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Is Your Mashgiach Kosher-Certified?

Rabbi Nosson Dubin sets a single standard for kashrus supervision

Photos: Golani Photography

When my nephew came from overseas to attend Touro College, he needed a part-time job. He’d never attended yeshivah, but managed to get hired as a mashgiach at a Brooklyn restaurant. He spent his time there washing lettuce and occasionally lighting a burner, but otherwise he didn’t supervise the workers. How could he? He only knew the bare basics.

“Being a mashgiach is too often a default position,” says Rabbi Yosef Eisen of the Vaad of the Five Towns. “Other professionals have to get training and certification, and they get respect because there’s a recognized industry standard. But too many mashgichim don’t receive that kind of training.”

That’s why Rabbi Nosson Dubin, the administrator of Houston Kashruth Association (HKA), young, energetic, and tech-savvy, is on a crusade to change this state of affairs. He intends to ensure that mashgichim receive rigorous, certifiable training — and consequently, higher regard and higher salaries. Rabbi Dubin now provides a formal, online training course that any mashgiach can take to receive an official certification showing he’s learned the halachos of running a kosher kitchen. Already up and running, the Kosher Institute of America promises to become an invaluable resource for the Jewish food industry.

First Course

Rabbi Dubin meets us in Genesis, a small but swanky steak house in Houston that’s under his hashgachah. He’s of medium height, with a trimmed beard, and while only in his thirties, he carries himself with a quiet authority, as befits an expert in the field and his position as the director of Houston’s kashrus association. It’s nine thirty on a Friday morning, too early for customers, but a good time for a conversation.

Like most members of the Houston community, Rabbi Dubin is a transplant; we discover that he grew up just a few blocks away from me in Brooklyn. After learning for multiple years in BMG in Lakewood, he and his wife, Tzirel, decided to try out the Lakewood Kollel in Houston.

“We haven’t looked back since,” he says.

The author of a sefer on kashrus, Hatzaas Hashulchan (now a go-to sefer for people preparing for semichah), Rabbi Dubin was learning and giving shiurim when the former HKA head left the agency. He proposed that Rabbi Dubin take over his job. Rabbi Dubin accepted, and while he continues to learn and give shiurim, running HKA became his day job.

A few years ago, he noticed that there were no courses online to learn kashrus.

“There were articles here and there,” he says. “But there was nothing formal and comprehensive.”

He set out to create one. His first attempt was meant to be a general course to take someone who knows absolutely nothing and educate him in how to set up and run a kosher kitchen. He produced 35 lectures and demos, including guides and flow charts that a person can hang on a fridge for convenient reference. He made his material available online, and before long, Aish reached out, requesting to partner with him and offer it as part of Aish Academy. Rabbi Dubin not only agreed, he also worked with Aish.com developers to adapt the course for their site.

In November 2018, he attended the conference of the Association of Kashrus Organizations (AKO), an umbrella organization of kashrus agencies. The conference drew 200 people representing agencies from all over the world. Rabbi Avrohom Weinrib of Cincinnati Kosher presented the idea of creating a formal online training course for mashgichim, and Rabbi Sholem Fishbane, who heads both the CRC (Chicago) and AKO, asked Rabbi Dubin if he could create the course.

“There are many mashgichim in food services, and lots of hashgachahs, each with its own system for training,” he says. “Many have some sort of course, but often give trainings only once or twice a year.”

Every hashgachah that belongs to the AKO needs to meet minimal standards to join, but the lack of rigorous training was getting embarrassing.

“Almost every field requires training,” Rabbi Dubin says. “Our mashgichim are required to have training, but they aren’t getting it.”

AKO put in seed money, and Rabbi Dubin spent the next year creating the website and demos that would become the training curriculum of the AKO Mashgiach Course, which is developed and offered by the KIA, the Kosher Institute of America. He purposely kept the cost very low — only $30 — to make it accessible.

The result is an elegant, user-friendly website with several free sample classes and 60 lectures — all of them presented by Rabbi Dubin himself, in a lucid, authoritative style. The topics range from pas akum to insect infestation to proper decorum and dress in the workplace. It was meticulously crafted on the halachic level.

“Rabbi Dovid Cohen from the CRC is the expert on kashrus,” Rabbi Dubin maintains. “He went through all the material with a fine-toothed comb, writing hundreds of comments. We created surveys for many different hashgachahs to ascertain the most common psak on a variety of questions, including comments about alternative ways to do it.”

