Do you know what a heksher is? If you keep Kosher, or just buy Kosher goods, the answer is probably yes.
Hekshers are those tiny Kosher certifying symbols on food labels, a stamp of approval from the Jewish agency that has checked the manufacturing of the product.
The United States has the largest number of hekshers on food in the world and leads the world in the number of regional certifying agencies. There are four large, recognizable certifiers – OU, OK, Kof-K and Star-K.
Of the approximately 200,000 packaged food products on the shelves in stores in the U.S., 70% have the OU symbol, according to the Orthodox Union, one of those large certifying agencies.
Here in Rhode Island, we have two larger certifiers, Rhode Island Kosher and Lighthouse Kosher. There are also several rabbis who supervise kitchens at caterers and restaurants and certify that they meet Kosher standards.
Why do we need so many options and so many certifiers? According to Rabbi Shaul Gallor, kashrut coordinator at R.I. Kosher, there are nuances in the different agencies, but for the average consumer there are very few differences.
“The reality is, we all work with each other,” he said in a recent interview. “There’s a tremendous amount of interrelations and a tremendous amount of collaboration.”
R.I. Kosher has been around since 2015. Rabbi Gallor, who is from Seattle, where he was the mashgiach, or supervisor, for the Vaad of Seattle for six years, moved here to work with the agency as it expanded.
Rabbi Raphie Schochet, head of the Providence community Kollel, is the rabbinic coordinator for R.I. Kosher. They work with a number of manufacturers and institutional kitchens, as well as a few restaurants and college dining facilities, and are recognized by many of the national certifying agencies. (Rabbi Gallor declined to name their clients, citing privacy concerns.)
“Our goal is to provide Kosher food for the community,” Rabbi Gallor said. “Our approach is to bring a tried-and-proven system to our community so if they have guests, they will be comfortable eating here.”
Rabbi Gallor pointed out that in Judaism, there is plenty of room for self-reflection and belief, and that holds true for kashrut too.
“It’s somewhat subjective. It’s not the same for everyone. We aren’t here to replace a person’s personal relationship with a rabbi, who is there to nurture and guide,” he said.
Barry Dolinger, the rabbi at Congregation Beth Sholom, a modern Orthodox shul in Providence, and the founder of Lighthouse Kosher, says, “The more Kosher food there is, the better for the community.”
Dolinger started Lighthouse Kosher to help expand Kosher offerings in Providence. He said when he came to Providence, people approached him about the need for Kosher restaurants in the area. He got his start as a mashgiach at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was head student mashgiach in the Kosher dining hall. Now, Lighthouse Kosher certifies restaurants and food businesses in Rhode Island, the Boston area and Miami. Currently, all the businesses it certifies are vegetarian or vegan. The list includes restaurants and bakeries as well as food trucks and can be found at lighthousekosher.org.
Education is a key component to his work, Rabbi Dolinger said.
“Many people don’t know and understand the laws of kashrut,” he said. “We are in the process of educating consumers as to where they come from and what they mean.”
He said the values and vision of Lighthouse Kosher are important to certification. For example, he looks at the treatment of kitchen workers and the sourcing of ingredients, along with the more traditional cleanliness and quality issues.
Rabbis Gallor and Dolinger say a heksher offers a recognized assurance of higher quality in the kitchen both for those who keep Kosher and those who do not.
“As the Kosher industry has grown and expanded, many companies choose to get certified; it’s a higher level of quality and cleanliness,” Rabbi Gallor said.
But the cost of certification can make it difficult for smaller businesses, and both agencies have strategies to address this issue. R.I. Kosher services larger institutions that can afford the costs, and works to get funding through grants and donations to keep the cost down for smaller businesses. Lighthouse Kosher gets its funding from community donations to help reduce costs for small businesses.
“This is an incentive for the restaurant to say ‘yes.’ That they share our values and vision,” said Rabbi Dolinger.
For more information on Rhode Island Kosher, go to rikkosher.org. For more information on Lighthouse Kosher, go to lighthousekosher.org.
FRAN OSTENDORF (email@example.com) is the editor of Jewish Rhode Island.