Kosher Work Under Fire

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Kosher supervision is a demanding job, requiring a variety of skills, exceptional character, and, of course, plenty of Yiras Shomayim. What we aren’t used to associating with this work is physical danger. However, if you talk to Rabbi M., the OK mashgiach of the Matar Winery in the northern Golan Heights, you might change your opinion. Rabbi M. was almost killed this summer while doing his job.

The danger, we should clarify, wasn’t due to the work, but rather, the location. The Golan Heights borders Syria, where a bloody war has been waging for two years between the Assad regime and the rebels seeking to seize control of the country. Sometimes, the war can’t be contained within Syria, like on that fateful day, when a Syrian shell missed its target and landed directly on the Matar Winery.

It was the middle of the harvest season. The winery workers were busy receiving the newly-harvested grapes, when the loud boom was heard. When it was over, the winery was unrecognizable. There was destruction everywhere, many wine barrels were seriously damaged, and no fewer than 30,000 liters (approximately 7,925 gallons) of wine were spilled and lost.

“The roof was made of asbestos, so when it exploded it released toxins. We thought at first to transfer the wine to another winery – both the Golan Heights and Bazelet HaGolan wineries, certified by the OK, offered to help with transfer and storage, and even supplying grapes if the winery finds it has lost too many. In the end it wasn’t necessary but it was an impressive demonstration of unity,” says Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenfeld, the supervisor of all OK certified Israeli wineries.

But the loss of the wine wasn’t the worst consequence of the errant shell. The mashgiach, Rabbi M., was gravely wounded when a piece of shrapnel entered his neck and almost killed him. He was taken to the hospital, where he underwent an operation to remove the shrapnel. Had it gone 1-2 centimeters deeper, this story, Heaven forbid, might have ended very differently. Boruch Hashem, he was released from the hospital after two weeks and is expected to return to work shortly.

The unexpected event called for a quick response from the OK Israel headquarters. “I was sitting in my office when I saw an online breaking news notice about the shell,” says Rabbi Rosenfeld. “The building in the picture looked familiar to me, so I called the mashgiach to ask whether everything was okay. His adult son, who was working alongside him in the winery, answered the phone, telling me his father was on his way to the hospital. The place was crowded with army, police and Magen David Adom forces, but we knew we must send a replacement mashgiach right away to seal all the wine barrels. I called the mashgiach of Har Odem winery and he agreed to do it, but soon he called me to say he couldn’t reach the winery since the army closed all the nearby roads.”

In desperation, Rabbi Rosenfeld called the official rabbi of the Golan Heights district, Rabbi Yishai Samuel. (Matar is also certified by the Golan Heights Rabbinate). “Rabbi Samuel is acquainted with all the top brass in the area, so I hoped he might do something.” Indeed, Rabbi Samuel did more than something – he managed to reach the winery, sealed all the tanks while wearing a mask on his face because of the air pollution caused by the explosion, and sat down to watch over the wine from 7:00 PM until 12:00 PM the following day, when Rabbi Rosenfeld finally succeeded in arriving at the winery to relieve Rabbi Samuel. Boruch Hashem, since the entire winery was sealed off by the rescue forces and nobody was allowed to stay on the property, there was no kashrus issue with the wine remaining unsealed for a few hours.

“We saw many miracles on that day,” concludes Rabbi Rosenfeld. “The mashgiach, Rabbi M., recovered so quickly. His son, who was there, wasn’t hurt at all. Even the winery’s owner experienced a miracle: his children stood on the very spot the shell hit just a couple of minutes before. He had just finished putting them into his car when the boom was heard.”

The mashgichim in the Golan Heights, of course, will continue working, just like their counterparts in the south. Wars or no wars, the kosher work must go on.