The Beginnings of OU Kosher

February 18, 2005

It was at the prompting of the Women’s Branch that the Orthodox Union took the first step in a process that would eventually touch countless Jewish households in America and beyond. This was the Orthodox Union’s initial venture, in 1924, in the field of kashruth supervision and certification.

Until then, mindful of the harsh experiences of the pre-UOJCA times, the Union had avoided getting enmeshed in the tortuous problems of “hechsherim.” Efforts to help redeem the kashruth situation from chaos had focused on legislative measures. These had brought passage by the New York State legislature in 1915 (strengthened in 1920) of a law against fraudulent representation as kosher of definitively non-kosher foods. The challenged constitutionality of this law was successfully defended on behalf of New York State by Samuel H. Hofstader, an attorney (and later judge) who was a member of the UOJCA Executive Board. Finally, the case came before the United States Supreme Court, where, “after a masterly brief and delivering a most cogent argument, [attorney Hofstader] succeeded in obtaining a unanimous decision of the eight Justices.” Following this, similar legislation was adopted in several other states.

Propelling the Orthodox Union’s initial move into kosher validification was both the continued urgency of purging the kashruth field of abuses and the effect on Jewish homes of the rising revolution in the food supply of the industrialized world. This revolution had resulted from agronomical developments and radical advances in the processing, packaging, and marketing of food products. It was hard to know which of the mounting profusion of appealing and convenient new products were kosher.

Perplexities multiplied with the sprouting of rash of advertised and otherwise professed claims of kosher status. Some bore only the manufacturer’s or advertising agency’s unsupported assertion; others cited personal endorsement by figures whose rabbinic status and personal qualifications may or may not have been identifiable. Baffled in a maze of doubts, the conscientious Jewish homemaker was at a loss: Which products were legitimately kosher?

In undertaking the first, experimentally conceived hashgachah, (supervisory attestation), there was introduced a concept that, after later thorough development of the original inexperienced formulation, was to remain fixed in policy ever since:

Official Hashgachah (supervision and certification) of and by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, as a not-for-profit public service, totally free of the element of personal gain and private vestment.

The personnel engaged in the supervisory process to be appointed by, paid by, and solely responsible to the Orthodox Union.

Consideration of the granting of the Orthodox Union’s supervision and attestation to be subject to exhaustive prior investigation, through the Union’s channels, of the manufacture of the product or products, from the sources of the ingredients through all stages of the processing to the final packaging or readying for distribution.

Thereafter, determination by the Union’s rabbinic authorities of the acceptability under the requirements of Jewish law (Halachah) of the product or products, and of the requisite supervisory specifications. Upon affirmative decision as to acceptability and supervisory specification by the Rabbinic authority, decision as a matter of general policy as to acceptance of the firm’s application to be made by the Union, through such channel as may be duly designated for the purpose.

The supervision and certification to be granted and effective upon contractual agreement between the applicant firm and the Orthodox Union embodying the Union’s Kashruth and procedural requirements, and providing for supervisory fees, the amounts of which to be based on the costs entailed to the Union in performing the service.

Once it became known that American Orthodox Jewry’s central arm was providing such official service, companies of high standing seeking acceptance of their products by Jewish consumers began, spontaneously, to turn to the Orthodox Union for that purpose. Since these were mostly major manufacturers of mass-produced and mass-marketed food and kindred products addressed to the American consumer public at large, there was a need for a special form of identification of the official attestation. This was met by introduction of the OU symbol (i.e., Orthodox Union). This symbol of the official kashruth supervision of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America became familiar to Jews everywhere in the United States and eventually in other lands – as the authoritative validation of kosher status.

Looking beyond the period of history now under review, it can be noted in passing that as resorting to the OU was subsequently to develop, it was necessary for the Union’s kashruth service to keep abreast of the extraordinary advances of the food industry. What was to evolve could not have been in any degree envisioned when that providential first step was taken. Not only was it to be a matter of swift increase in the number and diversity of supervised firms and plants – an increase that was to mount remarkably after mid-year and by the 1980s to reach astonishing proportions. Continuously, food technologies and products processing were to become more and more complex, posing unprecedented new problems in halachah and new conditions for the supervisory process. The supervisory operations were to extend to plants and food-processing installations throughout the length and breadth of the United States, and presently to many other lands across the globe, from Israel to Japan, from Pago Pago in the South Sea Island to Finland’s northern reaches.

It was to be a development without parallels in the world, without parallel in history. It was a development that only an instrument of communal force such as the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America could bring to reality. Not only the functional character and scope of the service was beyond envisionment when that first step was taken in 1924; even more extraordinary, even more significant, would be the impact of the Orthodox Union’s service on Jewish life. The OU was to play an indispensable role in hundreds of thousands of Jewish homes.

This singular phenomenon, so pivotal in the restoration of the repute of kashruth and in facilitating and spreading its observance, was to have a profound effect on the climate of Jewish religious life as a whole. It was to contribute vitally to the resurgent forces in Jewish life.

The previous selection is taken from The Orthodox Union: A Centenary Portrayal by Saul Bernstein (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1997), pp. 91-94.