Rabbi Moshe Elefant juggles a famed daf yomi shiur and job as shul rav while running the OU’s kashrus empire
Photos: Naftoli Goldgrab
They say if you have something you need done, you should ask a busy person to do it.
If that’s true, Rabbi Moshe Elefant must know a lot of people who need things done.
He’s been running the Orthodox Union’s kashrus unit, the world’s largest certification agency, for decades — a job that only keeps him on call when it’s daytime in any of the world’s 24 time zones. He also spends hours each day preparing and delivering a daf yomi shiur for 1,300 listeners.
To top it all off, he recently took on the responsibilities of serving as a shul rav.
“Whenever an opportunity to do good comes along, and I think I can do it,” Rabbi Elefant acknowledges, “I have a very hard time saying no.”
Rabbi Elefant and the OU’s kashrus division, founded in 1923, have become synonymous during their 35-year relationship. As chief operating officer and executive rabbinic coordinator, he oversees the certification and monthly inspection of more than a million products, in 12,000 plants located in every one of the 50 states and in 105 countries around the world. He supervises 850 field representatives, 60 rabbinic coordinators, and 80 administrative support staff.
“Most Americans eat some kosher food every day,” the OU website asserts, “but chances are they’re not aware of it. Take a walk down the aisles of any supermarket and you will see that certification appears on over 60 percent of America’s produced foods that are certified kosher, from the coveted Oreo to the thirst-quenching Coca-Cola.”
Kosher food is a $150 billion business, and Rabbi Elefant has a comfortable VIP ringside seat.
Skin of Their Teeth
The living room of the Elefant home is lined with seforim shranks: the massive yellow Shas tomes from decades ago, the famous eight-volume set of Shulchan Aruch that crams every second word into an acronym, the dozens of well-used old print seforim. These sit side by side with a respectable number of newer seforim.
At either end of the extended living room hangs a framed portrait: one of the Chofetz Chaim, the other of the Shefa Chaim — the Klausenburger Rebbe.
“I did not know the Chofetz Chaim,” says Rabbi Elefant, “but I was zocheh to know the Klausenburger.”
As with so many parts of his life, he tells me a few times, “Everything has a story.”
Rabbi Elefant’s connection to Klausenburg runs deep. His father and uncle were the Rebbe’s dentists, several of his aunts are married to Klausenburger chassidim, and his grandfather was a prized talmid of the Nitra Rav, the Rebbe’s father-in-law.
“Listen carefully,” he begins, “because the whole Elefant family story really starts with this story. It is Hashgachah pratis from beginning to end.”
His grandfather, Reb Yaakov Elefant, lived in Bardejov, a historically Slovakian city not far from Munkacs whose boulevards are still lined with buildings intact from medieval times. Jews made up a third of its prewar population, but they were mostly exterminated in the Holocaust. No Jew lives there today.
When the Nazis invaded, they immediately deported the town’s 3,000 or so Jews, but, at the request of the townspeople, allowed Reb Yaakov Elefant to remain. It turned out he had a skill that was indispensable to the townspeople — he was their dentist.
Reb Yaakov, however, was determined to tie his fate to his people. He escaped, ending up in Banska Bystrica, a large city in Slovakia, where he rented an apartment. There was room for him, his wife, and five of their eight children — his oldest son had fled the Czechoslovakian military draft and came to New York. Two other sons, Rabbi Elefant’s father, Yeshaya, and his brother, rented a room elsewhere in the city. It was a tiny apartment, with just space for two beds.
Shortly afterward, the Nitra Rav, Rav Shmuel Dovid Ungar Hy”d, came to Banska Bystrica along with his son, Sholom Moshe — the future Nitra Rav of Mount Kisco. They needed a place to stay, so the two teenagers bundled up on one bed, and the Nitra Rav and his son slept on the other. But as the stream of refugees intensified, more Nitra talmidim arrived in the city with nowhere to stay. The Elefant brothers tried making room for them, but when they noticed some of the bochurim had typhus, they opted to move out.
