C

ompetition. The word evokes images of a dog-eat-dog world, each man for himself. Imagine the competition in a $17 billion industry growing in leaps and bounds, serviced by 1,400 different agencies all vying for a piece of the pie.

Welcome to the world of kashrus — with those 1,400 agencies certifying some 800,000 products. To those of us who perceive the differences among the various kashrus agencies as little more than “politics,” it’s hard to imagine healthy competition, let alone collaboration, among those agencies. Ask the average kosher consumer why one agency doesn’t recommend the products of a different agency and the response is often not favorable.

Allow me to introduce our esteemed readership to the Association of Kashrus Organizations (AKO), and, more specifically, the biennial AKO Vaadim Conference. An umbrella organization for kashrus agencies, AKO has approximately 90 agencies as members, with membership granted to those who meet a high level of kashrus standards. Its primary goal, as described on its website, is “to unite the different kashrus agencies around the globe under one umbrella, serving the Jewish community to raise and maintain the highest level of kashrus possible.”

Sounds quite “pie in the sky.” Imagine competition working together. Who are we fooling?

Let me give you an insider’s view of the AKO Vaadim Conference, which took place recently in New Jersey’s Renaissance Woodlake Hotel. Each conference is hosted by one of the member agencies, and this year’s host was the Chof-K. I arrived at the conference with a mixture of excitement and apprehension, as I recalled my first AKO conference six years earlier. I had just moved to Cincinnati, and my new rabbanus position included responsibility for local kashrus, an area in which I had zero experience. Feeling quite intimidated, I approached some of the biggest names in the kashrus world — Rabbi Elefant of the OU, Rabbi Fishbane of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, Dr. Pollack of the Star-K — and requested their assistance on behalf of our fledgling local vaad. They all gave the same response: We will do whatever we can to help and support you. And help and support they did. When a local company needed visits, they would call on us, a sign of their friendship and trust. They guided us and gave direction. They were always there to answer the call.

I arrived at this summer’s conference with a little more experience, but I still felt overwhelmed and intimidated to be surrounded by the big players in kashrus.

Entering the hotel felt like walking into a family reunion, however. Friends and colleagues, who often meet in person only at an AKO conference, embraced one another. The question entered my mind yet again: These are all competitors. Is all that joy fake?

One of the early sessions at the conference was a halachah shiur on the topic of hasagas gevul, unfair business competition, given by Rav Shmuel Fuerst, the dayan of Agudath Israel of Illinois. Before the shiur, I was thinking how awkward and uncomfortable it would be to discuss unfair competition with a group of competitors. But the attendees sat in rapt attention, asking, clarifying, and seeking to know the truth about what is acceptable and what is not. The AKO guidelines for how agencies should interact with each other were referenced. Is this for real? In our highly competitive world, can competitors sit around like best friends and discuss proper and improper ways to compete?

A shiur the next day by Rav Simcha Bunim Cohen was, for me, a lightning bolt. Rav Cohen, quoting his grandfather, Rav Avigdor Miller, asked an insightful question. The pasuk in Bereishis (1:29) that discusses Hashem’s granting Adam permission to eat the fruits of the ground mentions the fruit’s seeds. Why? Who eats seeds? Rav Miller answered this question by asking a more general question: Why do we eat at all? Why couldn’t HaKadosh Baruch Hu have created us without a need to eat? Rav Miller explained that the goal of eating is for us to see the greatness of Hashem. Eat a piece of bread and think about the little seed that the wheat came from. Is it possible to think about a seed and not see Hashem in it? Rav Miller’s face would shine while he ate. “I am seeing the miracles of Hashem more and more as I eat,” he would explain. He would carry seeds, polished to a shine, in his pocket, which he would take out and gaze at in order to connect to Hashem.

Rav Cohen then turned to the crowd and exclaimed: “You are so lucky to be working in the food business. You are helping the masses see Hashem in everything they eat. The Torah says we keep kosher because we are an am kadosh, a holy nation, a nation of aristocrats. Because of all of you, Klal Yisrael can feel aristocratic.”

That’s when it hit me. No one at that conference sees his work as merely a job or a business. They are involved in meleches Shamayim, holy work — turning ordinary people into aristocrats, and helping them connect to Hashem with every bite they take. Competition? They are all working for the same Boss!

And then I thought, if only all Jews could see each other that way. Different types of people, different customs, different yarmulkes, different clothing, different backgrounds, all working for the same Boss.

Such an attitude would certainly rectify the sinas chinam for which we mourn on Tishah B’Av. And next year, we’ll hopefully join in a glorious seudas Tishah B’Av, seeing the miracles of Hashem in every bite.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 723. Rabbi Avrohom Weinrib is the rav of Zichron Eliezer in Cincinnati, rabbinic administrator of Cincinnati Kosher, and assistant executive director of AKO.