Monday, August 24, 2009

When "Politics" takes over Kashrut

Another Guest Post from HaSafran

Besides my day job(s), I also work as an on-call mashgiach for our MO shul. In this capacity (as well as working in the kitchen for a kosher caterer in Chicago while in college), I have had the opportunity to work with almost all of the kosher caterers in our current locale (and there are many). Most of them are frum; several are not. ALL of them have bones to pick with the local Vaad HaKashrut and/or certain mashgichim. Of course, this is probably to be expected in one fashion or another, but in talking with them about the problems they have encountered with the Vaad/ceratin mashgichim, I have noticed a few disturbing trends.

1) The local Vaad gives no help whatsoever to the mashgichim in our city. If you are one of THEIR mashgichim, this may be different (but from what I have heard, admittedly second-hand, it may not be), but as MOST of the mashgichim here are independent, this presents a basic problem: Say you are working a simcha and a shailah comes up. Who would you ask? Normally, you would call the Vaad and ask the person who, most obviously, is the most learned in this area. After all, they are the Vaad HaKashrut, no? Or, I suppose you could ask the shul rav (IF the simcha is occurring at a shul), but that presents other complications.

However, for all intents and purposes, the Vaad doesn't take these calls. In fact, in relating a situation I had to deal with to a different caterer, this caterer took out a card, wrote a phone number down on it and gave it to me, saying "Here's the phone number for Rabbi So-and-so on the Vaad. Tell him you got his number from me. He still might not take your call, but at least he'll know how you got his unlisted number."


A mashgiach has a shailah - a real-time concern over the kashrut of something that will shortly be given to hundreds of Jews to ingest - and the Vaad either won't take the phone call or be more concerned about how the mashgiach found out their phone number?

I admittedly am nowhere even close to being a "buki b'shas" but I just cannot figure out how the Vaad HaKashrut of any city can consider their job done after putting a PDF on their webpage detailing all of the fruit and vegetables that the community cannot use (because no one in the community can check it well enough, in their opinion - but Bodek, at twice the price, is ok - even though Bodek, even after triple-washing, still has the same problems as the regular fresh produce) and not a whole lot more.

2) Have you ever called your local Vaad HaKashrut about the hechsher on a specific product or restaurant and been told "It's not recommended"? I imagine that if you have EVER done this, this is the answer you would get almost 90% of the time. The reason that number is so high is because no one calls to ask if Spam or lobster roll is kosher. You're only calling because you think it's ok but you have a safek. And the standard answer is "It's not recommended". This is not a kashrut answer, it's a legal answer.

However, have you ever called to find out whether a product or restaurant is still kosher, right after it's hechsher from THAT VAAD has ended? The answer you will get is not "It's not recommended". The answer you get is, with as much certainty as if it were Torat Moshe Mi-Sinai, is that it is absolutely not ok. Even though, two days later, the item or place is magically kosher again, under a different hashgacha.

This is not kashrut. This is politics. And the last time I checked, when we said "na'aseh v'nishmah", it was for the Torah and halacha. I didn't say "na'aseh v'nishmah" over whether someone feels the kashrut certification fees are too high, nor over a certification turf war.

3) When working as a mashgiach, if you are presented with a problem, you deal with it. You don't go looking for problems - problems have a remarkable way of finding you, often enough. The caterers know what they are allowed to use, and specifically, what they are not allowed to use. Very few of them play around with that; this is their livelihood after all. Sure, there are times when they may be in a rush and grab something they shouldn't or they have a new guy who brings the wrong thing - but that's why there is a mashgiach. Mashgichim who go out of their way to look for problems, more often than not, find them. Not because the problems are necessarily there per se, but because they are specifically looking for a problem.

What this ends up boiling down to is that in a large city with multiple communities, with a fair number of mashgichim working, there is no real working consensus on what can be used, how well it needs to be washed, by whom, etc. Yes, the Vaad might say that this particular item can be used, but today's mashgiach says no (even though yesterday's said yes) and the Vaad won't take our calls asking for a straight answer. The caterers are frustrated, the mashgichim are frustrated, the non-Jews working to prepare the food can't keep straight what is ok, today, with this mashgiach, but may not be tomorrow, at a different site, with a different mashgiach.

It's chaos being called kosher. And it's far from it.

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