Out to Lunch – Solving the Supervisor Shortage

By Rabbi Binyomin Zev Karman

Rabbi Sholem Yehudah Fishbane

You have an important client with whom you hope to close a major business deal. You invite him to join you for a nice meal at a classy kosher bistro where you plan to iron out the final details of the transaction and clinch the deal. As you are about to enter the restaurant, an ominous sign on the door catches your eye: “Closed due to the lack of kosher supervision.”

Although this scenario may not have played out yet, several major kashrus organizations in the tri-state area are experiencing a severe shortage of reliable mashgichim who are capable of supervising food establishments.

“There are several factors which have contributed to this situation, and it has reached the point of a crisis,” said Rabbi Sholem Fishbane, administrator of the kashrus division of the Chicago Rabbinical Council and executive director of the Association of Kashrus Organizations, a clearinghouse for certifying organizations throughout the world of kosher supervision. “After hearing from multiple kashrus organizations of the vital need to recruit and retain mashgichim for the restaurant and takeout industry, we called a meeting of many of these groups to brainstorm and come up with a solution for this predicament.”

The Association of Kashrus Organizations (AKO) was established in 1985 with the goal of uniting various kashrus-certifying organizations under one umbrella to raise standards to, and then to maintain, the highest level of kashrus possible. Rabbi Fishbane has served as the executive director since 2003 and has transformed it into the nucleus of an international kashrus administration, hosting public forums, conventions, and meetings amongst the member organizations to deal with the latest developments in the world of kashrus supervision.

Several months ago, Rabbi Tzvi Shaul Goldberg of the Vaad Hakashrus of Flatbush alerted Hamodia to a brewing fiasco in the state of kashrus affairs of the restaurant and takeout business. “It is becoming nearly impossible to find reliable people to work as mashgichim in the stores because the salaries and benefits are not in line with current needs of the mashgichim. We understand this is a problem with all hashgachah agencies in the Metropolitan area, and we must work together to solve this quickly.”

(Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Rabbi Yosef Eisen, Rabbinic Kashrus Administrator of the Vaad Hakashrus Five Towns-Far Rockaway, worked tirelessly to arrange and host a meeting in his home with the participation of over a dozen organizations. “Rabbi Eisen deserves a lot of credit for putting together this meeting. He reached out to the members involved and coordinated it in a way that allowed maximum participation, both of those who attended in person as well as those who participated from out of town via Zoom,” said Rabbi Fishbane. “In the end, as usual, we worked together to present various ideas which can help elevate not only the salaries of the mashgichim, but we expect to raise the prestige, stature, and respect that they deserve.”

“The AKO is a unique organization where people who are ostensibly competitors with one another come together to exchange ideas and supply advice to one another with the goal of providing the kosher consumer with the highest level of kashrus possible,” Rabbi Shiya Friedman, a rabbinic administrator for the Vaad Hakashrus of Rabbi Usher Eckstein, said. “We all understand that when we work together, we can assist one another in sharing problems that constantly crop up, and solutions which we instituted to avoid these predicaments. It is all done with the utmost respect for each other, and it is really an admirable joint effort to improve the supervision necessary on all consumable products.”

The subject of this meeting, the shortage of people available to oversee the food stores in the tri-state area, is one which required just such a joint effort. “In the past, there was a pool of people who considered hashgachah work as a respectable means of supporting their families while at the same time providing the community with a much-needed religious service,” Rabbi Fishbane said as he chaired the meeting. “However, over the past few years it seems that this pool of potential mashgichim has opted for other fields which have opened for them. If we do not provide an attractive career opportunity for them, they will go elsewhere, and this will leave the entire community of kosher consumers without proper supervision.

“As some of our experienced mashgichim age out, we must replace them with others who will take up hashgachah as a career. If we wish to attract and retain responsible people to work as mashgichim, we must ensure that the job provides them with a living wage, and that the duties they are tasked with are in line with the position they occupy,” said Rabbi Fishbane. “After researching the marketplace of the workforce, we determined that the starting salary lagged behind comparable fields, and we came to an agreement as to what we think is needed to influence competent individuals to join the field of hashgachah. According to our estimates, a newly hired mashgiach working a full week should be able to bring home an annual salary of between $55,000 to $60,000.”

