Last year I traveled to Ukraine and Russia to visit OK certified facilities and meet with local rabbonim who have their own hechsherim in the area. I was scheduled to fly on Aeroflot to Moscow at 2:20 PM and arrive at 8:30 the next morning. From there, I was scheduled to take a connecting flight to Rostov at 10:30 AM and arrive there at 12:30 PM. After visiting the resting place of the Fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rebbe Rashab, in Rostov, I planned to drive approximately four hours to Donetsk.
Unfortunately, my flight left an hour late and I arrived at the check in counter in Moscow at 10:00 AM. I was unable to board my connecting flight so I had to take the next flight, which arrived at 5:30 PM, to a small local airport.
Rabbi Pinchas Vishedski, the rabbi and Chabad shaliach in Donetsk, Ukraine, was nice enough to arrange a driver to pick me up and take me to the mikvah, the kever of the Rebbe Rashab and then on to Donetsk. As it turned out, the whole first leg of my trip would run very late. Rabbi Chaim Danziger, the rabbi and Chabad shaliach in Rostov, allowed me to use his mikvah, met me at the kever, and took me to his home for supper (which I really appreciated). When we finally arrived in Donetsk, it was quite late, but due to the time difference of two hours, it was not as late as it felt!
The next morning, Rabbi Vishedski picked me up for davening. Afterwards, he took me to see samples of all of the kosher products under his certification, which includes a full range of products, both dairy (milk, cheese, ice cream, etc.), meat, candies, chocolate, ketchup, mayonnaise, and more. Two rabbis work with him in his kosher certification efforts. His staff really impressed me with their technical and halachic knowledge.
The first facility we visited one of the biggest chocolate producers in Ukraine, which is kosher certified by Ukraine Kosher (UK). They have a mixer, several 5-rollers and conches.
My next stop was a UHT long life milk facility. I did not visit the farm, but I heard a description of the milking process and hashgocha at the actual farms. The pasteurizer is either kashered after 24 hours down time or kashered twice if there is not a 24 hour down time.
The third factory was a ketchup and mayonnaise facility. The production there is straightforward and I was pleased with the methods of kosher supervision.
The next day I took a “speed” train to Dnieper at 11:00 AM. A first class ticket on this train costs only $25 USD. The trip was very comfortable and took almost 3 hours. Rabbi Elisha Baram, the head of the local kashrus agency in Dnieper, met me at the train station and took me to my hotel. We met with Rabbi Shmuel Kaminestky, an old friend, and had supper together.
The next morning we davened in the shul in Dnieper, which has a beautiful mikvah. The shul is in a building with seven wings called the Menorah, which also houses a very nice hotel and a kosher coffee shop. I visited the kitchens and food facilities in the building, which is also home to a beautiful simcha hall and fleishig restaurant.
Later, we went to a chocolate factory where they produce chocolate. As a result of my visit and follow up we are now working to certify this plant in order to help them export the chocolate.
The rabbis in Dnieper told me that they would like to see more kosher products produced locally and sold in the stores. Rabbi Baram actually took me to a local supermarket and showed me OK certified wine sold there! I wish my father ob”m could have seen that after all of the mesiras nefesh he had to visit the USSR during the years of persecution. The store also had many other products with a hechsher, which is a great accomplishment in a region that has a history of hostility toward religion and Judaism in particular.
Overall, I was extremely impressed with what I saw in Dnieper. When I was here over twenty years ago the Jewish community was struggling with day to day operations. Today they have a completely functional Jewish infrastructure, including huge schools, a beautiful shul, mikvah, catering hall, dairy and meat restaurant and the famous Menorah building. Twenty years ago, I was helping the Jews of Dnieper find kosher products. Today, Dnieper and Donetsk have two shechitas, dairy products, baked goods, condiments, etc., and are working with the OK to increase local kosher food production. It is truly a great sight to see and a sign of true Jewish renewal in the region.
From Ukraine I travelled to Moscow where I was privileged to meet with Rabbi Berel Lazar, the Chief Rabbi of Russia. The visit brought back memories of that first visit, over twenty years earlier, where I witnessed Rabbi Lazar’s daily struggle to provide a Jewish infrastructure in Russia.
It is unbelievable to see the difference in these two short decades. He has truly built up a real chassidishe community with all the necessary institutions and more. Moscow has a full educational system, with advanced level studies, including boys’ and girls’ schools, yeshivos, a kollel, and community education. They also have a fully equipped community center including a senior center, clinic, etc.
I remembered the shul from my visit in 1980. At that time it was behind another building and was quite small. Today, it has been rebuilt and expanded into a beautiful large shul with a separate dairy and meat restaurant, mikvah, etc. The school system and the Jewish Museum are now housed within the shul complex. Rabbi Lazar has done a truly phenomenal job in building the community from the ground up.
Rabbi Lazar and I discussed our longstanding cooperation in kosher supervision at length and I met with his staff headed, by Rabbis Yossie Marzel and Yossie Verzuv. I was impressed with their extensive knowledge of both kashrus and general halacha. Their standards were quite impressive. (It is interesting to note that Rabbi Marzel’s father was my roommate in yeshiva in Kfar Chabad when I studied there. Truly a small world.)
To date we are working on many projects together and it is a pleasure to work with Rabbi Lazar and his team to continue providing kosher products that live up to the ~ motto of “Kosher Without Compromise”.
Rabbi Don Yoel Levy