The fascinating history of the OK as told by Thelma M. Levy, wife of OK pioneer Rabbi Berel Levy
My husband, Rabbi Berel Levy OB”M, was a great thinker. From the moment he first got involved in kosher, he envisioned an efficient kosher organization, living up to the highest standards in Jewish law and also working seamlessly with food companies, facilitating a wealth of strictly kosher products. In 1968, he assumed leadership of the OK Kosher Certification, a stellar organization with a rich history dating back to 1935. Though we were only certifying a relatively small number of companies, Rabbi Levy entered the industry with a tremendous energy and awareness of how important and integral the kosher movement needed to be.
Rabbi Berel Levy’s reputation spread very quickly, his outgoing personality and strong principles instilled confidence in others. He possessed an incredible mind that retained information much like a computer, about all the companies and ingredients we certified. Of course we had files, documents and kosher letters but he rarely had to go to the file. At first, Rabbi Levy did everything himself, I did a bit of typing and billing, but he called the companies, inspected the factories, and supervised all correspondence. Almost overnight, we started to grow rapidly, and soon we began to branch out beyond our local metropolitan area.
Shortly after he took over the OK, Rabbi Levy began to travel. During his business trips to six continents, he would make a concerted effort to educate the people there about their Jewish heritage. He would teach people about Shabbat, help communities to build Mikvahs and aid in preventing intermarriage.
The kosher industry requires a comprehensive knowledge of chemistry, knowledge that Rabbi Levy promptly acquired. Understanding how any single food item is produced is complicated. You have to know the composition and source of each ingredient, as well as any processes it may undergo. To inspect a factory, besides knowledge and expertise, you have to be very inquisitive. I went with Rabbi Levy on a few inspections and he had to go into the stock room and supply room, look around, ask questions and write down what he had to check later. Nothing passed him by.
One of the primary policies Rabbi Levy implemented was the policy of non-solicitation of companies. If a company approaches us with interest in our certification, we set down our strict standards. Were we to approach a company and ask for their business, if they do something wrong later on and we protest, they can point out that we wanted their business. They did not initiate the relationship and therefore we should not interfere with their desire to compromise on various issues. People have to come to us, approaching us shows readiness to adhere to our standards. It is the only way to operate according to Jewish law.
As our organization continued to grow, it became increasingly difficult for my husband to run solo. We asked our son, Rabbi Don Yoel Levy to join us in 1977. Over a period of seven years, since the time of his marriage to Malka Deutsch in 1970, Don Yoel had been learning full time in Kollel in Kiryat Malachi, Israel. He was very focused and learned constantly.
At first, Don Yoel resisted our invitation to join the OK. He had hoped to serve as a community Rabbi and educator, reaching out to Jews with limited religious education. When he asked the advice of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rebbe told him that kosher is a very important mitzvah to spread.
In 1987, Rabbi Berel Levy passed away. After his death, a client told me that he would have given anything if he could have only gone into Rabbi Levy’s mind for a few minutes, just to see the tremendous knowledge stored there.
My husband left behind a surging, vibrant kosher organization, which due to his principles, solid foundation and the integrity of our son, continues to grow.
In 1996, we built our own expansive office building. When we moved in, we had extra offices for the first time. We have steadily grown bigger, hiring new employees, buoyed both by the confidence people have in our strict kosher standards and all the new companies who want OK certification. The extra office space has somehow evaporated. I don’t know where we are going to push out the walls.
Although we are as strict as ever, ever more companies are joining. Once they come, 99% of them stay, due to our technology, superbly reliable kosher certification, professionalism and prompt service to our clients.
I think my husband would be very proud of our organization as it is today.