“In the end, the Nitra Rav caught typhus from one of those talmidim, was niftar, and was buried in Banska Bystrica,” Rabbi Elefant says. “After the war, the Klausenburger Rebbe married a daughter of the Nitra Rav. So yes, we’ve had a strong connection to Klausenburg for many years, and I was zocheh to go in a number of times to the Rebbe.”
The family of two parents, four sons, and four daughters eventually made their way to the Carpathian Mountains and survived the war intact — an extreme rarity. The family credits this phenomenon to the chesed their grandfather did before the war. Rabbi Elefant’s father was once davening in Boro Park’s Shomer Shabbos shul on the day of his father’s yahrtzeit, and a Yid sitting there told him how he recalled eating at his father’s table back in Bardejov, along with 50 other guests.
Reb Yaakov had a love for Eretz Yisrael, even commissioning a sefer Torah to be written by a sofer in Eretz Yisrael in 1935. Rabbi Elefant pauses the narrative, hurrying to a shelf to remove a photo album with pictures from that hachnassas sefer Torah.
“It was unheard of in 1935 to have a sefer Torah written in Eretz Yisrael,” Rabbi Elefant notes as he flips the pages, pointing out his father in various poses as a young boy. “But my grandfather had such a love for Eretz Yisrael.”
Turns out that there’s also a story behind his unique family name.
“We’re a very large family with an uncommon name,” Rabbi Elefant says.
Genealogical research suggests that the name originated with the illustrious Alfandari clan — which includes the Yad Aharon, who lived in Chevron in the 1700s, and the Saba Kadisha of Constantinople, Damascus, and Eretz Yisrael — and that Rabbi Elefant’s ancestors were among those who left Spain after the expulsion in 1492.
“We went from Spain to Russia to Hungary, and along the way the name was shortened from Alfandari to Elefant,” he explains.
When he lectured in Spain several years ago, he related this story and was informed that he was likely eligible for Spanish citizenship, due to a new law that awards citizenship to descendants of the expulsion. But the residency requirement stopped him.
“I have no plans of moving to Spain,” quips Rabbi Elefant, a born-and-bred Boro Parker. “I haven’t yet finished what I need to do in America.”
And the list of what he needs to do in America keeps expanding. What started off with kashrus has today branched out to his becoming one of the most popular maggidei shiur for daf yomi, and more recently to his becoming the rav of a shul.
It was a two-minute encounter with Rav Tuvia Goldstein, a posek who consulted frequently with Rav Moshe Feinstein and the rosh kollel where Rabbi Elefant studied after his marriage, that gave him his life’s motto.
Rav Tuvia was the recipient of thorny sh’eilos from around the world, and he would discuss them with members of his kollel, Emek Halachah in Boro Park, to give them a feel for psak. One day a sh’eilah came in regarding a life-and-death situation. The kollel heatedly discussed the matter for a while, and then resumed regular learning.
“I went up to Rav Tuvia,” Rabbi Elefant recalled, “and I asked him, ‘Rosh Yeshivah, you get sh’eilos all the time about kosher or treif, muttar or assur, but here we are dealing with lives. How does one take it upon himself to answer such a sh’eilah?’ It was a little chutzpahdig to ask this, but I was close to him.”
“Rav Tuvia answered, ‘When a person does something and he believes that he was brought into the world for that purpose, he has to remember three words — ki l’kach notzarta. This is why Hashem sent you to this world. If Hashem gives you the talents and abilities, get up in the morning and live life that way.’
“I took that as a motto for life,” Rabbi Elefant says. “Any opportunity that comes my way — and I’m a very, very busy person — I live with the l’kach notzarta. My wife and family are always concerned that I’m taking too much upon myself. But I can’t forget Rav Tuvia’s message of ki l’kach notzarta.”
Not easy for someone who oversees a sprawling certification operation upon which the sun never sets. The OU has mashgichim stationed in 10,000 factories across America and in over a hundred countries.
