RFR’s: The Indispensable Faces of OU Kosher

Despite today’s meteoric advances in food technology, it still takes the human touch to keep the world of kosher manufacturing booming. It’s the face-to-face, global efforts of OU Kosher’s rabbis in the field that really make it happen. Meet three of them.

Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, a 25-year veteran in the 600-strong army of rabbinic field representatives (RFRs) who travel across North America and throughout the world, realized long ago that the job he loves requires not only an adept knowledge of kosher laws, chemistry, and modern engineering, but also embraces the art of relationship building.

“You cultivate a kosher career on being user friendly; communication is key,” says Rabbi Horowitz, who has supervised such high profile companies as Smucker’s, McCain’s French Fries and Nestlé Beverage. “Rather than saying, ‘You can’t do this or that’ and walking away, you work with a company.”

In other words, RFR’s have to speak the company’s language. Even if it’s Chinese.

Just ask Rabbi Mordechai Grunberg. He’s been crossing the Pacific to supervise the ever-expanding number of OU-certified plants in China (currently 500) since 1998. During his initial years at China’s OU Kosher plants, if he hit a snag in communication, he would go through the warehouse taking photos of the ingredients listed on the packages of raw materials and finished products and email them to the OU’s Beijing office.

“At the start, the companies didn’t really know what kosher was,” says Rabbi Grunberg, an OU Kosher RFR for 35 years, whose job has also taken him to Eastern Europe, Japan, India, and Madagascar. “They would apply for certification through trading agents. They’ve since done their homework.”

Over the past decade, requests for kosher certification in China have doubled to more than 2,000, covering everything from spices and chemical additives to frozen berries and sliced garlic. China also exports $2.5 billion in kosher food ingredients to the U.S. each year, such as coloring agents and preservatives, up 150 percent from two years ago.

With the dramatic rise in China’s exporting power came the demand for its food manufacturers to learn English. According to Rabbi Grunberg, they start learning it in elementary school. The OU certified companies now hire English-speaking personnel who familiarize themselves with the products and factory process.

In order to better serve China’s steady flow of manufacturers applying for OU certification, OU Kosher opened its Beijing office (with a Chinese staff of three) in 2003. It certainly simplified Rabbi Grunberg’s job. Whenever he needs a more detailed understanding or translation, he arranges a conference call with the office and the manufacturer. He’s even picked up some Chinese along the way.

“Guangxi –  (pronounced gwan-shee) means relationships,” he says. “In business, the Chinese culture cultivates relationships. The greatest challenge is showing them the kind of respect and cooperation that communicates that you are working with them, not against them; that we’re not looking to catch them doing something wrong, while conveying the seriousness of kosher. Once they trust you, they’ll do anything you request.”

Rabbi Shraga Kaufman stands before a reactor and fluid bed dryer.

OU Kosher’s rabbis in the field know they are not only representing kosher; they’re representing Judaism.

In many of the plants they travel to, they are the only Jews, or religious Jews, that the administration, workers and community will ever interact with. “We’ve all gotten ‘the question,’” says Rabbi Shraga Kaufman from Chicago, an RFR for 26 years. “The first time it happened to me was at a gas station in Texas, near a plant. A woman approached me and said, ‘Can I ask you a question? What religion are you?’ I said Jewish. She said, ‘I knew you were religious; I just didn’t know which one.’”

Rabbi Kaufman views the impression he makes as a Jew as part of his OU Kosher RFR responsibilities. “We are showing them that this is what we’re all about, in the manner in which we dress, the way we inquire and the way we deal with an issue in the plant.”

In order to properly address potential issues, he makes it his business to know their business. “You have to understand the making of a product,” says Rabbi Kaufman, who has mastered the intricate workings of a solid flat versus metal mesh band oven, as well as a cone spray dryer, power dryer, and box dryer. “Understanding how a cracker or cookie is processed helps me supervise its kosher status. Cookies may all seem similar to the consumer, but a tray-pack cookie versus a cookie in a bag or in a box could mean a world of difference in the way they’re produced.”

One of his production-technology lessons came during one of his unannounced visits (made to insure the integrity of the product and that nothing has changed without prior notification and approval). “Sometimes they apologize to me saying, ‘We’re down right now; we’re not in production; we’re doing maintenance.’ I say, ‘Wonderful! You’ve explained to me how that piece of equipment works so many times. Now I can see how it works inside and how it pertains to koshering and kosher production.’”

On the Road…Again!

Unlike the majority of OU Kosher’s RFR’s, Rabbi Yaacov Horowitz’s daily commute entails driving from his home in Lawrence, NY to the Manischewitz plant in Newark, NJ. He may be spared the extensive traveling of his RFR comrades, but he shares the time away from home nonetheless.

From late July until the beginning of April he’s on call 24/6 supervising two groups of five in-house kosher supervisors; one group covers 11 hours during the day; the other works throughout the night. Because of the religious stringencies during the week of Passover against Jews eating any food containing or having had contact with leavened flour, his job is literally fulltime.

“The machines have to be constantly monitored for cleanliness,” says Rabbi Horowitz, one of the founders of the Ingredient Approval Registry, managing all the ingredients of the plants within the OU Kosher system worldwide. “If you have even tiny crumbs that gathered on the machine, and they are not adequately sequestered from the production line, the matza can be rendered chametz (leavened flour).” In addition, he oversees the flour coming in from the mills, making sure the delivery is adequately sealed and supervises the speed of the matza lines (adhering to the Torah-mandated 18-minute baking limit).

Rabbi Horowitz’s family, as well as the grateful Jewish families seated around their holiday tables, appreciate the valuable time and energy he puts into his work. “The essence of the continuity of the Jewish people is encapsulated by the eating of matza at the Seder,” says Rabbi Horowitz. “The non-Jews at Manischewitz understand they are part of this essential process, transmitted from father to son for generations.”

The Next Generation

Rabbi Mordechai Grunberg’s China visits take him far beyond Newark. He’s overseas for 12 days (putting in 16-hour shifts), back home for eight, and then away again for 12. In addition, the Chinese New Year and Spring Festival lasts three weeks, during which all the plants halt production. In order to fulfill his quota of annual visits, he makes up for the missed time by supervising for 21 days back to back. His devotion to his job, rather than deter, actually prompted his son to consider going into kosher supervision. “In Chicago; not overseas,” emphasizes his father.

“It’s an interesting transition to see your children take an active interest in what you do,” says Rabbi Shraga Kaufman, whose son is also drawn to the field. “When my children were young, I took them to the plants to show them where the food they eat comes from; also so that they could relate to what their father does for a living.”

Based on decades of dedication, upholding OU Kosher standards and the value of human relationships worldwide, these three RFR’s without question “relate” to what they do for a living virtually nonstop – and always with the utmost humility.

“I tell them at the plant, we don’t make kosher, you do,” says Rabbi Kaufman, whose OU Kosher work covers Missouri, Kansas, Idaho, Nebraska and his base in Illinois. “We facilitate, consult and supervise. That’s what we’re here for; the essence of what we do; to help them get to their market, to help make it happen.”