A Hands On Approach to Kashrus

Featured Image

Writing a tribute to Rabbi Levy ע״ה is emotionally difficult. I had the honor of working alongside him for the past decade and have learned so much from him, in so many different ways. Having been close to him, I would like to touch at least the tip of the iceberg regarding his approach to
kashrus, which is what we at OK Kosher will strive to continue in the future. Rabbi Levy was a very organized man. This was reflected in every area of his life, especially in his key approach to kashrus, and most especially to kosher certification. For example, Rabbi Levy insisted on having a written report for every visit made in the field, whether by a Mashgiach or a Rabbinic Coordinator (RC). Tens of thousands of visits are done each year, and each one is documented with a written report which is entered into our system. As Rabbi Levy said when he was interviewed for our recent documentary “Inside OK Kosher” (which can be found on ok.org), our large staff of office-based Rabbinic Coordinators, each of whom is in charge of a considerable number of companies and their assigned Mashgichim, are not merely “paper-pushers.” OK Rabbinic Coordinators personally make the initial visits at each facility, then go back annually to the thousands of facilities we certify, in addition to regular mashgiach visits. Rabbi Levy specified clear guidelines for what an initial visit report should cover. He then personally reviewed and commented on each report, prior to certifying any new company or facility. He took care in training and mentoring his top personnel to be able to do this in his place. I had the tremendous zechus to be copied on each and every one of those reports for the past ten years. I was able to see the wealth of information and guidance that Rabbi Levy shared on those reports, which came from the strong foundation of his thorough understanding of food and beverage production.

Despite his important role as the Administrator of the OK, he never stopped visiting the field himself. He commented on specifics, such as how a kosher program should be run and visit frequency. He was known to err on the higher end of visit frequency, often more than most kashrus professionals would deem obligatory. A cornerstone of his organizational structure was to train his rabbis to analyze situations in the way he would, and make determinations in line with his standards. He did this in order to have full confidence in delegating his responsibilities. One of our senior Rabbinic Coordinators who worked with Rabbi Levy for over 25 years, mentioned to me that there were a few occasions when he stood overruled by Rabbi Levy, but that it was never likulah—only the other way around—Rabbi Levy always enforced the higher standard, lichumrah, whenever a disagreement on kashrus standards arose.

He was also completely transparent. This is how he ran the OK, and how we continue to work today. Even when companies came to the OK for certification operating in a facility in which another kosher agency was present, Rabbi Levy required dedicated rabbinical visits and written reports from OK Kosher rabbis. We simply do not “rubber-stamp” our hechsher without maintaining a footing in the facility. If an error or violation is ever discovered that needs correction, it is not swept under the rug. Corrective actions are always taken immediately and a public alert is sent if appropriate.

Rabbi Levy also insisted on a clear uniform policy regarding our requirements for certification in the area of food service. The OK’s restaurant and catering standards are made public on our website. The same standards and requirements apply to all of the food service establishments we certify across New York, New Jersey, Florida, and the West Coast.

There are many different kosher certifying agencies around the world, each with its own guidelines—some more stringent than others. Because of the very high standards set by Rabbi Levy, each ingredient to be used in an OK-certified product is reviewed on a case by case basis to verify that it meets OK Kosher standards. This comprehensive review process maintains the highest kashrus standard, and relies on information from experts in the field of chemistry as well as food production.

Rabbi Levy had a close relationship with the poskim he consulted with for complex kashrus shaalos. Many times, he could have easily made decisions on his own, but he preferred to verify his hypotheses with other prominent rabbonim to determine the best route. Once a decision was made, he always followed the other rov’s direction, and would never go back and ask a second rov the same question in pursuit of a more palatable answer.

When Coronavirus hit the US, an executive meeting was called amongst the major kashrus agencies to discuss the best practices to employ globally for kashrus moving into the uncharted times which lay ahead. I was asked by Rabbi Levy to join him on this meeting. His voice and authority were very much called for and heeded by the entire group as to how to handle the situation. Many of his ideas presented at this meeting have been implemented by other agencies. Later on, he and I continued this important conversation, even after he found out that he had contracted COVID-19 himself, and was home in quarantine. On the very last call we held as a group, Rabbi Levy was having physical difficulty speaking, as his breathing was strained, but he actively participated. It was the next day that he was taken to the hospital. You can see how passionately he cared for his work in kashrus, as true avodas hakodesh.

These are just some of the things which highlight who Rabbi Levy was, what he represented, and what he was able to achieve as head of the OK in his time. I have been present in many meetings with rabbinic and lay leaders, and I’ve seen his approach in these settings. He always had one thing in mind: the overall betterment of kashrus; not just his own agency, but for the standards of the entire world. In light of the fact that he truly viewed his whole life as a shlichus in spreading Torah values, this is really no surprise.

All of us here at the OK will move forward by doing everything we can to continue Rabbi Levy’s holy mission, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe instructed him, to both improve kashrus, and expand kashrus. In this vein, we welcome the esteemed members of our newly established Kashrus Vaad – Rabbi Chaim Fogelman, Rabbi Kalman Weinfeld, Rabbi Sholom Ber Hendel and Rabbi Shlomo Weinfeld. We are confident that they, along with our experienced and dedicated team of Rabbinic Coordinators around the globe, will continue the legacy Rabbi Levy has left behind him. This is indeed how we see our work and the future of the OK, and how we plan to continue the legacy Rabbi Levy has left behind him. It will be the source of our strength to carry on these endeavors in his absence.

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to express my sincere condolences to his wife, Rebbetzin Malka Levy שתחי׳. It was only because
of her support for the many long years he spent out in the field, tirelessly traveling from one facility to another, many times for weeks at a time, that Rabbi Levy had the ability to continue. And to the entire family; his children and grandchildren—may we all be comforted by the coming of Mashiach, speedily in our days.

Rabbi Eli Lando is the Executive Manager of OK Kosher Certification