Feeding an Army: Kashrut in the IDF

Rabbi Ezra Friedman

Since the tragic events of October 7, 2023-Simchas Torah 5784, the Jewish people’s attention has been focused on freeing the hostages that were taken that day to Gaza, tending to the injured, consoling the shattered families, and supporting the war effort to rid Israel’s southern border of the murderous Hamas.

While the news tends to concentrate on the front lines, there are many supporting efforts that also critical to the success of those on the front lines. Food plays a central function in all our lives and keeping our warriors well nourished is essential to their ability to do their difficult work. Providing them kosher food serves their spiritual well-being and helps to foster a sense of their Jewish identity and unity. OU Kosher has been very involved with the IDF’s Rabbinate to help ensure that authentic kosher food has been provided to all soldiers regardless of background. This is the story of kosher food and Operation Iron Swords.

October 7th

On Simchat Torah (October 7th, 2023) the most horrific attack on the Jewish people since the Holocaust took place. Months afterward, its effects on Israeli society and the Jewish people are still unclear. In many ways, people have not recovered, and things in Eretz Yisrael may never again be the same. On the afternoon of October 7th, Israel declared war on the Hamas terrorist entity, and over the next few weeks the largest number of reservists in the history of the State of Israel was called to the battlefield. Approximately 58% of the reservists who enlisted are religious.

The Army Rabbinate

Over the last decade there has been a silent shift in the army’s observance of kashrut. Rabbi Eyal Krim, Chief Rabbi of the IDF, and Rabbi Chaim Weissberg, former head of kosher food for the IDF Rabbinate, have made tremendous improvements in this area. As the largest consumer of food in the country, the army, in cooperation with the IDF’s Rabbinate, became much more involved in vetting food suppliers and their certifications. Rabbi Weissberg told me that after years of building partnerships, the logistics branch of the army agreed that all food, from sugar to meat to broccoli, would be subject to approval by the IDF’s rabbinic team.

The fact that many religious soldiers have been inducted each year has helped the IDF Rabbinate to initiate improvements in the kosher status of the army’s food supplies. By 2019 the IDF had increased their staff and added numerous mashgichim to bases and food service providers. They appointed professionally trained rabbis to supervise kosher departments such as imports, leafy vegetables, and shechitah. In 2022 the army finalized its move to have all meat in the army glatt kosher, regardless of which base of soldiers consumed it.

Impressive as all this was, nothing prepared the IDF Rabbinate for October 7th and the new complexities of providing the army with kosher food.

L to r: OU Israel President Stuart Hershkowitz, OU Israel EVP Rabbi Avi Berman, Rabbi Ezra Friedman, OU Kosher CEO Rabbi Menachem Genack, IDF Deputy Chief Rabbi Lt. Col. Rabbi Chaim Weissberg and Director of IDF Kashrut Rabbi Neria Rosenthal.

The Challenge

As mentioned above, over 360,000 reservists were called up. In addition, soldiers from all around the country were relocated to secure different areas. The entire Gaza envelope was evacuated, troops were tripled in the north, and Judea and Samaria needed increased security in case of terror attacks.

The challenge for the IDF was clear. Rabbi Chaim Weissberg was promoted in August to IDF Rabbinate Chief of Staff, and Rabbi Neria Rosenthal was selected to head the Rabbinate’s kosher department. The work needed to begin, and fast. Within days, dozens of army rabbis were enlisted for reserve duty, and additional soldiers were called up for logistics.

The army rabbinate’s objective was clear. As Rabbi Rosenthal told me in a meeting during the war, if a religious soldier felt there was a discrepancy between staying religious and fighting in the war, it would jeopardize his fitness to fight. If a soldier were to decide not to consume a protein snack, Shabbat meal, or war rations because they did not meet his standards of kashrut, that would pose a true danger to his ability to defeat the enemy. 

The army was convinced of this and had to deliver. There was a need for seven times more food than normal, and it all had to be ready as quickly as possible.

From Meat to Protein Snacks

Colonel Rabbi Chaim Weissberg, IDF Rabbinate Deputy Chief Rabbi and Chief of Staff meets with OU Kosher COO, Rabbi Moshe Elefant

The army worked with nine food services to provide hot meals for soldiers on duty. These kitchens would prepare thousands of meals a day, to be delivered through various logistic systems to bases and security posts all over the country. Within less than three weeks, that number jumped from nine to forty-two food services.

Numerous reservist rabbis were in charge of running from food service to food service to confirm or upgrade standards. In many places they demanded more hours for the mashgiach or their own mashgiach on the premises. Checking for insects became more meticulous, and only glatt kosher meat could be used. Many of these caterers were dedicated to follow guidelines since they wanted to help on frontlines, while other caterers were reluctant. The army would not waver and refused to compromise its standards. Rabbis in reserves would make surprise visits to kitchens. In more than one instance they found the food service operating after hours with unsupervised Arab workers, and they canceled the army’s contract with that service.

Vegetables were a serious concern for the first two months of the war. The farms of the Gaza envelope are the largest suppliers of Israel’s most common vegetables, including potatoes, carrots, onions, and all leafy vegetables such as lettuce and parsley. Since the entire area was closed and the workforce was gone, how could the army possibly receive its necessary supply? Limited workers were brought in to collect the produce while Rabbis on the ground received special permission to enter the area, and together with numerous mashgichim who volunteered, entered the envelope and for days monitored collection, taking terumot and maasrot, and ensuring standards were kept. Although there was a shortage at first, slowly but surely those basic vegetables were delivered to soldiers with the highest standard of kashrut. Rabbi Avishai Peretz of the IDF Rabbinate was on the ground running this operation.

