A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Plant

July 27, 2005

Sometimes we don’t know our life’s calling until it calls on us. That’s the way it happened for Rabbi Reuven Nathanson, OU Rabbinical Field Representative (RFR). Cleveland born, Rabbi Nathanson earned his Master’s in Public Health from Tulane, University in New Orleans and decided to stay. The OU and thousands of kosher consumers are glad he did.

Rabbi Nathanson remembers the day the rabbi of the synagogue he attended received a phone call asking if he would be interested in supervising a plant that made kosher frozen yogurt desserts. He turned it down, but referred the offer to Rabbi Nathanson, who promptly accepted it. “I was familiar with the process and thought why should the OU continue to fly someone out of Chicago to New Orleans to inspect a plant that was less than ten miles from where I worked?” he said. “I told them to stop spending all that time and money; they’ve got someone local to work for them. That was my first assignment” Today, as a regular RFR, his assignments take him to plants throughout the West Coast region, gathering a trail of stories with each journey – sometimes unusual, sometimes touching, always human

On the morning of his four-hour drive to Fresno, California, Rabbi Nathanson had every intention of completing his job and returning back home. Running late, he decided to skip his usual breakfast stop at home and, instead, hurried, with tefillin in hand, to get started on the Fresno trip. “I didn’t want to take the tefillin because it was the middle of a hot summer and could easily go as high as 100 plus degrees. To leave them in the car, they would cook, but I just went,” he said.

He finished the inspection and during his drive back, he remembered an adage of his father’s. “You stop driving when you’re out of gas.” He pulled off in an area where there was a gas station 3,000 feet high in the mountains that separate Los Angeles from Central California – far from any other signs of civilization. While washing up in the restroom, a truck driver approached him.

“Are you Jewish?” he asked, taking Rabbi Nathanson by surprise, never imagining this man could possibly be a Jew. Totally at ease with his newfound landsman, he told Rabbi Nathanson that two months ago he took his wife and son to Israel for his son’s bar mitzvah, that his son requested marking the special occasion at the Kotel. Rabbi Nathanson asked him if he took the opportunity to put on tefillin while he was there.

“It was my son’s bar mitzvah.”

“Seems to me you’re the reason I had to drag my tefillin on this sizzling summer day.” They walked across the parking lot to his truck and the man put on tefillin for the first time in his life.

“Really, why didn’t you put them on at your son’s bar mitzvah?”

“Nobody asked.” Today, somebody did.

Have Chulent Will Travel

Rabbi Yakov Blugrond’s kashrut inspections take him to exotic spots across the globe. In over a decade of traveling for the OU, he’s been just about everywhere but Mars, he says, since no request has come in for hashgacha in that region yet. “However, I do know that the moon is not cholov Yisroel; it’s gvinas akum.”

A Rabbinic Field Representative doesn’t have to venture into outer space for an interesting encounter. It could happen as close as…Turkey. I’ll let the transcontinental rabbi take it from here.

I traveled to Istanbul to supervise a large company with various production sites. One of them stood at the border of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. Since I knew I was going to have to stay over Shabbat, I found a hotel in close enough proximity to a Sephardi shul. I came to Turkey with the normal operational equipment for a long distance mashgiach – a small piece of meat, a little crock pot, a few frozen challot, a box of matzot, and a jar of gefilte fish. I requested a hotel room on the lowest floor possible, so that I wouldn’t have to climb too many flights on Shabbat. I also made sure they disconnected the electricity from my hotel room door so that I could open it with a key rather than a card. Before I left for work on Friday morning, I put up my chulent. My Shabbat in Istanbul was set.

On Shabbat morning, as I walked through the lobby, I noticed a fellow wearing a yarmulke. I wished him “Shabbat Shalom” and “Shalom aleichem” We exchanged our reasons for being in Turkey. Turned out he’s an American physician who came to deliver a series of lectures at a university here. I asked my new acquaintance if he wanted to join me on my walk to shul. He gratefully acquiesced, saying he wasn’t aware there were any shuls in the area. I asked him what he planned to eat for the Shabbat. He said he had a can of tuna and some matzot. I told him to forget the tuna and come to my room after davening for some hot chulent. He couldn’t believe it.

