clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

NYC Rabbis Go Remote to Keep Kosher During Pandemic

A Brooklyn market sells kosher products during the coronavirus outbreak, May 27, 2020.
A Brooklyn market sells kosher products
Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Rabbis are going virtual to conduct kosher checks of food factories to get around travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders.

Kosher certification organizations have long sent clergy to make routine in-person inspections of facilities. They check the ingredients and make sure there is no mixing of meat and dairy products.

But that all changed when the pandemic hit.

“I’m not going to put my mashgichim [food inspectors] onto planes. Some places don’t let you fly,” said Rabbi Yehuda Rosenbaum, administrative director of the KOF-K Kosher Supervision.

Instead, his team of approximately 150 inspectors now conduct many of their checks via Zoom or Skype.

The virtual kosher inspections are similar to the ones done in person: The rabbis ask someone at the facility to show them specific areas and to display the food being used.

“The person who is doing the inspection … knows the factory because he’s been visiting the facility for a while,” said Rabbi Moshe Elefant, chief operating officer of OU Kosher, the largest certification organization in the country.

All told, the OU, which is based in lower Manhattan, certifies close to 10,000 facilities across all 50 states and 100 countries.

Approximately a quarter of those facilities are now being checked virtually, according to Elefant. Others are still being examined in-person.

Some smaller kosher certification organizations have also gone digital, according to JewishInsider, which first reported the trend.

The new inspection approach is not behind a sudden shortage of kosher cream cheese days before the Jewish holiday of shavuot.

Jews eat dairy products on the holiday, starting Thursday night, as a reminder to a time before animal slaughter rules were detailed in the Torah. The shortage was tied to supply-chain disruptions at J & J Dairy, according to reports.

New Foods on Hold

Meanwhile, companies seeking rabbis’ stamp of approval for new foods are out of luck when it comes to the OU.

Rabbis must do an in-person feasibility study for every new food company seeking kosher certification.

The OU typically gives its approval for up to 500 new companies annually, according to Elefant, who noted that interest has remained at the same level despite the COVID-19 outbreak.

KOF-K Kosher Supervision has actually added 20 new companies that rabbis were able to visit in person, according to Rosenbaum.

As for the virtual inspections, factory employees have no idea where the kosher inspector will ask to see, Elefant said. OU rabbis and those working for other kosher certifiers also conduct a “forensic accounting” of the facility.

“We request all sorts of documentation about ingredients that they are receiving and they are showing us invoices,” Elefant said. “So we can determine that they are all kosher.”

The OU and KOF-K maintain an Ingredient Approval Registry database that clients must use.

“Our rabbis have learned a lot of technology and accounting during this crisis,” Elefant said.

’Making it Work’

The checks can last from one to three hours depending on the size of the facility, according to Rosenbaum. Similarly, some locations are screened once or twice a month, while others are inspected every eight weeks, he added.

Initially, the OU was worried the near total shutdown throughout the country would make it impossible to maintain a proper inspection schedule.

The group published a warning earlier this month that some traditionally kosher products may soon no longer be certified.

“Due to COVID-19, some companies are facing challenges producing OU certified products because of the inability to meet certain requirements,” the notice said. “As a result, the OU may be temporarily removed from packaging of these products.”

Elefant said that never happened because warehouses reopened, and are now either available for in-person or virtual checks.

“We explained to them that if they were going to insist that we can’t visit, then we can’t continue the program,” he said. “Every time we’ve been successful in making it work.”

In Alaska, the digital approach has been essential because out-of-state visitors have largely been blocked.

“There are a lot of fish facilities that we certify,” Elefant said.

‘A New World’

Moving forward, the OU plans to use the virtual checks to “enhance” its in-person inspections, he added.

“We’ve discovered that they are good tools,” Elefant said. “There’s a silver lining in everything.”

Rosenbaum said the KOF-K also plans to use them when the health crisis abates. But he noted that they are never employed in “critical” kosher situations, such as facilities that produce meat and milk products at the same plant.

Jew have long been resourceful in devising ways to deal with new obstacles, said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis.

“We are living in a new world,” he said. “Everybody has to start figuring out how to make it work.”

The Talmud, he noted, starts on page two as a way to show the importance of having a backup plan.

“That’s a lesson that’s what we are going through now,” he said. “Our Plan A has been taken away from us.”


SUPPORT THE CITY

You just finished reading another story from THE CITY.

We need your help to make THE CITY all it can be.

Please consider joining us as a member today.

DONATE TODAY!

SUPPORT LOCAL NEWS. SUPPORT NEW YORK.

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit newsroom dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York. Please consider joining us as a member today.

GOT A TIP?

We’re here to listen. Email tips@thecity.nyc or visit our tips page for other ways to share.

Sign up for the newsletter Get THE CITY Scoop

Sign up and get the latest stories from THE CITY delivered to you each morning