Food donations became a very serious concern. Many civilians were determined to help in any way they could. Literally millions of dollars’ worth of food was donated, some commercially packaged with no or little certification, along with hundreds of meals cooked in private homes and sent directly to army bases all over the country. The Rabbinate tried its best not to hurt the feelings of the generous-hearted donors, while at the same time funneling out what could be served in bases and given to those who wanted to keep kosher standards.

Kosher Food on the Battlefield

Maintaining standards of kashrut for an unusually large number of soldiers is one aspect of the challenge, but maintaining these standards on the battlefield itself is even more challenging. During the first weeks of war a home base needed to be built in northern Gaza. The home base would be necessary for conquering the area. The base would include fueling stations, vehicle maintenance and control centers. Since there was no way of building a kitchen on site, a delivery pipeline was made. Every few hours the army would deliver equipment and food. During the first few weeks many questions arose, and the Rabbinate was ready. Since food needed to be delivered on Shabbat, there were concerns about providing Shabbat food and proper ways of keeping it hot. Rabbi Rosenthal explained that after much thought and discussion with rabbinic authorities, they provided hot food for Friday night, which was delivered an hour before Shabbat. On Shabbat morning, in order to prevent the unnecessary chillul Shabbat of cooking, transportation, etc., all soldiers received large quantities of cold mehadrin food — such as sandwiches, spreads, and war rations — that they could consume on Shabbat morning.

Once northern Gaza was conquered and the army could set up stations there, another question arose: Would the soldiers be able to use kitchen facilities in the homes of Hamas operatives? Since supply delivery was dangerous in that area, the IDF Rabbinate issued detailed instructions on what was permitted to use and how to kasher utensils.

IDF mashgichim checking vegetables

Kashrut Unites the People

It is clear that unity within the Jewish people has been a beacon of hope throughout this war. It’s been amazing to see how many Jews from all walks of life are giving their all for the soldiers, the wounded, and the citizens of Israel.

One of these initiatives has been “care centers.” Four of these centers were set up close to Gaza border. At these centers soldiers can have their clothes washed, dried and folded for free, get a hot shower, and receive free toiletries and other basic necessities. The largest aspect of these care centers is serving hot meals. Some of these centers make over 20,000 hot meat meals a day, free for all soldiers who come by. These centers are run by a volunteer organization that collects hundreds of thousands of shekels a month for upkeep. A few months ago, the IDF Rabbinate approached the organization to discuss kosher certification, since this apparatus is meant for IDF soldiers. At the beginning of this discussion, Tzachi, one of the non-religious owners, stated clearly, “Listen my friends. I’m not just non-religious — I’m a true apostate!” It seemed that kosher certification was up against a firm obstacle. But over time the rabbis of the army did their best to persuade Tzachi, and after he realized there were so many religious soldiers on the frontlines (sadly, many of whom have lost their lives), he agreed to make the care centers kosher. With help from the local Rabbinate, volunteers, and the IDF, the center was made into a completely kosher establishment with full-time mashgichim. Afterwards he was asked the awkward question by one of the soldiers, “Is your establishment mehadrin?” After the IDF Rabbinate explained the meaning of that term, Tzachi surprisingly said that he wanted to be mehadrin as well! His own beliefs notwithstanding, he wanted every type of soldier to feel comfortable receiving hospitality at his center.

A few weeks later Tzachi expressed how the kashrut was bringing further positive change to his organization. Friends of his with similar initiatives were also following his example and becoming kosher certified. It’s amazing how kashrut can connect so many people.

Building a Larger System

Israel’s market has changed drastically over the last thirty years. Many prepared foods are now imported. The army is well aware of this, and during this war there have been more and more efforts to import goods. The army needed special types of protein bars which would be non-perishable and provide the necessary nutrition for soldiers on the front lines. Senior commanders were seeking supplies of beef jerky, a portable source of protein that doesn’t spoil readily, and the IDF Rabbinate was involved in importing kosher products of the highest standards. The current war has even had an effect on international shechitah. Rav Avisahi Peretz told me that since the IDF will only accept glatt beef, a new importer agreed to have the army send Rabbinical representatives to Brazil to confirm standards for the IDF. In January, for the first time in history, the IDF sent shochtim (who serve in the army!) along with a supervising rabbi to certify the products.

Rabbi Genack and OU Kosher staff touring Shura Army Base

OU Kosher and the IDF

Over a year and a half ago I met with the staff of the IDF Rabbinate, and the connection between OU Kosher and the army has grown exponentially. Rabbi Genack initiated a strong connection with the army and partnerships were forged for information-sharing, consultation and sourcing. When the war broke out this relationship grew even stronger. Rabbis Weissberg and Rosenthal met many times with our OU Kosher staff in Israel to partner on the supervision of imported goods. Rabbi Genack was directing the operation from the OU’s offices in NY. Whether it was tuna, beef jerky, soup meals or protein bars, it was an honor for the OU to do its part in the war effort. This past January Rabbi Genack, myself and OU Kosher Israel, met with IDF staff to review the initiatives of the past few months and look toward the future. Rabbi Genack emphasized that the OU is not only a kosher certifier; it is an organization dedicated to serving Am Yisrael. May this relationship grow, may our enemies fall before us, and may the IDF Rabbinate continue to take care of both the physical and spiritual needs of its soldiers.


Rabbi Ezra Friedman

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