This year marks the 100th anniversary of OU Kosher certification. A remarkable history lies behind the extraordinary variety of kosher-for-Passover products featured in this guide. That history tells a story of how the OU has embraced the American spirit of entrepreneurship to safeguard Jewish religious tradition.
The Origins of OU Kosher
The story begins in 1923 with the founding of the OU Women’s Branch. From its inception, the Women’s Branch dedicated itself to promoting traditional kashrus observance through its extensive network of synagogue sisterhood organizations. The 1920s was a time of rapid cultural assimilation. As Jews strived to secure a place in the American middle class, they frequently abandoned traditional religious practices that they feared would hold them back. In response, the Women’s Branch appealed to the middle-class aspirations of Jewish women by touting the health and hygienic benefits of kosher food and by promoting kashrus observance as a sign of civility and refinement.1
The early 20th century was also a time of increasing industrialization of the food supply. Like other American women, Jewish women of the time welcomed the emergence of packaged foods produced in factories, which liberated them from the toil of preparing every family meal from scratch.2 To help free Jewish women from their kitchens, the Women’s Branch organized campaigns to convince food companies to make their products kosher.3
Under the leadership of Rebbetzin Rebecca Goldstein, wife of then OU President Rabbi Dr. Herbert Goldstein, the Women’s Branch prompted the OU to establish the Kosher Certification Service. The Women’s Branch coordinated inspections and investigations into the kosher status of ingredients.4 Thanks to these efforts, by the mid-1930s, the OU Kosher Certification Service had successfully acquired about two dozen clients, many of which manufactured leading national brands.5
Building the OU Brand
In 1950, the OU appointed Rabbi Alexander Rosenberg to run its Kosher Division. Under Rosenberg’s leadership, the OU experienced a sustained and dramatic expansion of its certification services. In 1945, the OU employed 40 kosher inspectors to certify 184 products for 37 companies. By 1970, shortly before he retired, the OU employed more than 750 inspectors to certify more than 2,500 products for 475 companies.6
Rosenberg successfully marketed OU certification to consumers and major food companies by making OU certification a leading brand in its own right. By the mid-1950s, the OU was distributing each year more than 100,000 free copies of its Kashrut Directory through synagogues and other community organizations. In talking to food companies, Rosenberg touted the OU’s reputation among kosher consumers as maintaining rigorous standards.7
Rosenberg professionalized kosher supervision. Up until the 1950s, congregational rabbis with little knowledge of Jewish law or food production often sold personal endorsements to unwary food companies. Rosenberg cut deals with many of these rabbis, telling them that if they handed over all their clients and adhered to OU kashrus standards, the OU would pay them to continue providing supervision to those clients. Because of its reputation as the gold standard in kosher certification, the OU could afford to charge higher fees, which allowed it to pay the local rabbis more and still cover the administrative costs for training and supervising them.8
Alongside the OU’s Rabbinic leadership, innovative and committed lay leaders advanced OU Kosher’s mission. Notably, Nat Gross and Julius Berman each served for decades as Chairman of the Joint Kashrus Commission, a body which coordinated the kosher certification efforts of the OU and the Rabbinical Council of America.
In 1980, the OU appointed Rabbi Menachem Genack to head its kosher operations. By that time, the OU faced growing competition from other reputable kosher certification agencies. Genack embraced this competition, believing that it would motivate continual improvement in kosher certification throughout the industry to the benefit of consumers. To further enhance the OU’s brand and beat out its rivals, he developed in-house expertise among his staff in food chemistry and technology, and he built more extensive systems of management oversight to ensure the quality of inspections.9 To keep pace, the other agencies followed suit, while Genack competed and fostered cooperation as a leader in the Association of Kashrus Organizations, a trade group that sets high kosher and ethical standards for the entire industry.10
Under Genack’s leadership, OU Kosher has thrived. In 1980, when Genack arrived, the OU had 500 food company clients. Forty-three years later, the OU now has more than 6,000 clients worldwide for whom it certifies nearly 1.3 million products supervised by a staff of 900 inspectors and managers.11 Moreover, the mix of cooperation and competition among kosher certification agencies that Genack fostered has spurred extraordinary growth in the availability and popularity of kosher certified foods.
A Mark of Quality
Today, approximately forty percent of packaged goods in a typical US supermarket are certified kosher, and more products in the US are labeled kosher than are labeled organic, natural, or premium. The OU certifies roughly two thirds of those products.12
The popularity of kosher food extends far beyond the Orthodox Jewish community. 12.5 million US consumers purchase kosher food because it is kosher certified. However, only eight percent of these consumers are religious Jews who buy exclusively kosher foods, and an estimated eighty percent are not even Jewish.13 Consumers have come to rely on kosher certification for a host of reasons, including health and food safety concerns or dietary restrictions, such as vegetarianism or lactose intolerance. 14 Many consumers view kosher certification as a mark of quality assurance.15 Consequently, major food companies rolling out new products now routinely obtain reliable kosher certification.
It is no exaggeration to say that one of the OU’s greatest achievements is harnessing marketing expertise to preserve traditional kashrus observance—an achievement that aims to afford everyone a chag kasher v’sameach.
1. Jenna Weissman Joselit, New York’s Jewish Jews: The Orthodox Community in the Interwar Years (Indiana University Press 1990), pp. 106-114.
2. Seymour Freedman, The Book of Kashrut: A Treasury of Kosher Facts & Frauds (Bloch Publishing 1970), pp. 79-81.
3. Selma Freedman, “The Women’s Branch: 25 Years of Achievement,” Jewish Life, June 1948, pp. 51-56.
4. Faigy Grunfeld, “The Role of Women
in the Founding of OU Kosher,” Jewish Action, Spring 2020, pp. 16-19; Rafael Medoff, “Keeping Kosher, Becoming American: A Brief History of OU
Kosher,” Jewish Action, Winter 2022, p. 30.
5. Joselit, p. 113.
6. Harold P. Gastwirt, Fraud, Corruption, and Holiness: The Controversy Over the Supervision of Jewish Dietary Practice in New York City 1881-1940 (Kennikat Press 1974), pp. 11-12.
7. Saul Bernstein, The Orthodox Union Story: A Centenary Portrayal (Jason Aronson 1997), p. 158.
8. Timothy D. Lytton, Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food (Harvard University Press 2013), p. 49.
9. Menachem Genack as told to Rachel Schwartzbreg, “OU Kosher: The Inside Story,” Jewish Action, Winter 2022, p. 40.
10. Id., pp. 91-100.
11. Medoff, p. 38.
12. Lytton, pp. 76-78.
13. “Kosher Food Q&A,” IFT, Feb. 2, 2016, https://perma.cc/5VWQ-EVWK.
14. Id.; LUBICOM Marketing Consulting, LLC, “Why Americans Buy Kosher,” Jewish Action, Winter 2022, p. 41.
15. Mintel Press Team, “3 in 5 Kosher Food Buyers Purchase for Food Quality, Not Religion,” Mintel, Feb. 17, 2009, https:// perma.cc/4KL4-ZZ86.