The week after our interview, Rabbi Elefant was a guest lecturer for Shabbos in Britain. And by the end of the week, Rabbi Mendy Chitrik, the Chabad shaliach in Istanbul and the OU’s man in Turkey, had tweeted a picture of him and Rabbi Elefant in the Land of Four Seasons. He then returned for a community Shabbos in Baltimore.
“I need to be available in every time zone of the world,” he says. “I really appreciate Shabbos, because there are no phone calls and I get to learn and spend time with my family.”
How is he able to keep up with so much? He credits his wife, Leah Esther (née Welder), for “doing all the work and never giving me chores and sending me shopping.”
“All the years,” Rabbi Elefant says, “she took care of everything in the house, even though she never stopped working as a computer programmer since we got married. She also turned out to be a better rebbetzin than I am a rabbi. She attracts many women to shul, who come just because of her.”
While he was learning in Emek Halachah, a fellow kollel yungerman who had begun working at the OU office advised him to consider a career in kashrus.
“The OU is looking for another rav in the office,” his friend said, “and I think you would be a good fit.”
Rabbi Elefant, married for about five years at that point, had no plans for entering the workforce yet, but he agreed that “it couldn’t hurt” to go for an interview. He spent an hour with Rabbi Menachem Genack, the CEO of the OU’s kashrus division, and others, and received a job offer on the spot. He was convinced.
He began his job on October 1, 1987, as one of the agency’s rabbanim, and received a slew of promotions until reaching his present position of chief operating officer. “And now,” he says expansively, leaning back in his chair, “we’re almost 35 years later.”
The buttoned-down Rabbi Genack and the more gregarious Rabbi Elefant, the former a prime student of “the Rav,” Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, and the latter more likely to cite a chassidish or mussar sefer in a discourse, have jointly led the agency for a third of a century.
“We complement each other,” Rabbi Elefant says, offering an anecdote to illustrate this.
The two were in Eretz Yisrael years ago, and went along with several others to visit the Belzer Rebbe at his winter home in Telz Stone. The Rebbe offered each of them a glass of apple juice, handing one first to Rabbi Genack.
“Rabbi Genack is a Litvak, what does he know?” Rabbi Elefant says, laughing. “He’s a man of polite manners, so he passed the glass to the person next to him. I gave him a kick under the table — you’re not allowed to do that. If the Rebbe gives you something, then it’s for you, not for the next guy.
“He’s the Litvak and I’m the heimisher, but we’ve been working very closely together for decades, and we work very well together,” Rabbi Elefant says. “He teaches me Brisker minhagim and I tell him about the chassidish minhagim. We each have our own style and personality, but in all the years we’ve worked together, we always ended up agreeing. There is no zich” — the yeshivish term for self or ego — “and the fact that we are so harmonious is a special brachah that we both very much appreciate.”
Mishpacha’s report about the AKO kashrus conference several weeks ago included an anecdote related by an official with the Kof-K, which certifies Pepsi. He once made the faux pas of bringing a Pepsi vice president to a restaurant that only sold Coke products. The Pepsi executive refused to sit down until the Coke was removed from the table.
Rabbi Elefant has a similar story that runs the other way. The OU certifies Coca-Cola, and the beverage giant regularly sends top executives to the agency’s annual convention. One year the dinner took place at a hotel that had a contract with Pepsi.
“I noticed that the Coke executives came to the dinner, but none of them would sit down,” Rabbi Elefant relates. “I went over to them and asked, ‘Why aren’t you sitting down?’
“They told me, ‘We can’t sit at a table that has Pepsi products on it.’
“We had to remove all the Pepsi products and send a waiter down the block to the grocery store to buy Coca-Cola for that table.”
One of the common misconceptions people have about hashgachos, Rabbi Elefant says, is that the agencies do not get along. To the contrary, he says the way these “competitors” work together in kashrus should be taught in business classes.
“They all rely on the OU for the ingredients they need,” Rabbi Elefant says. “And if we both certify a factory, we’ll both agree to accept the highest common denominator. So if you have this chumra, we’ll also accept that chumra.
