Red Herring, Green Light
May 11, 2023
The project: JSOR
The person: Rabbi Avi Yagen
“A good friend of mine has nonreligious parents,” says Rabbi Avi Yagen, director of research and development at the Jersey Shore Orthodox Rabbinate (JSOR). “When his parents visit his home, it takes three days of eating kosher before they begin to show an interest in religion. ‘It’s always on day three that my father starts asking to put on tefillin. I can tell you clearly that eating kosher affects the entire person,’ my friend told me.
“The fact that kashrus so deeply impacts our neshamos is a driving force behind our on-the-ground efforts to increase awareness of the mitzvah and its details.”
Rabbi Yagen was brought on three years Rabbi Haim Arking, administrator of JSOR, rosh kollel of Ohr Halacha in Lakewood, mohel, sofer, shochet, dayan on Beis Din Maysharim for gittin, and mechaber sefarim.
Rabbi Yagen’s initial responsibilities included supervising the vegetable-checking department. At the time, he was working with Rav Gissinger zt”l on a project that attempted to develop a machine that would wash produce in the halachically preferred way.
“The JSOR was growing at the time, and my role and responsibilities expanded with it,” Rabbi Yagen relates. “Today, the hechsher is on the CRC Chicago recommended list—the gold standard for international kashrus agencies. JSOR-certified restaurants have become a trusted go-to for Jews of all walks and standards. We certify over fifty restaurants, supermarkets, and catering companies in the Jersey Shore and a few in Brooklyn.”
One aspect that is unique about the JSOR is its policy is to accommodate the minhagei kashrus of both Sephardim and Ashkenazim.
In Halachah, Sephardim have a number of chumros in kashrus. In practice, however, the community applies most Sephardi and Ashkenazi chumros and very few of the kulos.
“Other than kitniyos on Pesach,” Rabbi Yagen explains, “Sephardim don’t have any kulos that Ashkenazim wouldn’t feel comfortable with.”
Below, Rabbi Yagen clarifies several chumros and how JSOR ensures that they are kept to the highest standard.
Bishul Yisrael requires that the mashgiach be physically involved in the cooking. It is interesting to note that this adds to the general security of the kitchen.
In a restaurant without a Sephardi hechsher, a person can always ask for bishul Yisrael—staff call it “extra-kosher”—and sometimes they can accommodate and sometimes not. JSOR’s caterers all offer only bishul Yisrael even according to Sephardim, as do many of the restaurants they certify. Even in those restaurants that do not yet do so, it is always available, as the system is built for it.
Several years ago, Rav Chaim Kanievsky was told that in America many are lenient with regard to bishul Yisrael, and he wasn’t happy. He wrote a letter in which he stated that because the Gaon was machmir like the Mechaber, people should be more careful in this area.
People see Beis Yosef meat in supermarkets and think it isn’t for them; it’s only for Sephardim. Actually, the opposite is true. Beis Yosef shechitah is a stricter interpretation of “glatt.” It’s for everyone. Many JSOR establishments are completely Beis Yosef.
JSOR invests much time and money into bedikas tola’im. Its system of checks and double security allows restaurants to offer more options for fresh produce than many others. AllJSOR mashgichim who do bedikas tola’im were trained specifically in this area in addition to the standard mashgiach-training courses.
In restaurants, random spot checks of already-checked vegetables take place to make sure they’re really clean. This serves a dual purpose: it ensures that mashgichim are being as careful as they should be, and it prevents staff from slipping non-checked vegetables into service. Employees know that if a bug is found, the entire batch may be thrown out (depending on what is found).
“We’re constantly monitoring infestation levels, and we’re regularly in touch with bedikas tola’im professionals,” Rabbi Yagen explains. “When we hear about a higher-than-normal infestation level, we act upon it. We tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to bedikas tola’im.”
In the Shulchan Aruch, yashan seems to be nonnegotiable for Sephardim. In fact, most rabbanim hold that it’s more chamur than chalav Yisrael. JSOR strongly encourages its establishments to implement this policy. All yashan locations have a mashgiach specifically appointed to review their yashan products of the season.