This way, users will learn the most standard practices, but can also learn about practices like using only Beit Yosef or chassidishe shechitah, or the prohibition of leaving an unpeeled egg overnight.

 

Recipe for Success

The class was presented at the AKO conference and went live this past January 1, and Rabbi Dubin offered a full refund for those who had completed it by the end of February. One by one the kashrus agencies began signing on —Atlanta, Miami, Columbus, Northern California, Dallas, Houston, Ottawa, Kof-K, South Africa, and more. They didn’t just sign up. They started submitting videos they themselves had created to suit their specific needs, and he added them in on the back end. Two months later, 220 people were enrolled, and the number continues to grow.

“Some hashgachahs already had their own two-week training, but they’re switching to ours, because it’s easier and more systematic,” he says. “It’s also cheaper. Since our course can be learned on people’s own time — at home, even on their phones — employers don’t have to pay their employees to attend two weeks of training.”

Rabbi Eisen of the Vaad of the Five Towns is excited at the potential for the course to unify what is currently a very diverse group of hashgachahs.

“It’s a way to get all the pearls together on one string,” he says, adding that Rabbi Dubin has achieved the difficult feat of being accepted by everyone in the field — this by dint of his yiras Shamayim, Torah knowledge, and willingness to seek out advice from more experienced kashrus administrators.

Rabbi Dubin grants that some procedures, like checking vegetables, really need hands-on instruction to master properly, but he demonstrates the techniques by video as best he can. With the site launched, he now spends time trouble-shooting any issues that arise. The site allows people to post their sh’eilos, and the answers are public so that everyone can see them. Rabbi Dubin also wrote printable universal guides for mashgichim, like The Shabbos Kitchen Guide, which is available for a nominal fee on Amazon.

Every course of study ideally involves accountability, and upon completing the course, mashgichim take a test composed of 40 questions randomly selected from a pool.

“We had a situation recently where a mashgiach failed the final exam,” Rabbi Dubin relates. “But the software tracks the time people spend on the site. It turns out the man had only spent 30 minutes learning the material.”

Passing the exam is an indication that a mashgiach has completed the course and mastered the basics, and this is an invaluable credential for kashrus agencies looking to hire. Anyone who passes the exam receives a photo ID, valid for the next three years, which can be presented to employers.

Can working as a mashgiach be a career?

“It depends on the hashgachah, and the type of position,” Rabbi Dubin says. “The temporary, fill-in kind of jobs pay less. Some people don’t care about low pay, because they’re idealistic and this is a way to contribute to their community. In some organizations, there’s room to move up. You can start koshering larger facilities, or become an administrator. In my experience, the people who become administrators after working as mashgichim understand the challenges of the field better than those who started at the top.”

Kashrus in Action

Rabbi Dubin takes us back into the kitchen of the steak house to show us HKA kashrus supervision in action.

“Most crises arise out of ignorance,” he says.

To prevent such crises, he developed a formal protocol in both English and Spanish for all Houston restaurants, with additions for each restaurant’s unique situation.

HKA supervision is primarily focused on food service, restaurants, and stores, as opposed to agencies like the Orthodox Union, which does the lion’s share of industrial certification (and commands 75 percent of market share for kashrus supervision).

“Industrial certifications are very plant-specific,” Rabbi Dubin explains. “Chemical plants are very different from a plant that makes pasta, which is different from a plant that manufactures soft drinks, each one requiring its own expertise.”

As we enter the kitchen, Rabbi Dubin points out a convection oven, noting that a mashgiach has to understand not only food, but appliance technology. This convection oven heats to very high temperatures, so as a safety feature, it turns off when you open it. The fire restarts when it closes. But restarting by a non-Jew creates a problem of bishul akum, so only a Jew can close the door.

“Some places install an override on the sensor, so that the oven no longer shuts off when it’s opened,” Rabbi Dubin says. “But that makes things really hot for the workers, so other places are careful to have a Jew close the door.”

He now shows us two deep fryers, one for meat and one for fish. They’re right next to each other, and having one splash into the other would be a problem. To avoid the issue, he installed a sheet of metal upright in between as a barrier.

To demonstrate how to check for bugs, he fills a basin with water and a fruit and vegetable wash that looks soapy. “You can use regular soap — it works just as well if not better,” Rabbi Dubin says. “But food safety regulations in restaurants don’t allow it.”