As we walked towards the exit, the receptionist called out to us saying the hotel manager requested a word with me. I entered the manager’s office, curious as to what he wanted. “I feel uncomfortable telling you this, but the maids are reporting a scent of something cooking coming from your hotel room,” said the manager. I explained that it’s the Sabbath day and we aren’t allowed to cook, so on Friday I prepared a special traditional food made of meat, barley, beans and potatoes. Telling him that this is what we eat for lunch. “Oh, you mean you made chamin! Why didn’t you tell me? I would have gotten you the food.” The hotel manager was a Sephardi born in Istanbul. His family found themselves in Turkey the same way my family wound up in Holland at the end of the 15th century after their expulsion from Spain. I said, I’ll tell you what – at 1:00 we’re eating in my room. Come join us.

He came, bringing with him a few bottles of beer. The three of us had our seudat Shabbat. We sang Israeli zemiros, regular zemiros, Sephardi zemiros. We had a mizumim to bentch. We spent the time enjoying our hotel room #205 Shabbat together until it was time to go for mincha. The manager came too.

The hotel gave me the royal treatment for the rest of my stay. As our time there drew to a close, the doctor from America bid me a warm farewell, and we each went our separate ways. I felt happy to have shared an unexpected Shabbat – enhanced by the company of my fellow Jewish travelers.

Concern for a Fellow Jew Isolated in Iceland

On another OU overseas odyssey, Rabbi Blugrond trekked to the most northern point of Iceland. During his first day there, he walked down the street in search of a supermarket. His eyes fell upon a particular building with a magen Dovid etched into its façade of stone. This surprised him. “I research a place before each trip to see if there are Jews in the area,” he says. “As far as I knew, this one had none.” He decided to investigate further and entered building. The place had been converted into a restaurant. He asked a worker if the establishment was owned by Jews. “No,” said the woman. “We had one Jewish person here. His name was Epstein. He arrived during the war.”

She told Rabbi Blugrond that Mr. Epstein had opened up a nickel and dime store there on the main street, built a prosperous business, and married a local woman (a non-Jew). After he died, the business closed down and distant relatives in America, his only living heirs, sold it to the restaurant. She told him that if he’s interested in seeing it, Mr. Epstein’s grave was in the local cemetery. “You just go down the street a few blocks and you’ll see the cemetery. He’s buried right next to the fence.” He thanked the woman and left.

Rabbi Blugrond went straight to the Department of Archives of Iceland, which happened to be next door to the hotel. The records confirmed that this lone Jewish refugee from Europe’s churban had indeed lived there. “Now every time I go to Iceland,” says Rabbi Blugrond. “I make sure to visit my friend, Mr. Epstein, and say some tehillim at his grave.”

Jewish Identity Comes in All Shapes and Guises

In the thick of society’s secular tangle, the road to Jewish identity takes strange twists and turns. Some a bit morbid.

Rabbi Nathanson met a non-Jewish fellow in the Research and Development department of a food manufacturing company. “Every job he gets, he winds up serving as the kosher contact,” says Rabbi Nathanson. “Unfortunately, he’s married to a Jewish woman who has absolutely no interest in Judaism. The couple views their children as gentiles.” One day, the man approached Rabbi Nathanson with an unusual request. “I was watching TV with my wife last night and out of the blue, she tells me she decided that when she dies she wants to be buried as a Jew. Can I have your business card, so when the time comes, we can call you? But there’s nothing wrong with her now,” he assured. Rabbi Nathanson informed the man that he and his wife could not be buried next to each other or even in the same cemetery. “If that’s what she wants to do, it’s okay with me,” he responded.

Rabbi Nathanson no longer visits that particular plant, but still receives atypical kind of regards via the current mashgiach there. “Tell Rabbi Nathanson that my wife’s still alive, but we’ve got his number.”

Bayla Sheva Brenner is Senior Writer for the Communications and Marketing Department at the OU.


A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Plant

May 22, 2005

It’s early Monday morning in Any Town USA, UK, or ZA. The birds sound their sweet welcome to the sun, school children hide under their covers, and an OU Rabbinic Field Representative (a.k.a. RFR’s) makes an unannounced visit at a food manufacturing plant.

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During the course of a year, 400 RFR’s travel across the roads and skyways encircling this busy planet to ensure that the world’s food factories produce products fit for the kosher consumers’ consumption. While guaranteeing the highest standards of kashrut, these indispensable trips often produce tasty food for thought as well.

