April 20, 2023
Red Herring, Green Light
Who is stepping in to fill communal gaps in kashrus?
A Series on Kashrus Initiatives
Facilitated by Elisheva Braun
The project: Kashrus Awareness Project
The person: Rabbi Yitzchok Hisiger
Enter a simchah and be transported to another world.
Flowers spread their pastel petals toward soaring, molding-trimmed ceilings.
Chandeliers shimmer, reflecting onto polished marble floors.
Luxurious tablecloths display a wide variety of food: dreamy four-layer cream cakes, glistening nut- and berry-studded salads, fruit cups bursting with textures and tastes.
Do you know where the food is from?
Whom are we trusting?
“Eid echad ne’eman b’issurin” is the halachic principle that allows us to rely on frum Jews when it comes to kashrus. It’s the reason we can enjoy a meal at a neighbor’s home or homemade cookies at a kiddush.
When life was simpler, simchos were catered by ba’alei simchah or a commercial catering company. Seudos featured homemade dishes. Private food businesses hardly existed.
Today, however, we don’t know who the eid echad we are trusting is.
We hire party planners who bring food in from a variety of places.
We borrow equipment from gemachs that don’t keep track of whether they are milchigs or fleishigs.
We buy desserts, salads, and breads from home-based business owners who may or may not know the halachos that pertain to their craft.
We buy increasingly more exotic greens, fruits, and vegetables from groceries than ever before, some that are so infested, they’re essentially uncheckable.
Making kashrus a conversation again
“Growing up, we knew we couldn’t eat everywhere,” says Rabbi Yitzchok Hisiger, host of the Kashrus Awareness Project’s popular Let’s Talk Kashrus podcast. “We knew we had to ask questions before we ate. We knew about the issues.
“Like innumerable other aspects of frum living, keeping kosher has now become almost effortless. As a result, we’ve stopped thinking about it.”
We wander grocery aisles, throwing cans, boxes, and bags into our carts. Often, we don’t stop to check the packaging or ensure that the fruit can be checked. At simchos, we savor the elaborate miniatures and cakes without pause. We use products and ingredients without taking the time to verify, examine, or explore.
It all happens so seamlessly.
“Today, people trust each other, and people don’t think about kashrus as much,” says Rabbi Hisiger. “Something needed to be done.”
And so, a group of experts led by the CRC’s Rabbi Sholem Fishbane, as well as some “regular” people concerned about what has been going on, established the Kashrus Awareness Project.
“We aren’t a hechsher or a halachic body,” Rabbi Hisiger explains. “We’re a group of people trying to bring awareness of kashrus back to the forefront of Klal Yisrael’s focus. The project’s mission is to inform and educate the kosher consumer to know what to look out for and what to inquire about.”
The Kashrus Awareness Project pursues this end through the aforementioned Let’s Talk Kashrus podcast, a website (www.kashrusawareness.com), articles, advertisements, and work with rabbanim.
Don’t try this at home
Rabbi Hisiger illustrates how unaware people are of basic kashrus concepts.
“A frum woman allowed her non-Jewish housekeeper to cook food for herself with her pots. After bishul akum issues were publicized in articles, she called us. ‘Is it really true that you can’t have a non-Jew cook for herself in your pots?’ she asked.
It doesn’t end there. “The owner of a home-based bakery had no idea that she had to be mafrish challah when baking cakes in such large quantities. One young kollel wife wanted to know why she couldn’t have a juice mix from Starbucks that contained white grape juice. When the kashrus experts in our group heard this, they were floored. How can it be that people are being raised with no knowledge of the concept of stam yeinam?How is it that people are buying drinks with multiple flavors and no hechsher?
“I’ve been at simchos where non-mevushal wines were being poured by non-Jewish servers. The examples are numerous.”
On the topic of alcohol, Rabbi Hisiger points out, “People don’t realize that sherry casks—barrels that previously held aged wine—present a massive stam yeinam problem.”
Renting utensils can pose a problem as well. “Chafing dishes, for example, aren’t always differentiated as milchigs or fleishigs. The same chafing dishes have been spotted being used for a milchig simchah and then, the next day, at a fleishig one. Many kitchens have been kashered as a result of kashrus-awareness articles,” he notes.
“The kashrus world is struggling with two specific things over last few years,” says Rabbi Hisiger.
First on the list is the Insta chef.
“Until recently, no one was able to cook from home and sell food without a hechsher. No grocery or restaurant would buy it. Social media provides platforms—via Instagram, WhatsApp, and other spaces—to sell directly to consumers. From meat boards to fish and herring platters, fruit displays to pastries, many home-based culinary businesses don’t carry a hechsher.”
Then there’s the party planner.
“In the past, party planners brought tables and chairs, set up nicely, and were done. Today, they make the food arrangements, bringing hors d’oeuvres from here, drinks from there, and pastries from a third place. Even at an event with a hashgachah-certified caterer, the bar, sushi station, and sweet table may have nothing to do with the caterer.”
At a kiddush, the rav noticed that a fruit platter featured fresh raspberries. Raspberries have become so infested, they cannot be properly checked. How did they make their way into a frum simchah? he wondered.
In another upsetting incident, the bartender at a frum event used nonkosher grape juice for drink mixes.
“He was cutting lemons—a davar charif—with a knife that wasn’t designated for kosher events. Who knows what he used that knife for in the past? What about the mints used to garnish drinks? Have they been checked?”
The dangers in hiring non-certified food vendors are many.
“It is not our intent to throw any individual or category of business owner under the bus. Our goal is simply to bring kashrus consciousness back to the public. There are many party planners and home-business owners in Lakewood who do have hechsheirim, are aware of the pitfalls, and are careful to avoid them. We hope that the number will grow. There’s no way to police businesses. Hechsheirim can only be given to those who want them. For the concerned customer, the best they can do is learn which questions to ask, be discerning, and demand vigilance in kashrus. This will drive sellers to seek out the standards that we need.”
“A host is essentially serving food to their guests, and they should bear the responsibility of ensuring that every food and item used for the event is indisputably kosher. We feel that this can solve the grave issue of kashrus errors at simchos.”
While designated simchah halls tend to be organized and supervised, shul halls concern the Kashrus Awareness Project’s leaders.
“Every ba’al simchah has free reign to bring in whichever food and equipment they desire. There is often little oversight or accountability. For this reason, we have begun to work with rabbanim to outline specific, nonnegotiable kashrus guidelines for their kehillos and halls. The rules can be made according to the place’s standards, within a framework, of course. For example, halls can choose whether or not to restrict foods to specific hechsheirim. Each ba’al simchah will be told the policies in advance to avoid last-minute surprises. The Kashrus Awareness Project also trains shul mashgichim who will be available to oversee events when necessary.
“We aim to help the rabbanim implement the policies and support their kehillos in all kashrus matters. We will provide rabbanim and hosts with information of standards that are recommended by gedolim and kashrus experts. Included in education are bug-checking advisories, alcohol lists, and guidance for Shabbos simchos. Shuls and social halls will have uniform kashrus policies. Kehillos will instate and enforce community-wide kashrus guidelines. Home businesses will have hechsheirim, and party planners will ask for them. Ba’alei simchah will start bringing in mashgichim to their events. That’s our dream for the Kashrus Awareness Project.”
To watch the Let’s Talk Kashrus podcast and for more kashrus-awareness information, visit www.kashrusawareness.com.