Fish and dairy
Sephardim do not eat fish and dairy together. Nevertheless, JSOR allows its establishments to offer dairy-fish combinations as long as they’re marked on the menu, “Not according to all Sephardic customs” and they aren’t prepared in a deep fryer.
There aren’t a lot of products available that are certified as kosher l’Pesach kitniyos. The JSOR puts almost year-round effort into getting more basic kitniyos products approved for Pesach. They work with many hashgachos and plants around the world to verify the products that can be used as kitniyos.
Read before you dine
“Don’t assume anything,” Rabbi Yagen warns. “The store doesn’t necessarily have the hechsher or standards you think it does simply based on its location or its patrons. When you walk into an eatery, look for its certificate of kashrus.”
A certificate isn’t always enough, though.
“Make sure it is current. Another important point to note is that some hechsheirim offer varying guidelines; they don’t have one flat policy. One certified establishment may carry chalav stam; another might offer non-yashan foods. The hechsher certificate lists the specifics; make sure to read it.”
In addition, the phenomenon of private labels poses a challenge for the frum consumer. It’s possible to find nearly identical products with different details and different kosher certifications. Products are made in different facilities owned by different companies, but they slap on a similar label.
“Even if the packaging hasn’t changed, never assume the hashgachah is the same. Always read the label carefully.”
More than just a hashgachah, the organization feels responsible to help everyone do the right thing as much as possible. To this end, JSOR also offers classes that raise any number of frum-life issues—including, of course, kashrus.
The JSOR also operates a 24-hour kashrus chat group which boasts approximately 1,500 members. Six admins man the lines, answering questions as quickly and efficiently as they can.
“The area codes on the chat dot the entire map. People are constantly reaching out from kitchens, pharmacies, grocery aisles, catering businesses, and travel destinations. In the past, people would buy any product with a kosher symbol on it. With one text, they can now ask the JSOR if the hechsher is a reliable one.”
Before Pesach or after a house move, locals can take advantage of JSOR’s kitchen-kashering services.
“I’m always inspired by the ‘everyday’ people who go to unbelievable lengths to ensure that their kashrus is at the highest level,” Rabbi Yagen relates. “I’ve been asked to work at quite a few private-house parties where I spent thirteen or fourteen hours a day supervising the food preparation.”
It isn’t always simple to ensure that the food customers will eat is kosher. Rabbi Yagen tells of a near miss that happened recently.
“During Pesach season last year, one of our caterers was preparing food, and I noticed that one of the bags of matzah meal that was sent by our local heimishe distributor was not kosher l’Pesach. Unfortunately, some of the bags had already been used. We had to stop production, throw everything out, kasher the kitchen, and start all over again.
“The distributor wasn’t trying to cheat us,” he clarifies. “Unfortunately, honest mistakes happen all the time. As a hashgachah, we have to be vigilant and catch them. As consumers in our own homes, as well, we have to be so, so careful to avoid serious mishaps.”
Rabbi Yagen maintains that in every community, education in kashrus is critical.
“Many people do not really understand what’s happening in the field day today. What it says on the label is not enough; people don’t know the questions they should be asking when they buy a product. When people ask kashrus questions, they sometimes miss some of the most basic questions that they should be asking. It’s not that they don’t care; they just don’t realize. I’ve checked restaurants around the country. There are some places that are so careful about certain issurim and are clueless about others—it’s scary to see.
“Again, it’s not like they’re not smart or not dedicated; it’s a lack of knowledge. We don’t know what we don’t know. Whether it’s a sefer, a class, or a rav, every individual should find a way to enhance and increase their kashrus literacy. Don’t take anything for granted. Find out before you eat. I always say that ‘everyone eats it,’ is a very bad hechsher.”
So much more than just running a hashgachah, the leaders at JSOR have revolutionized local Sephardi kashrus.
Now, you’ll appreciate the efforts that allow your night out in Deal.