OU Kosher is No Laughing Matter (So why am I still laughing three days later?)
Rabbis Stone and Bendelstein of OU Kosher were invited to visit the frozen chosen of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada for a full-day seminar on December 25, 2007. I can’t help but imagine what they were thinking coming here. Is Edmonton really a frozen wasteland? Do we live in igloos and use dogsleds for transportation? You must be kidding – Edmonton in December?
The weather outside was a balmy zero degrees C (32 °F), not bad for this time of year. Our visitors enjoyed the warm hospitality of the Hassan family, and imparted continuous entertainment for everyone they contacted throughout their visit. Rabbi Hassan said he hadn’t stopped laughing from the time they arrived.
The city of Edmonton boasts a thriving and growing Jewish community, hosting an impressive roster of world-class speakers. It has become a tradition that each winter Rabbi Daniel Friedman of the Edmonton Beth Israel Synagogue and the many rabbis of the Edmonton Kollel organize a “Yeshiva for a Day” program. This year the spotlight was on the topic of Kosher. Who else to call but the OU? It was scheduled for December 25, providing a positive learning activity for a day when “the mall” was closed.
As the hundred-plus participants assembled for the seminar the two visiting rabbis sat quietly at the front of the room. They looked a lot like what one would expect – black suits, long beards. Rabbi Stone shocked the crowd when he introduced his partner as the “brains” and himself as the “eye candy” of the presentation. From that moment on the audience was captivated. One would have thought that a lecture about diglycerides, casein, natural and artificial flavors and colors would be quite dry, but these guys made everyone laugh and learn at the same time. One participant said that she had so much fun at the seminar that she didn’t realize how much she had learned until the next day.
Insights were gained into what lies behind the OU certification. Many hadn’t realized that OU is a non-profit organization, contributing proceeds to many charitable organizations. It was good to hear that the OU Rabbis are not really the “Kosher Police” but rather they aim to partner with businesses in an effort to prevent mistakes from happening in the first place.
We learned that in addition to his yarmulka the OU mashgiach wears many “hats”. He needs to know about business management, financial planning, biochemistry, process engineering, computer technology, advertising and marketing just to name a few. He needs to stay “five steps ahead” of an industry that is changing by the day, by the hour, and by the minute.
Rabbis Bendelstein and Stone provided many tips on how to take some of the mystery out of reading ingredient panels. Many were surprised to hear that creamers labeled “non-dairy” could actually contain milk products. The rabbis offered practical advice in a way that anyone could take it home and apply it to their own food planning, stressing that labels need to be checked every time. Participants heard emphatically that we live in a wonderful time in history. When else have we been able to eat meat-flavored sauce on a cheese-flavored cracker without worrying since they are both pareve?
The visiting rabbis also went above and beyond the call of duty by offering to visit our local kosher establishments. They provided invaluable advice and set in motion the beginning of a long-term partnership between the OU and the Edmonton Jewish Community.
Throughout their visit Rabbis Stone and Bendelstein stressed that keeping kosher pervades all aspects of Jewish life. It is not just about food. Who knew that learning about Kashruth could be so much fun?