Thirty-year-old Zvi Spiegel said “it was a given” that he keep kosher, growing up in an observant home in New York. But he noted that he “didn’t appreciate the technicality” of it all until he took a three-week course this summer sponsored by the Orthodox Union.
Spiegel, who has studied at Yeshivas Ner Yisroel in Baltimore for the past five years, explained that the ASK (Advanced Seminars in Kashrus) OU program included lectures and presentations; tours; field trips; and hands-on workshops that offered him “an immersive experience in the world of kashrus.”
He had a particularly eye-opening visit to the Empire Kosher poultry plant in Mifflintown, Pa., where he got to see the process “from the beginning to the end.” There, the students walked the floor with plant leaders — “friendly, knowledgeable and accessible people at the top of their game” — peppering them with questions.
“It’s one thing to learn about the laws of melicha [salting meat] on paper, but it’s quite another to see it in action on such a large scale,” said Spiegel. “Maybe our grandparents used to have to kasher chicken themselves, but these days, no one really thinks about what it takes to make a chicken kosher from start to finish. That’s just one example of something I’ve been learning that may have been hard to see practically otherwise.”
When asked about importance of the practice for Jewish people, Spiegel said that it’s important to “eat food that’s healthy for your soul.”
How the ‘kosher sausage’ is made
As for participant Rabbi Mosheh Aziz, when a woman recently contacted him to ask why canned vegetables need a hechsher, he was able to provide an in-depth response.
Without certification, he explained, such vegetables may have been cooked and packed on the same equipment that might have been in contact with pork or shellfish. In fact, he wrote, he had just witnessed a cannery package cans of pork and beans immediately before handling vegetables.
Aziz, a pulpit rabbi at Ohr Esther Synagogue in Great Neck, N.Y., and an onsite rabbi at the Sephardic Beit Midrash Kollel, had just participated in a three-week-long seminar about the laws of kashrut hosted by OU Kosher.
The OU division recently concluded its two annual kashrut training courses: the ASK OU Summer Kashrus Training Program, in which 20 people took part in the three-week course; and a concurrent one-week training program that attracted 60 participants.
Based at the Orthodox Union’s headquarters in New York City, both programs aimed to demystify kashrut through seminars and hands-on instruction at field visits across the region. The programs offered participants the opportunity to learn from experts about the laws of kosher in a variety of settings and then see the concepts in action immediately after.
“ASK OU turns participants into firsthand reporters on the laws of kosher,” said Aziz. “This is a program for serious learners who want to see for themselves how the ‘kosher sausage’ is made.”
Other examples that participants witnessed include what it takes to perform hafrashas challah (separating and burning a section of challah or large quantities of other baked goods) at an industrial level at a pastry manufacturer and how to analyze pasteurizers at a beverage maker.
In addition to the Empire plant, the groups toured the kitchens of companies across the tristate area, including the Kedem Winery in Marlboro, N.Y.; baked-goods supplier David’s Cookies in Cedar Grove, N.J.; Culinary Depot, a restaurant equipment designer and distributor in Spring Valley, N.Y.; and several OU-certified restaurants and caterers.
Participants came from around the world. Some who lived nearby, such as Aziz, commuted; others stayed at hotels or with family members. Spiegel went to a relative’s empty apartment in Queens for the duration of the program. Another participant, Edgardo Rozenknopf, flew in from Panama City and stayed at a hotel close to the OU.
“My expectations for this program were extremely high, and still they were exceeded,” said Rozenknopf, a mashgiach at three restaurants and a small factory in Panama. “I wanted to make sure that I’m the best mashgiach I can be by learning from the biggest people in kosher.”
The ASK OU Summer Kashrus Training Program is sponsored by Lakewood’s Harry H. Beren Foundation, and has been offered to men and women in alternate years since its inception in the 1990s. Combined, the two programs have more than 1,000 alumni, many of whom are now rabbinic coordinators at OU Kosher.
“We were pleased to be able to offer such high-level programming that even drew in international participants,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of OU Kosher. “Whether from New York, Panama or the Netherlands, the overwhelming feedback has been that participants were impressed with the content, rabbinic coordinators and overall organization of the programs.”
“There is simply no other program as expansive and hands-on as ASK OU,” said Rabbi Moshe Elefant, COO and executive rabbinic coordinator of OU Kosher, who led the last session of the one-week program, “ASK the Rabbi.” “For future mashgichim, as well as anyone curious about the processes behind kosher, this is the program to take part in.”
The O.U. contributed to this story.