Let’s partake, shall we?

Rabbi Yossy Florans, the Midwest mashgiach, and die-hard New Yorker, moved to St. Louis, Missouri to cover Missouri, Central and Southern Illinois, and Southeast Iowa. He picked up my call on his cell phone while en route from Quincy, Illinois to an oil, shortenings, and margarine factory in Jacksonville, Illinois. Always the humble kosher public servant, Rabbi Florans (as with all the RFR’s interviewed) felt certain he lacked interesting experiences to share. I knew better. I waited patiently; and they came.

A fellow, named Earl, who worked in an oil factory that Rabbi Florans visited for many years, approached him one day and asked if he minded if he requested a favor of him. I’ll let the rabbi tell the rest of the story.

He told me, his daughter, a student at the school of nursing in Springfield, Illinois needed help on an important assignment. She had to come up with a project that would improve nursing skills at Springfield.

“My girl decided to focus on the dietary area,” he told me.

“She wanted to work on supplying kosher food for Springfield, Illinois so that it would be available to the hospital patients who need it.” Sounded like a noble idea. I thought.”

“She knew her Dad worked in a factory that had a rabbi.” I had a feeling this is where I came in. I was right.

“Could my daughter interview you, so that she could put on her report that she spoke with an actual rabbi?” I said I’d be glad to. We scheduled a time to go to his home, after I’d be finished at the factory.
“Can I get you anything to eat when you visit?” Earl asked me. I told him I really couldn’t eat anything in his home.

“Nothing?” he tried again. I told him a diet coke, but that’s about it.

When I arrived at his house at the prearranged time, I was surprised to find a can of diet coke sitting on the banister by his porch steps.

“What’s this?” I asked Earl.

“You told me you couldn’t eat anything in my house, so I left it outside for you.

What’s the matter? You can’t have it there either?”

“It’s perfectly okay; I can even carry it into your house,” I said as I walked through the front entrance with can in hand. Earl introduced me to his daughter and said, “I’ve gotta leave you two here and get back to the factory.”

“Wait a minute! You can’t leave me here,” I pleaded politely.

“Why not?” from Earl.

“I can’t be alone with your daughter in the living room. You have to stay here.”

“But I have to get back to the plant!” Apparently Earl wasn’t taking the laws of yichud as seriously as I was.

“Then we’ll all go back together and we’ll go to the conference room and have the meeting there,” I offered.

“But, it’s so much more convenient and quiet here,” said Earl. I realized it was time to use my RFR training and get tough and said, “Earl, you have to stay in this house, or else we’re going to have this meeting on your freezing front porch. If your daughter gets cold, we’ll get her a sweater.”

“What’s the matter with staying here, in the house?”

Realizing I was not getting through, I told him that he has to understand that not only do we keep kosher, but there’s a whole set of rules on behavior that we keep. I started to explain hilchos yichud to Earl in the middle of his living room. The man stood there, between his daughter and me, looking more and more nonplussed. He finally found his voice.

“But, rabbi, I would never suspect such a thing!” A man of impeccable judgment, that Earl.

“I know she’s young enough to be my own daughter, but I can’t even give the appearance of any kind of impropriety. It is extremely important that the front door remains open or, preferably, we’ll do this on the porch,” I insisted.

Little did I know what a kiddush Hashem I engendered with my unexpected outburst. He told other people at the plant about the living room-vs-porch-leave-the-door-open-what’s-this-rabbi-talking-about incident. He was tremendously impressed and now viewed what an Orthodox Jew is from a completely different perspective. His entire relationship with Jews had, up to that point, related solely to kashrut.

It made me feel good too. It’s the (kosher) icing on the cake in the life of an RFR.

Don Gifford, Quality Manager at AC Humko, a company that produces oils and margarines, with Rabbi Florans

All in the Line of Duty

While Rabbi Florans made his rounds of the margarine department at Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) headquarters in Decatur, Illinois, a man from the corporate office, who happened to be there that day, approached him.

“Are you a rabbi?” Rabbi Florans smiled a nod. “Oh, that means you’re Jewish?”

“Yes, that’s right; I’m Jewish.”