“We have to be smart. If there is a factory that needs multiple hechsherim, why do we need two mashgichim if we can have one mashgiach who is good for both? So we’ll work with the other organization to find somebody who satisfies both of us.”
He recalls getting a call from a spice factory owner in the Israeli city of Akko many years ago. The plant was small, with only 35 employees, but under the splintered system in Israel, a total of nine different hashgachah agencies were overseeing the factory, each with their own mashgiach.
At a loss where to place nine additional people, which equaled a quarter of his workforce, the factory owner telephoned Rabbi Elefant and begged him to come up with a solution. He was a secular Jew, and he called Rabbi Elefant because the OU was one of those granting a hechsher.
Rabbi Elefant agreed, making a one-day trip to Israel, and managed to arrive at a solution. He identified a mashgiach and a standard that all nine agencies could agree to.
“The plane I flew home on was the same plane that I had arrived on,” recounts Rabbi Elefant with a laugh. “It had the same crew, and I got the exact same seat. The stewardess looked at me and said, ‘Did you ever get off?’ But that situation is something we work very hard to avoid here in the United States.”
he OU adheres to standards that are broad, but perhaps more lenient than what Rabbi Elefant’s average neighbor in Boro Park would accept. Its draw has always been that it has ironclad common denominator standards, and will fight tenaciously for these to be upheld.
“The Novominsker Rebbe once told me,” Rabbi Elefant says, “‘First I look for the OU, then I look for the heimishe hashgachah.’ We live on the principle of transparency — anyone is entitled to know anything they want about an OU-certified product. There are no secrets. My salary is not dependent on whether you are going to eat an OU product. We have truth, transparency, and consistency. There are not two OU hechshers. Whatever policies and opinions we follow in this company are the exact same at the next company.”
As a communal nonprofit organization, the OU plows profits from the kashrus division back into that unit, with leftover funds going to finance kiruv activities.
The biggest difference, perhaps, that sets the OU hechsher apart is its stance on chalav stam — milk the US government certifies as containing pure cow’s milk but does not meet the criteria for chalav Yisrael, having a Jew oversee the milking process. Relying on a heter of Rav Moshe Feinstein, the OU certifies such milk as kosher, adding a label when the dairy product is chalav Yisrael.
“We recognize that a Yid who lives here in Boro Park,” Rabbi Elefant says — then adding, pointing to himself, “and if I may say, even this Jew — only buys chalav Yisrael. But what about the Yid in Kansas or in Tennessee who can’t get, or isn’t interested in, chalav Yisrael?”
About two decades ago, he says, the Belzer Rebbe summoned the heads of OU kashrus, Rabbis Genack and Elefant, to his guest residence during a visit to New York.
“I think,” the Rebbe suggested, “that the time has come for the OU to start being makpid on chalav Yisrael.”
“Belzer Rebbe,” responded Rabbi Genack, “the OU wasn’t just built for Boro Park and Williamsburg. These Yidden only want chalav Yisrael and they will have chalav Yisrael. We were built for Jews all around the world who don’t have or are not interested in chalav Yisrael products. We have to think about those Jews as well.”
They Come to Us
One big change Rabbi Elefant has seen in recent years is that while the certifying agencies used to have to go begging for clients, now the food companies are asking for hashgachah.
But there remains a widespread ignorance about what the term “kosher” means. An initial meeting may begin with the company CEO asking how the rabbi will bless the food, or offering to pay to get a product certified as kosher, conceiving of it as a celebrity endorsement of their product.
“So much changed in 35 years,” Rabbi Elefant says. “Back then, the world wasn’t as small as it is today. The OU wasn’t giving a hashgachah in a hundred countries. I remember over thirty years ago, when we got our first application from a company that wanted to produce sardines in Morocco. It was unheard of — an Arab country, it was far away, we were wondering why a factory in Morocco would even be interested in a hashgachah.
“Today, Morocco? It’s not even exotic. We have dozens of factories in Morocco. We just did a Pesach program at a hotel in Morocco that had over 1,200 people.”