He swooshes a large handful of romaine lettuce leaves into the basin. Then he spreads a piece of cloth in between two colanders, explaining, “This is a special micro cloth or thrip cloth. It’s a 230-mesh, 48-micron cloth that only water will pass through — not bugs, even very small ones.” He buys it in rolls and cuts pieces as needed.

He now takes the soapy lettuce and rinses it over the colander.

“It usually takes about six rinses to get it completely clean,” he says.

He finishes the rinse, then brings the cloth over to a light box. I can’t distinguish between specks of dirt and bugs, but Rabbi Dubin finds two critters: a thrip and an aphid.

A mashgiach with jeans and a red beard, Sam Kronman, is standing by. From his appearance, you might peg him as a hipster or a farmer, and it turns out he’s the latter — he owns his own farm.

“I’ve been thinking about trying to grow produce hydroponically, so that bugs would be less of a problem,” he offers.

After this demonstration, it’s clear that cleaning lettuce properly on a restaurant scale is time-consuming, albeit necessary.

In addition to Sam, there are two female mashgichim on site. Rabbi Dubin notes that in New York and Lakewood, female mashgichim are much less common, but out of town, about half of mashgichim are women.

“I find women to be very good,” he says. “They’re detail-oriented, and already familiar with food and food preparation.”

We leave the kitchen, but not before taking note of the iron curtain that’s rolled down and locked every night after the restaurant closes. When it comes to protecting kashrus, no one wants to take chances.

Setting the Tone

Rabbi Dubin is mild-mannered by nature, but it’s inevitable that a kashrus administrator, or mashgiach for that matter, will occasionally be obligated to lay down the law when kashrus standards are threatened. Rabbi Dubin estimates that the skill set of mashgichim requires 25 percent kashrus, 75 percent human relations, and a hefty dose of yiras Shamayim thrown in.

“It’s the yiras Shamayim that makes the difference when the lettuce still isn’t clean after five washes, and the chef is yelling he needs more salad,” he says.

The human relations piece is necessary to deal with crises of kashrus, conflict resolution, and maintaining pleasant relations with establishments. As Rabbi Eisen puts it: “A mashgiach has to command respect, not demand respect.” The AKO course includes highly acclaimed classes in how to accomplish this. A mashgiach needs to walk a constant tightrope between diplomacy and backbone.

One thing that helps is to make sure kashrus issues are treated impersonally, as issues of halachah rather than personal criticism. One HKA client, for example, is a bakery owned by Jews who aren’t religious. They have a strong relationship with Rabbi Dubin, even refer to him as their personal rabbi. When they opted to open during Pesach, they knew he would have no choice but to withdraw their HKA certification.

“We still have a great relationship, because they understood it was nothing personal,” he says.

Another client was cutting corners in violation of policy, and Rabbi Dubin asked them to discard several hundred dollars’ worth of food. When the owner objected, “But Rabbi, we have a great relationship!” he responded, “We do, but you violated our policy. The two things are not mutually exclusive.”

He attributes his own approach to a game-changing moment when he was supervising kashrus in a hotel. When something happened and he appeared disappointed, the head chef told him, “Hey, Rabbi, we’re all on the same team here. The food here has to be delicious and kosher. We share the same goal, to make sure it goes out perfect on both counts.”

“That gave me a paradigm shift,” Rabbi Dubin says. “A mashgiach isn’t looking to catch people messing up, but to set them up for success. Imagine a situation where a worker takes out his own knife in the kitchen. The mashgiach catches him and starts screaming, and it creates a big PR crisis. Instead, the mashgiach could bring over a different knife and tell the worker nicely, ‘Would you mind using this one instead? It’s already kashered.’ You treat it as a mistake, not a crime. You turn the mindset into one of camaraderie and team success.”

The role of a mashgiach is one that often isn’t accorded due respect by employers. “One kashrus administrator was told by a restaurant owner, ‘My regular employees are required to take a two-hour safety course from the government. You kashrus people send people in, and they have no training at all. So what am I paying you for?’

“But if we require mashgichim to get real training,” says Rabbi Dubin, “I hope they’ll receive more respect — and more money too.”

Supermarket Savvy

Rabbi Dubin drives us across town to show us his latest achievement: kosher supervision at HEB, an enormous Texas supermarket. It’s not a kosher store, but part of a chain that operates high-end and cut-rate outlets.

“HEB was rated the number one retailer in the US,” Rabbi Dubin states.

