Star-K and OU introduce kashrut courses for women
By Tova Ross
Issue of July 24, 2009 / 3 Av 5769
A Jewish woman’s place may be in the kitchen after all, but not just in her own kitchen.
The Star-K and the Orthodox Union both have begun to offer courses in kashrut education and administration specifically geared to women. They represent the first time such courses have been given by major kashrut organizations.
Rabbi Menachem Genack, chief executive officer of OU Kosher, cited the halachic principle of “aid echad ne’eman b’yisrael,” which states that one Jew is an acceptable witness in certain areas of Jewish law including kashrut. The principle, Rabbi Genack explains, applies equally to a man or woman; thus, in the OU’s view, it is one hundred percent halachically acceptable to employ a kosher supervisor who happens to be female. If women were not to be trusted with kashrut supervision, many a husband and child would go hungry in their own homes. Nevertheless, the OU’s course, which begins in August, is intended for women who wish to undertake a rigorous review of the intricate laws of kashrut and current issues, and not specifically to train women as mashgichot.
The Star-K’s course is intended for women already trained as mashgichot, or female kosher supervisors. Rabbi Mayer Kurcfeld, kashrus administrator at the Star-K, says the organization relies on Rav Moshe Feinstein’s ruling allowing for mashgichot (found in Igros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah II: 44). Though the true number of Orthodox female mashgichot is hard to pin down, Star-K has officially employed more than a dozen women over the last twenty-five or so years.
“You really would not believe how many women are working as mashgichot or more informal kosher supervisors in many of the catering halls, nursing homes, and restaurants in a lot of small towns,” explains Rabbi Kurcfeld. “The Star-K’s revolutionary course… will address some of the most common questions I receive from women in the field and in my travels to different Jewish communities around the country.
“Because the Star-K has a lot of experience that small-town Va’ads or pulpit rabbis may not have, it is my hope that this upcoming training course for these women lays a better foundation of understanding of the complexities of laws of kashrut.”
These questions include koshering kitchen equipment, dealing with caterers on Shabbat and Yom Tov, and arranging a kitchen that is logistically sensible but also incorporates halachic concerns of not mixing meat with either dairy or fish. The two-day seminar is planned for November. After the classes, women will receive a certificate of completion.
Phyllis Koegel of Cedarhurst has worked in the kashrut industry for many years and has her own theory on why more and more women are requesting extensive kashrut education.
“Women from the previous generation or two certainly didn’t have as many issues as young women do today in terms of kashrut knowledge,” she states. “For instance, pesticides were widely used in earlier decades – it’s a fairly recent phenomenon of health-consciousness that has taken the world by storm, which means that now fewer pesticides are used and more bugs appear in different fruits and vegetables. Additionally, ovens and other kitchen appliances are increasingly becoming more and more advanced, and inspire more questions on what exactly is allowed on Shabbat.”
So what explains the relative scarcity of women in official roles of supervision in commercial kitchens?
It is “strictly a sociological phenomenon, and not a halachic one,” says Rabbi Saul Zucker, of Teaneck, NJ. Longtime Star-K Mashgicha Yael Kaner explains that in smaller towns and cities, people are more tolerant of female mashgichot.
“When I first started looking for kosher supervision work in Great Neck [where she lived for a year], I was told not to even bother contacting the Va’ad there, because women in those types of roles weren’t conventional there,” Kaner says. “There’s definitely a level of trust earned amongst members of smaller, out-of-town communities who really get to know me – that isn’t present in larger cities.”
Perhaps better than anyone else, Kaner knows the significance of the Star-K training course. As a student at Clark University in Massachusetts some thirty years ago, she began working in the kosher kitchen to earn pocket money; instead, she found a calling.
“When I first began supervising kosher kitchens, I was one of two women that I knew in that role,” she says. Kaner, who is Lubavitch, says there were no mashgicha training courses around then, so she learned the ins and outs of kashrut supervision on the job, learning from rabbis and men who served as mashgichim.
Her subsequent role as a rebbetzin allowed her to actively participate in her husband’s synagogues in San Francisco and Rockville, MD as a supervisor of kashrut. During the 17 years she lived in Washington, D.C., she spent a decade supervising the kashrut of Dahan Caterers; she also worked in many restaurants and on catering jobs, including at events on Capitol Hill and at the Supreme Court.
“I’ve received some weird looks here and there from people who asked to see the mashgiach, expecting a rabbi with a long beard and getting me. But for the most part, I felt welcome and respected,” explains Kaner, “Sure, sometimes it’s not immediate that you have everyone’s respect or cooperation, but in most cases the kitchen becomes a more refined place over time, as people learn that I am just as capable and knowledgeable as anyone else.”