The challenge today is not with navigating exotic locales, but instead dealing with the logistics of getting the mashgiach into the plant. The OU oversees 500 factories in China, but it has trouble getting entry visas there. One solution, which hashgachos are increasingly reliant on, is to utilize the local Chabad shaliach. They are found in almost every country in the world, and they can usually use the income cushion.
“It’s good for them, it’s good for us,” Rabbi Elefant says, “and the companies are also very satisfied, because it saves them the expense of flying people in all the time.”
This is quite a change from the early years, when a single mashgiach was responsible for all travel. Rav Chaim Rosenzweig, for example, was known in OU corridors in such reverential terms as “Mr. Kashrus” for the frequent flier mileage he racked up. Rav Rosenzweig, who joined the agency in 1960, would leave on Sunday and arrive home on Thursday, traversing the globe in the interests of the kosher palate.
Another challenge, albeit a more familiar one, is that of checking a company’s ingredients. Some of the most problematic foods to certify are flavors and stabilizing agents such as enzymes.
“An easy flavor,” Rabbi Elefant explains, “can have a hundred different distinct ingredients, and each one of them has to be kosher. If it comes from a dairy source, it is milchigs. If it comes from meat, it is fleishigs, and if it comes from chometz, then it is chometz. The rav hamachshir has to know whether each ingredient is kosher, and he has to be an expert on where they come from.”
A cherry flavor, for example, usually does not have any natural cherry in it. It is comprised of hundreds of chemicals that, when blended together, produce the sweet zest. The chemicals can be made synthetically, which don’t pose a problem, but they can also be manufactured from non-kosher animals.
Another little-noticed issue that occupies much time at kashrus agencies is the status of enzymes. These are substances all living organisms use to break down foods, and food manufacturers used them to change a product’s form. Enzymes turn milk into cheese, extract juice from fruit, and convert sugars into alcohol.
Either a flavor or an enzyme can be especially problematic, since it qualifies as a davar hama’amid or a taam k’ikar, a stabilizing or flavor-giving ingredient, which, if not kosher, renders the food into which it is introduced nonkosher as well, no matter how minute the amount is.
“If even one of those chemicals is not kosher,” Rabbi Elefant says, “then we won’t give a hashgachah.”
Companies are usually very agreeable on changing and mixing ingredients, he says.
“If you ask what the miracle of kashrus is today,” Rabbi Elefant says, “it is that the companies are now coming to us and are ready to follow our rules and our conditions, instead of us coming to them. At this point, the kosher world is very advanced.”
ew foods are coming up constantly, along with new quandaries. A recent phenomenon is “impossible pork,” a vegan dish that tastes like pork. The company has applied for a hashgachah, but the OU is hesitant to have its symbol appear on a package with the word “pork.” The agency has agreed to provide a hechsher on other products from the same company, such as the “impossible burger,” but has not yet reached a decision on the simulated swine.
Another hot topic is meat artificially produced from the stem cells of an animal. Is it fleishig or pareve? And if it’s from a nonkosher animal, can the meat be kosher?
What about certifying marijuana for recreational purposes? The OU certifies medicinal cannabis, which is taken more discreetly and is used for pain relief, but not recreational weed.
“We never even certified tobacco,” Rabbi Elefant points out. “We’re not going to certify a product that says on it that it is dangerous for your health. The Chofetz Chaim already ruled that tobacco is unhealthy.”
He says people ask him frequently, “What is the next big product to become kosher?”
His response is, “Tell me, what are you missing? What isn’t kosher yet? Everything is kosher.”
Aside from the impossible pork. But the OU is certifying some other pretty exotic creatures.
The agency once gave a hechsher on bison meat, but stopped when it saw that consumer interest in the product was light. A bison contains an enormous amount of meat, and the meat is healthy, with very little cholesterol. However, to some palates, it has a gamy taste.
The decision to oversee bison slaughter came after much deliberation. The Shulchan Aruch rules that while birds need a mesorah of kashrus to be eaten, animals do not. The Chayei Adam, however, says that animals also require a mesorah, and the Chazon Ish follows that psak. Rav Shmuel Wosner advised the OU that as long as the slaughter is performed outside of Bnei Brak — the hometown of the Chazon Ish —animals that are clearly kosher but lack a mesorah, such as the bison, can be shechted and eaten.
