Rabbi Hershel Schachter once told me that if there’s a disagreement in matters of halacha at the OU between him and Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, you are the deciding vote.
The halachic decisors at the OU are the three of us. So if there’s a dispute the majority rules.
You’re also involved in running the office?
Yes. That is part of my responsibilities.
Have standards been lowered over the years to expand and broaden the kosher market?
I think that generally during my 35-year tenure as the CEO of the Orthodox Union’s Kosher Division the standards have actually been enhanced. There’s a good side to the kosher market’s expansion, and a less good side. Rabbi Berel Wein would often bemoan the fact that we’re seeing a lot more “glatt” kosher and a lot less “standard” kosher, a lot more “shmurah” matzah and less “regular” matzah. My own experience growing up in America was that even the Conservative Jews had two sets of dishes. While they weren’t necessarily careful about kashrus outside the home, they were nonetheless careful inside the home. Unfortunately, because of the erosion of the Jewish people to assimilation, that broader commitment has weakened dramatically.
Coextensive with that, we’ve seen the growth of the Orthodox community, especially the chasidic and yeshivish community, which is much more careful and demanding about kashrus. This is expressed most dramatically by the fact that in the 1940s there was no such thing as glatt kosher in America. Glatt kosher began to emerge primarily when Satmar came to America after the war. Before that it didn’t exist. Rav Moshe Feinstein never ate glatt kosher because according to the Rema one doesn’t have to. Today in the OU market everything is glatt. The driving force is the consumer market, which today is much more stringent in this matter.
We’ve actually seen conflicting attitudes. On the one hand, the frum community became much more demanding in terms of kashrus, but we’ve also seen the degrading of kashrus by the general population, which is very unfortunate. It’s unfortunate because we want them to be careful regarding kashrus, and also because kashrus is something that binds them together as Jewish and is a bulwark against assimilation.
When I studied in Lakewood, I remember the yeshivah used food products that I don’t think they would use today.
I have the same recollection. I remember when I was in Lakewood in the ’60s they used regular Rice Krispies, and so on. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. When Rav Aharon Kotler started Lakewood, he wasn’t makpid on chalav Yisrael. The famous story that’s told is that when he was finally convinced to switch to chalav Yisrael it came in a big canister, which overturned, and he was very upset about the entire switch.
The OU still certifies kosher chalav akum.
We’re sensitive to those who are diligent about chalav Yisrael. If something is used with what Rav Moshe called “chalav hacompanies,” we list it as OU-D on the ingredients. And when we certify products that are chalav Yisrael we indicate that.
The Chazon Ish has a discussion about chalav Yisrael and he quotes the Pri Chadash, that when there’s pikuach hamemshalah [government supervision] it’s muttar. It’s interesting to cite what Rav Wosner writes in Shevet Halevi that when the Chazon Ish wrote this, Rav Wosner recommended he not print it, since the Chasam Sofer does not permit it. However the Chazon Ish didn’t agree with him. Rav Moshe in his teshuvah claims that government supervision is good even according to the stringent position of the Chasam Sofer. So that’s the OU’s position in terms of dairy products. We have many products we give supervision to that are chalav Yisrael.
The consumer should know what the differences are between local chasidishe hashgachos and the major hashgachos. Would you agree with that?
Do you find those hashgachos to have more chumros?
I think the OU generally has more chumros. All the hashgachos we give we believe are l’chatchilah. We’re dan on everything. We record everything in terms of the halachos, the psakim. We have a secretary, a safra d’dayna, Rabbi Eli Gersten, who’s a very big talmid chacham. We don’t do things on a b’dieved level in shechitah or any production we certify. I think people have come to recognize that. One of the reasons is the level of the rabbanim we employ. There are over 50 rabbanim working in my office, not to mention the people in the field. These are musmachim of our finest yeshivos. They’ve come to recognize that the OU is a purely communal, non-profit organization. Beyond our salaries, we’re not the beneficiaries of even a penny that the OU earns. It goes right back into the Jewish community in terms of kiruv and to the Yachad Program, for children with disabilities. I think that makes the OU unique.
While there are three fine rabbanim in charge of the OU, we also have to rely on the individual mashgichim and on the credibility of the owners of companies. So while we may be able to rely on the OU, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the product is kosher.
Every hashgachah is based ultimately on the credibility of the entrepreneur who’s running it. If we find someone who’s dishonest, it doesn’t matter if he’s a Jew or a non-Jew; we remove our certification.
