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. RFRs) makes an unannounced visit at a food manufacturing plant.
During the course of a year, 400 RFRs 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 RFRs 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.
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.”
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.