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OU Kosher Conference marks 30 years of unifying ‘mashgichim’ worldwide

Event drew over 170 participants including representatives of prominent kashrut agencies.

Attending the OU Kosher Kashrus Conference are (from left) OU Kosher chairman Dr. Joshua Penn; OU Kosher vice chairman Rabbi Yosi Heber; OU Kosher COO Rabbi Moshe Elefant; OU Kosher CEO Rabbi Menachem Genack; and OU president Mitchel Aeder. Credit: Courtesy.
Attending the OU Kosher Kashrus Conference are (from left) OU Kosher chairman Dr. Joshua Penn; OU Kosher vice chairman Rabbi Yosi Heber; OU Kosher COO Rabbi Moshe Elefant; OU Kosher CEO Rabbi Menachem Genack; and OU president Mitchel Aeder. Credit: Courtesy.

More than 120 OU Kosher rabbinic coordinators (RCs) and rabbinic field representatives (RFRs) and over 50 rabbis from international kashrut organizations recently convened at the Delta Hotel in Iselin, N.J., for OU Kosher’s 30th Kashrus Conference, an annual highlight that celebrates OU Kosher team members stationed worldwide in Israel, Europe, North and South America, and the Far East.

As the world’s largest and most recognized international kosher certification agency, OU Kosher certifies over 1 million products produced in more than 14,000 plants in 110 countries, and two-thirds of all kosher food in the United States.

Under the guidance of rabbinic coordinators based at Orthodox Union headquarters in New York, RFRs inspect food production at global industrial plants that are frequently located in remote geographic regions.

The kashrut conference enables colleagues to nurture new and existing relationships, connect with leaders of the OU and OU Kosher, and learn from religious authorities and industry experts about kosher laws, procedures, technologies and trends.

“The conference puts the work and mission of OU Kosher into a broader context and helps RFRs and RCs to understand how everything is coordinated,” says OU Kosher chief executive officer Rabbi Menachem Genack. “We discuss policies that will make their jobs easier, more efficient and more effective. In these very difficult times, the conference also offers a forum for OU Kosher rabbanim [rabbis]to receive much-needed chizuk [strength] from OU and community leaders, and one another.”

Organized by OU Kosher director of field operations Rabbi Michael Morris, the conference also serves as an opportunity for OU Kosher to publicly introduce RFRs and RCs who are new to the organization and to recognize veterans serving many years as well as those who are retiring. In particular, OU Kosher honors those who have served for 25 years.

“Participants’ feedback following this most recent conference was fantastic,” says OU Kosher COO Rabbi Moshe Elefant, who oversees the operations of 850 rabbinic field representatives. “Participants greatly valued the quality of both the presenters and the sessions, which covered a range of both halachic [Jewish law] and practical issues.”

Following introductory greetings by Genack, Elefant, OU president Mitchel Aeder, OU Kosher chairman Dr. Joshua Penn and OU Kosher vice chairman Rabbi Yosi Heber, attendees took part in a number of sessions including “Easy, Creative and Contemporary Auditing Techniques,” “Excellent Report Writing,” “Communication in Conflict,” “Communicating with Companies,” “Ben Torah in the Workplace; Understanding the Ramifications,” and the “Pros and Cons of Dairy Equipment,” among many others.

Particularly relevant this year was a session entitled “International Travel in Light of Recent Events,” which was devoted to employees’ safety.

“Our team travels the entire world, and it has become a very dangerous place, especially for overtly Orthodox Jews,” says Elefant. “In the session, one RFR from Turkey, another from Europe, and a third who travels to Indonesia, Malaysia and Korea, shared their experiences and perspectives on the measures RFRs can take to remain safe, which is our primary obligation to our mashgichim [kosher certifiers] and their families.”

A significant focus this year was on the simanim, or identifying symbols, required for foods like meat, fish, cheese, wine and grape juice, which, as OU Kosher senior rabbinic coordinator and group leader of Europe and Israel Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz explains, have an added layer of sensitivity when it comes to kosher certification.

“Since raw materials are often shipped from one location to another, an added siman like a hologram or protective seal is necessary not only for the consumer, but also for the mashgiach at the receiving factory, so that he can ascertain that the food was properly supervised during production,” he says. “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Appropriate identifiers and seals ensure the kashrus integrity of products throughout multiple steps and locations, until they are in consumers’ hands. The sessions on simanim explored those requirements and the identifiers that RFRs must look for.”

OU Kosher
At the OU Kosher Kashrus Conference, Yeshiva of Paterson dean Rabbi Elya Chaim Swerdloff (left) joins Rabbi Menachem Genack and Rabbi Moshe Elefant. Credit: Courtesy.

Other conference highlights included learning Daf Yomi and words of Torah by leading rabbis, and a dedicated chavrusah/networking session, where participants met with OU and OU Kosher lay leaders, senior administrators and colleagues from various departments.

“I think the most important aspects of the conference are the chavrusah/networking session and the chance to interact with others during meals,” says Rabinowitz. “RFRs work remotely via phone and email. Being on the road week in, week out, can be isolating. It’s important for RFRs to meet all of their colleagues at least once a year. The conference is inspirational in that it underscores that we’re all part of a major team. As much as electronic communications are effective, they cannot possibly replace face-to-face interactions.”

Each year, OU Kosher invites a prominent rabbi to address conference participants. This year, attendees had the zechus, merit, to hear from Rav Elya Chaim Swerdloff, renowned the head of New Jersey’s Yeshiva of Paterson.

“Rabbi Swerdloff delivered a shiur on Sefiras HaOmer, and he spoke very beautifully,” says Genack, the rabbi’s personal friend. “He also shared words of chizuk [strength] and underscored the widespread recognition of OU’s central and critical role in Klal Yisrael and kashrus in America.”

For the first time since the conference’s inception, kashrus agencies from around the world were also invited to join the event on the second day.

“Participants included representatives of Kof-K and STAR-K, among others, and members of various local kashrus councils,” says Genack, who presented a session with Kof-K’s Rabbi Ari Senter on the practical applications of Bishul Akum. “Our partnership further emphasizes the extensive work we do with various kashrus agencies in both America and beyond, and it was wonderful to learn and present together at the conference.”

Elefant adds, “The camaraderie was fantastic. The focus on mutual issues of interest and the sharing of important information was extremely productive. Kashrus is something that belongs to Klal Yisrael; it’s an avodas hakodesh [holy work], beyond any competition or politics. It’s critical that kashrus agencies provide Klal Yisrael with a high standard of kosher food, and we at the OU were delighted to host these guests.”

Contact: Phyllis Koegel, Marketing director, OU Kosher, 212-613-8237, koegelp@ou.org.

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Founded in 1898, the Orthodox Union (OU), or Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, serves as the voice of American Orthodox Jewry, with over 400 congregations in its synagogue network. As the umbrella organization for American Orthodox Jewry, the OU is at the forefront of advocacy work on both state and federal levels, outreach to Jewish teens and young professionals through NCSY, Israel Free Spirit Birthright, Yachad and OU Press, among many other divisions and programs.
OU (Orthodox Union) Kosher is the world’s largest and most widely recognized international koshercertification agency, certifying over 1,000,000 products produced in more than 13,000 plants located in105 countries around the world. The agency certifies two-thirds of all kosher-certified foods in the UnitedStates.
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