“Interesting, ‘cause my son is marrying a Jewish girl.” The rabbi nodded, this time without the smile, and wondered how to respond – bid him good day, or do something. He thought of Esther HaMalka’s words to Mordechai HaYehudi, ‘Maybe this is the reason I came into kashrut, I mean malchut.’ He decided he had nothing to lose.

“I’m sure you’ve heard the expression that love is blind. Usually people understand it to mean that no matter what a person looks like, it doesn’t faze the one who loves him or her. Detecting that the man took careful note of his words, Rabbi Florans went full throttle. I’ll give you another interpretation of that adage. Love is blind means you can’t see past tonight or past tomorrow. One falls into crippling short-sightedness.”

“As a responsible parent, you need to ask the two kids involved if they’ve bothered to look towards December 25th. What are they going to do with their living room? Are they going to put up a menorah or x-mas tree? And if they decide to do both, are they going to put the menorah in the kitchen and the tree in the living room or vice versa? Have they even thought about this? If they say they are going to display them both in the living room, then ask them, what if they have a baby boy; are they going to baptize him or circumcise him? Let’s say they tell you they both agreed to leave religion out of it all together, that they are not going to do anything. Then you’ll have to take it a step further.” Rabbi Florans sighed and continued. “It’s important to understand that Jews and gentiles can be friends, even good neighbors or successful business partners, but they make lousy marriages. Even if they decide not to practice any faith, faith has a way of creeping back in. All it takes is someone suffering a tragedy; one of them is in a terrible car accident and is miraculously saved. Suddenly they start to believe – against the other one’s wishes. Let’s say one of them is being wheeled into emergency surgery. They are looking at one another and the one on the gurney says, ‘Pray for me.’ The response brings up a telling question, ‘Should I pray to my G-d or yours?’ It’s a dilemma. Or the person could say, ‘Remember, we decided against prayer in our home?’ You need to tell them now all they’ll be up against.”

“I’ve never heard such wisdom and insight,” said the ADM corporate, and father.

“It somehow hit home,” said Rabbi Florans. “We wished each other well and I thought I was done with this guy.” About 10 months later, Rabbi Florans found himself in Granite City, Illinois at a company called PVO Foods. The company had declared bankruptcy and was being taken over by ADM. A man approached him in the hallway of the plant.

Excuse me, sir. Who are you?”

“I’m the rabbi here.”

“Oh really, I’m from Decatur. We also have a rabbi who comes to us.”

“I’m that rabbi.”

“You’re the rabbi! Don’t you remember me?” He didn’t.

“Don’t you remember, you met me in the margarine department once and I was telling you about my son getting married?”

“I do remember.”

“They never got married. They agreed to remain friends.” If the ADM corporate could see a picture of the man inside the rabbi at that moment, he would see Yossy Florans in mid-air dancing for joy.

One day, many months later, Rabbi Florans was involved in a meeting in an ADM office. The abovementioned ADM corporate worker passed in the hallway and noticed his rabbi/friend and waved a hearty hello.

“Hi rabbi! How ya’ doing?”

“You know that guy?” asked the man across the desk from Rabbi Florans.

“I once gave him some advice when his son was planning to get married.” Rabbi Florans watched as the man stood up, shut the door of his office, and looked him straight in the eyes.

“Rabbi, we need to talk.” He began telling him about a very personal problem.

Rabbi Florans leaned back and pondered, “What am I getting myself into here? I’ve become the traveling preacher; all I need is some snake oil!”

According to OU’s dedicated RFR in St. Louis, “To this day, the guy is so grateful, he begs me to let him take me out to lunch every time I come to the Decatur plant,” reports Rabbi Florans. “It’s part of the territory. Sometimes you wind up being people’s sounding board. They see someone who cares.”

Postscript: On a recent weekend day, a time when most people recharge their bodies for the upcoming work week, this RFR geared up to make the midnight ride to a Duncan Hines plant in Steeleville, Illinois. He needed to be there before its midnight startup, to inspect the cleanliness of the plant’s equipment prior to production. Sleep deprivation will never stand in the way of an RFR, of assuring that Klal Yisrael gets its due of Duncan Hines Chewy Fudge Brownies.

So, it’s not always the birds’ song and radiant sunrise providing the backdrop for an on-the-road RFR. Sometimes it’s raccoons and possums dodging headlights in the dark and chirping crickets joining hooting owls – the Divinely designed musical accompaniment to a job well done.