You have competition and I’m sure the OU is competitive to get as many companies certified by the OU as possible. How do we know you won’t compromise to get a customer?
Obviously it’s an issue and we confront it all the time. But in terms of the OU, that’s one of the things that’s a major underpinning behind our founding. The advantage of the OU as an organization is that there’s an infrastructure and any monetary temptation is mitigated because it’s a communal organization. Our people won’t be rewarded financially; their parnasah doesn’t depend on this or that company. That’s the advantage of communal kashrus.
There’s a conception that kosher food is more healthful and cleaner. Is this only among non-Jews, or also among those Conservative and Reform Jews who, you said before, stopped eating kosher?
You’re right. Companies who look for kosher supervision are not only looking to sell to Orthodox Jews who keep kosher. The kosher market is much larger than that. It includes people who for their own religious requirements look for kosher, such as Seventh-day Adventists or Muslims or people who have lactose intolerance and want to see if it’s pareve, or gluten intolerance and want to see if it’s kosher for Pesach. But a big part of the market includes those who have a perception that if it’s kosher, either quality- or health-wise it’s a better product. Part of that, candidly, is not always the case. For example, a kosher salami sandwich has just as much cholesterol as a non-kosher one. But other times it’s accurate: For example, when there was the problem with mad cow disease; because kosher slaughter eliminates a lot of the blood through salting, it seems it was less susceptible to mad cow. I think another thing is that we provide another set of eyes watching the plant. The USDA or FDA sees a plant maybe once a year. So the kosher designation gives consumers some comfort that there’s an extra set of eyes in the plant.
Does that hold true for non-Orthodox Jews?
I assume it’s universal. Also, in terms of the general Jewish population, we see that around Pesach time American Jews come home to roost and for the Seder and Pesach they’re more likely to buy kosher products.
How closely do you work with other kosher agencies?
The OU’s position is we will use other ingredients from other agencies that we feel meet a certain standard. So there is a certain amount of communication.
The OU is much larger than all the other agencies combined. We could’ve used our leverage to say that if you want to be an OU company you can only use OU products. But we didn’t. When I came to the OU 35 years ago, one of the people who told me to maintain that was Rav Soloveitchik. There was a company that applied to the OU that was under another certification. That certifier complained that we took the company away. I said, “We didn’t take them; they applied on their own.” He said,”Let’s ask Rav Soloveitchik.” Rav Soloveitchik told us, “It’s a free country, and they’re doing this for marketing reasons; they can choose whom they want to use for kashrus.” Then the Rav said to me: “I wouldn’t want to see everything come under the OU, because I don’t think that’s healthy for the American Jewish community that this should be a monopoly.” And I was always guided by that direction from the Rav.
It’s impossible today for any hashgachah not to rely on the OU, since no small kashrus supervision organization can possibly certify all the ingredients that are used in most products.
True. It’s impossible. Every supervision is relying for the basic ingredients on the OU. That doesn’t mean to say that some of them will not check with us as they may want to go see the plants on their own. But ultimately, basic ingredients, for example oils, are under the OU. I remember when I was growing up it was very difficult to get kosher oils. Then Crisco Oil came under the OU. What people take for granted now was very much not the case then. Trying to convince companies to make basic ingredients kosher was heroic work in the 1950s.
Kosher food is often expensive. Maybe we should educate people that in some things the extra hechsher is just a waste of money.
We try to do that in our Pesach directory. We have a special box where we list things we think are innocuous that are kosher all year. We know that to be an Orthodox Jew is a very expensive endeavor. With so many products under different national supervisions it’s possible not only to have kosher food available throughout the US, and if you’re buying a national product that has an OU, it’s the same cost as similar unsupervised items. That’s a tremendous savings. It makes it possible for people to keep kosher at no additional cost.
Any plans for future improvements?
There’s always room for improvement. A lot of it just has to do with a sense of seriousness and purpose. I’m proud of the people who work at the OU. They’re all talmidei chachamim and are endowed with that sense. So they’re the ones who inspire me.
The people in your office are really from diverse yeshivah backgrounds. I’ve been there more than once. You have Modern Orthodox rabbis and chasidim.
That was by design. When I first came to the OU, I thought the OU was a communal organization and should represent all different communities and yeshivos, and we tried to build it on that basis. On a related issue, another thing the OU does is we go to all yeshivos and we make presentations explaining what’s involved in kosher supervision. And also, every other year we do a program for three weeks to teach kashrus to yeshivah guys.
by Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter
Reprinted with permission from Ami Magazine