Meet Rabbi Michael Morris
By Bayla Sheva Brenner
If you want to know where any of the 500 OU Kosher RFRs (rabbinic field representatives) are at any given time on any given day and how they got there, just ask Rabbi Michael Morris. It’s his job — and his passion.
When Rabbi Morris, OU Kosher’s RFR traffic controller, joined the RC staff 25 years ago, he soon realized the routing system needed revamping and promptly took on the task. “For some odd reason I understand the American map,” says the native South African. “If an RFR lives in Memphis, and across the Mississippi river from Memphis is a state called Arkansas, why are we sending someone from Chicago there? The guy in Memphis could just drive over a bridge and save the OU a lot of expense.”
And that he has – for over two decades, and running. Or flying. Or driving.
As the busy liaison between the RFRs and OU Kosher’s corporate travel agency, this soft-spoken logistical whiz reviews hundreds of routes per week. Thoroughly conversant with the locations of RFRs and the manufacturing plants, he serves as OU Kosher’s “matchmaker,” deciding which RFR will make the regular visits to a particular plant when new accounts come in. He also crunches numbers, factoring in plane tickets, rental cars, hotel stays, and food needs, to make sure the arrangement is cost effective.
Similar to highly skilled air traffic controllers, he’s impeccably organized, has an excellent memory, is quick with numeric computations, assertive and firm in decision-making, and maintains his composure under pressure. And he cares.
“If someone is down and out, or lonely, or going through serious health issues, he will tell me, ‘A phone call from you would mean a great deal,’” says Rabbi Benzion Twerski, Rav of Congregation Beth Yehuda, in Milwaukee and RFR of the Wisconsin region. “If someone has a sick relative, he’ll quickly get the word out that people should pray for him/her.”
Evidently, his big heart also affects his professional decisions. He’s not only mindful that the routes make financial sense, but human sense as well. “You find people, when they need to get a job done, they do it and the people involved fall by the wayside; not Rabbi Morris,” says Rabbi Twerski. “He understands the needs of the RFRs. Wisconsin is a large state; he’s sensitive to the fact that if I covered the southwest corner, it would place hardship on me, so he saw to it that the RFRs from Illinois would cover that area. He makes sure that the RFRs are not away from home more than they need to be, while at the same time the routes are being covered.”
Born in South Africa, he attended Yeshiva College in Johannesburg, Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavne in Israel, and received rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva Gedola of Johannesburg. His entry to the world of kosher supervision began in his twenties, while serving as chaplain in the South African Defense Force. While travelling from military camp to camp, offering words of encouragement, he would check with the kosher kitchen to see everything was in order. One day, the chief rabbi of South Africa called to offer Rabbi Morris the job of administrator of the Kashrut Department of the Beth Din in South Africa. He agreed to “try it for three months.” He stayed six years.
In search of new opportunities, Rabbi Morris decided to travel to America; he committed himself to one year. He sent a fax to Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of OU Kosher and landed a job as an RC (rabbinic coordinator). After three years as deputy director of the West Coast Region at the OU Kosher satellite office in Los Angeles, he began his longtime position at OU Kosher headquarters in New York, where he oversees scores of plants, became the “how do I get to” and the “go-to man” for the OU Kosher men in the field, and met his wife (and former colleague) Chanie. Apparently, he’s extended his one-year plan indefinitely. He enjoys his job, a job that demands nonstop, painstaking attention to detail.
He welcomes the challenge.
Rabbi Morris not only devises and reviews hundreds of RFRs’ travel routes and expenses; he also oversees data entry of new companies, and arranges for the annual two-day RC/RFR conference each year. “I’ve always had pretty good organizational skills,” he says. To illustrate, he tells of an incident that took place during his stint as chaplain. “I needed a particular book. I called my mother and asked that she go to my bedroom, turn left, and on the third shelf, the fourth book from the right – that’s the book I need.”
Colleagues view him as an indispensible part of the OU Kosher operation. “He’s an expert at coming up with solutions,” says Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, OU West Coast Director and part-time RFR. “RFRs constantly count on him for advice and assistance. He engenders the confidence of the people around him. And he’s very straightforward; if he likes you, he tells you. His job fits his personality.”
Marika Levine, OU Kosher’s RFR liaison, agrees. “He knows how to deal with any problematic situation with the utmost diplomacy. He’s a warm, caring, consummate professional, and his accent is adorable.”
After a quarter of a century, Rabbi Morris still loves his work. “I get satisfaction knowing that I’m part of certifying new products and that kosher consumers have more choices.” Clearly, Rabbi Genack’s choice 25 years ago continues to benefit OU Kosher companies, colleagues and kosher consumers.
Bayla Sheva Brenner is senior staff writer in the Orthodox Union’s Department of Communications and Marketing and a frequent contributor to BTUS.