This year is the twenty-fifth yahrzeit of my father, Rabbi Berel Levy, ob”m and I am moved to reflect on his unique approach to kashrus. He was the pioneer and foremost expert in kashrus during his tenure as Kashrus Administrator of the OK. My father was the first to realize that reading ingredients was not sufficient to establish the kashrus of a product. One needed all of the technical information to really understand the kashrus concerns, including knowledge of the actual ingredients and their origins, as well as technical knowledge of production equipment.
My father was the pioneer in kosher certification of flavor factories where there are thousands of ingredients. He was self-educated in the fields of chemistry and food production. I have heard many times over the years from various professionals about how they marveled at his vast knowledge of chemistry and food science. He also realized that he must have knowledge of the machinery used for the production of the products and he wanted to inspect the equipment himself.
I thank Hashem that I had the privilege to receive most of my kashrus education directly from my father. My father learned kashrus from the bottom up, meaning he spent countless hours in factories as a mashgiach until he became extremely familiar with the technicalities. My father insisted that I learn the same way, not from behind a desk, but by spending countless hours in the field.
One of his innovations was to investigate ingredients back to their source. Because of this he became a world traveler. First he visited Europe where many ingredients were produced. This is how, for example, the OK became involved with Callebaut Chocolate (today Barry Callebaut), one of the world’s largest chocolate manufacturers. My father was also the first rabbi to visit the Far East (in the early 1970s) to investigate the sources of ingredients for kashrus purposes. He visited Japan to investigate macrobiotic foods at the request of Meir Abehsera. He was the first rabbi to visit China at the request of Hunt Wesson (now Conagra) to investigate the kashrus of Chinese vegetables. In fact, his last visit to China was right before his unfortunate and untimely demise.
My father also was the first rabbi to visit Malaysia for kashrus inspections. At that time he visited an oleo chemical plant. Oleo chemicals are chemicals called fatty acids and glycerin, which are produced from fats or oils. In those days it was very common to produce these chemicals from both animal fats and vegetable oils in the same factories. This, of course, created tremendous kashrus issues and expenses to separate the productions since much of it was done the same equipment.
…Over the years, I visited this area many times and watched as it slowly built up to where it is today…
At that time a company called Acidchem in Penang, Malaysia started producing these chemicals from the palm fruit, which is found in abundance in that region. Due to the fact that there is an abundance of this fruit and the fact that Malaysia is a Muslim country where Halal is observed (which limits the use of animal fats) there is no use of animal fats there. In order to get to the facility when my father traveled to Malaysia, one had to take a primitive ferry to get there. Today there is a modern, wide bridge spanning the water passage, but in those days it was something of an adventure to get there.
When my father first went there, he only certified one plant. When I first visited Malaysia in 1987, we were only certifying three plants in that whole area. With the Hashem’s assistance we now certify 79 plants in the South Pacific region. This, of course, is due to the merit of my father’s innovation and desire to present the public with kashrus at its best. Over the years, I visited this area many times and watched as it slowly built up to where it is today.
At present the South Pacific is monitored by one of our Rabbinic Coordinators and he has been continuously visiting this part of the world for many years now. Recently, we also hired a local representative to visit the facilities. He speaks the local languages and understands the local mentality. We have several other rabbis visiting during the year, as well, to help cover the large amount of facilities in the area.
Earlier this year, I made a visit to the South Pacific after a hiatus of several years. Every part of this trip was quite an experience — even just getting there. The flight to Singapore alone takes 18-22 hours, if not more! There are basically three ways to fly there — the Pacific route, the polar route and the European route. Why is this important? When one flies the Pacific route going westward, if you depart during the day, it remains daylight for the entire travel time. If one departs during the night, it remains night for the entire travel time. If you travel and pass the dateline, you lose a day. For example, if one leaves on Saturday night it is dark the whole way, but when you land it is already Monday morning! The same goes for the polar route. Travel in this manner causes an issue of missing Sunday’s tefillos (and it gets even more complicated during sefira). When one travels via the European route day and night occur as usual and you land on Monday morning without missing any tefillos. I left Saturday night flew the European route, so, thank G-d, I didn’t lose any davening. I also landed early enough Monday morning that I was able to take a taxi directly to the local shul and partake in the daily minyan and listen to Krias HaTorah.
When I first visited Singapore there was an established Jewish community there with two shuls. Now, however, due to the efforts of the local Rav/Chabad Shaliach and the Jewish population the community has really developed and grown. At that time you had to bring your own food as there was little kosher food available in Singapore. Today, they have a kosher store stocked with meat, kosher food and a vast variety of Cholov Yisroel products. There is even an established local chicken shechita. There is also a kosher restaurant where you can get three kosher meals a day. What a delightful change.
Much of this in the zechus of Jacob Ballas, ob"m, who left a fund to build the Jacob Ballas Center, which includes a beautiful mikvah and a shul which is used every day. The fund also helps with the upkeep of the building. Mr. Ballas has the special zechus have this building built in his name.
Stay tuned for more details about my trip to the South Pacific in my next article, b’ezras Hashem.