The OU has even been involved in two “mesorah dinners,” during which meat from tropical animals was served, to put to bed the myth that it couldn’t be done. (This was done under the auspices of Mishpacha columnists Ari Zivotofsky and Ari Greenspan, and was reported in these pages at the time.) Guests dined on the flesh of the ferocious yak, the graceful swan, the beautiful peacock, and others. An attempt to add the majestic giraffe to the collection failed because of the price ($25,000 to import a giraffe from Africa), the difficulty involved with restraining the animal during shechitah, and the likelihood that, after all that, it could still turn out to be treif.
Rabbi Shlomo Zev Zweigenhaft, a veteran OU shochet, once approached Rabbi Elefant with a fascinating request. He originated from a certain kehillah in prewar Warsaw that had a mesorah to eat quail. He was getting older and was anxious that this particular mesorah might die with him. He wanted to oversee at least one shechitah in order to perpetuate it.
“You are going to give a hashgachah and you are not going to charge,” he informed Rabbi Elefant.
“Okay, Rabbi Zweigenhaft, the answer is yes,” came the response. “Now tell me what I am going to do.”
Rabbi Zweigenhaft, the prewar rav of Hanover in Germany and once the head of the vaad overseeing all of Poland’s shochtim, related that he had discovered a quail farm in upstate New York.
“If I leave the world without allowing this mesorah to continue,” he said, “we’re going to lose the mesorah. This woman is willing for us to come shecht at her farm and reestablish the mesorah.”
The OU performed the shechitah, preserving the mesorah, but Rabbi Elefant says it soon became clear why it was a dying tradition.
“It’s a small bird, mostly bones, not that great-tasting,” he reports. “No wonder nobody wants it.”
Not Busy Enough
The next bell of Rav Tuvia’s l’kach notzarta chimed loudly two years ago. When Boro Park’s Khal Zichron Yosef lost its rav, Rav Leibel Katz, to Covid just after Pesach in 2020, the shul began casting a net for someone to take over the shiurim he used to deliver.
At about that time, Rabbi Elefant met a childhood friend at a chasunah who informed him that he was the gabbai at Rav Leibel Katz’s shul. He requested that Rabbi Elefant give a Shabbos afternoon halachah shiur at the shul, several blocks from his home.
“I don’t like to say no,” Rabbi Elefant says, “so I told him okay.”
On Sunday afternoon, the gabbai called to tell him that the participants enjoyed the shiur, and they agreed to present an offer for him to replace Rav Katz as rav.
“My wife said, ‘Why would you even consider it, you’re not busy enough?’ ” he recounts. “But it was an opportunity to do something good, so I accepted. I transferred my daf yomi shiur there, I give shiurim during the week and on Shabbos, and I’m available for sh’eilos.”
Rabbi Elefant’s daf yomi shiur has been on the OU’s alldaf.org website for the past two cycles (he’s in his fifth). It boasts 1,300 daily listeners, and has its own channel on El Al flights.
He shows me his daf yomi “office” — a chair at the end of his dining room table, preset with a Gemara and recorder.
“This is my studio,” he declares. “I say it into the phone, and then we zap it onto the Internet. The power of modern technology.”
He stays four days ahead in daf yomi to allow maggidei shiur to prepare off his audio files. It also accommodates his strenuous travel schedule, which may include some unexpected trips.
“Rav Meir Shapiro is a tough boss,” he said. “He never gives you a day off.”
But kashrus supervision is also a tough boss. There is no true day off, and he never knows on any given day what will confront him at the office.
“It’s a very interesting job, because you have to be on your feet at all times,” Rabbi Elefant muses. “No two days are the same. We constantly keep in mind that for many of the companies we’re dealing with, we are the first Jews they’ve ever seen. We also keep in mind that people are going to be eating kosher food because of us. So this is all very rewarding.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 924)
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