He introduces us to Levi Donin, his partner in turning the store into a hub for Houston’s kosher consumers. Mr. Donin, now the manager of this new HEB, had taken the initiative to approach the store and convince them to create designated kosher areas for meat, fish, baked goods, vegetable and fruit products (juices, guacamole), and even a Starbucks-style coffee stand.

The store has only been open a few weeks, but the Jewish community is really excited. It’s spanking new, gleaming, and mega-sized. We’re there on a Friday morning, and quite a few frum women are cruising the aisles shopping for Shabbos. An older man without a yarmulke comes running up to Rabbi Dubin holding a large bottle of garlic powder.

“Is this okay, rabbi?” he asks.

Half an hour later, yet another man approaches Rabbi Dubin with a shopping list, wanting to know if coriander and cumin need a hechsher.

As he leaves, Rabbi Dubin notes, “The Kof-K is developing a food service app for mashigichim. My understanding is that you will be able to scan a UPC code and see its kosher status across all agencies, with notes like ‘chalav stam.’ ”

HEB maintains three mashgichim on a full-time basis — today it’s two women and a man. The women are supervising the kosher sushi station. In a hallway behind the station, the kosher supplies are kept in a large, locked metal cage.

Next door, Rabbi Dubin shows us a room devoted exclusively to making kosher juices and guacamole. These store-brand fresh juices — orange, strawberry-lemon, green juice — look so tempting, it’s impossible to resist a free sample. They have a heavenly fresh-squeezed taste that convinces me to buy a couple of bottles before I leave.

We tour the kosher meat section, where each package is initialed by hand with the initials of the mashgiach and a certification code, indicating the hashgachah supervising the actual shechitah. The store maintains a special room off the main butcher area for kosher meat and charcuterie. Here it’s really important to separate what’s kosher and what’s not, so the door locks automatically. “The workers can get out, but they can’t get back in unless the mashgiach keys them in. If the door is left open too long, an alarm goes off.”

A similar separation exists on the other side of the store between the kosher and nonkosher bakeries, side by side but separated by a tiled wall. The kosher bakery produces appetizing breads, challahs, bagels, and cakes, and even has its own tortilla machine (with a plug lock underneath to ensure pas Yisrael) that carries the tortillas by a conveyor belt into a little oven. Every pan, bowl, and utensil is a different brand or color from those in the nonkosher bakery, so nothing gets mixed up.

If you live in a city with a large Jewish population, you never have to worry about these things: You’ll have all-kosher butchers, bakeries, and supermarkets, not “mixed” ones like HEB. But for those living the true out-of-town experience, options like this are a lifesaver.

High-Tech Surveillance

Technology has given mashgichim, and their supervisors, new tools to ensure both the kashrus of food and the veracity — or lack of it — from workers. One of the newest innovations, one which Rabbi Dubin believes will soon be ubiquitous in food service, is the installation of video cameras.

“It’s HKA policy to require the installation of a camera on premises, and it’s becoming standard all over the US,” he says. He can access the video feed on his phone. “In a few situations, the cameras were unbelievably useful.”

For example, a kosher-certified establishment was preparing a fish dish. The mashgiach, who stays on premises full time, happened to step away for 15 minutes to do something, and when she returned it seemed to her that something about the fish looked different from the usual.

When she queried the worker, he responded, “It’s fish. It’s a natural product, sometimes it looks different. Sometimes the packaging is different.”

She asked to see the package, but it was nowhere to be found.

“She called me immediately,” Rabbi Dubin says, “and I looked at the camera feed. The worker had run out of fish, so he quickly picked up nonkosher fish from a nearby nonkosher supermarket.

“This was an establishment that had initially balked at installing a camera, but this proved to them that it was a necessity. Fortunately the client is very trustworthy, to the point where he immediately fired the employee.”

Cameras can be helpful in periods like the COVID-19 crisis, when plants were reluctant to let in too many mashgichim. Some tried to stay in touch through FaceTime. But in the end, even the most sophisticated technology can’t replace a human presence.

“Rabbi Sholem Fishbane told me about a hashgachah whose mashgiach was supervising a plant via camera due to COVID-19, and ultimately permitted to conduct a physical inspection,” Rabbi Dubin relates. “He noticed drums of nonkosher gelatin in the storeroom and wanted to know what they were doing there. They told him, ‘Oh, because of the virus, we’ve been using it to make hand sanitizer.’ The camera wouldn’t have picked that up.

“Lighting fires, washing vegetables properly… these are things you can’t replace with a camera.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 817)

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