women, where I received a very thorough education in the theoretical side of Jewish laws,” described Ms. Hardy. “When I heard about this OU program, I thought it would make a very nice adjunct of practical, hands-on study.” Ms. Hardy explained that her intensive study of kosher laws, made clearer this week by OU experts, will help her teach them herself when she becomes a community leader and informal teacher in Australia.

To see photos of the event please click below!

OUs_Advanced_Kosher_Prog._for_Women_Pictures_.pdf