Besides increasing the starting salaries, various ideas were suggested to help both the mashgichim and the storekeepers who employ them. “It is important to bear in mind that the store owners must pass on the increased cost to their customers as well. We cannot price them out of business, yet at the same time we must be able to offer the mashgichim an attractive salary package,” Rabbi Fishbane pointed out. “Balancing the needs of both parties is a challenge, and we solicited ideas from the various agencies to see what worked in their settings.”

One suggestion forwarded by the leader of a local hashgachah involves grouping together several stores located within close proximity of each other to share the services of an experienced mashgiach. “While a fleishig restaurant, or a high-volume seller, needs constant supervision, there are other types of stores which do not need a mashgiach on premises at all times if they have a shomer Torah umitzvos on premises,” suggested Rabbi Chaim Schwartz of the Vaad Harabbanim of Queens. “They may need the mashgiach to check incoming orders, or to examine the vegetables for tola’im [bugs and worms], but the washing of the produce can be done by the regular workers and be set aside to be checked by the mashgiach before they are released for consumption. By coordinating the times, the mashgiach might be able set up a route where he is able to cover several stores in one geographic location, thereby lessening the costs for the storekeepers.”

As this suggestion was presented, the representatives of the participating agencies debated the pros and cons of this arrangement, and a call was made to the Kashrus Council of Canada (COR), who have implemented such an arrangement for some of their stores in Toronto.

“This arrangement does not work for all stores, but in some cases, it can be beneficial both to the mashgichim as well as the storekeepers,” Rabbi Zvi Haber of COR reported. “The ‘route mashgiach’ must be an experienced crackerjack mashgiach, so he will command a premium salary. Yet at the same time, since his services are shared by several stores, it is a cost-effective way of providing the stores with a top-notch hashgachah.” Rabbi Haber shared the details of the COR practice and procedures with the other members of the AKO, which will help them set up similar systems in their localities.

One of the surprising revelations of this meeting was the economic loss that many organizations suffer when offering supervision to food establishments. “We have an annual deficit of more than $200,000,” the head of one organization shared. “The only way we can stay solvent is due to the factory hashgachos we give, as we use the surplus from that division to cover the deficit in the food service division.”

During a break for lunch (ordered from a restaurant supervised by one of the participating kashrus organizations), a discussion arose concerning the supervision of yashan products. “Some of the Rabbanim in my neighborhood, which includes a large number of Sephardic kehillos, are extremely stringent concerning yashan products, in line with their mesorah. Although we employed a special mashgiach just for this issue, it still presents us with difficulties due to the complexities of determining the status of various grain-based ingredients,” Rabbi Schwartz shared with his colleagues. “I would like to hear from others how they deal with the certification of yashan in their food establishments.” A lively discussion ensued where experts exchanged their own experiences and how they dealt with this complicated issue.
The post-lunch agenda dealt with what is acceptable for the proprietor to request a mashgiach to do. “We must ensure that the standing of the mashgiach as a Rabbinic figure is upheld,” Rabbi Fishbane said. “This may be easy enough in a frum establishment, but in the corporate world it requires somewhat of an explanation. We once spoke with a company CEO about the impropriety of asking a mashgiach to take out the garbage, and he opined that as a CEO, he was prepared to do anything that the company required, irrespective of the indignity involved.”

The consensus of opinion was not to allow any establishment to request a mashgiach to perform any demeaning work, but in an emergency, it may be acceptable to request that he help out even with tasks which are not strictly kashrus-related. “I can imagine that if the deli-counter worker calls in sick, it may not be forbidden to ask the mashgiach to help set up the trays of food, as long as it does not detract from [his work upholding] the standard of kashrus. This, too, requires the agency to balance the needs of the storekeeper with the prestige of the mashgiach,” Rabbi Eisen suggested.

Another topic of discussion was creating constructive relationships among the store owners, the workers and the mashgiach. “It must be stressed that the mashgiach must maintain a level of professionalism that is commensurate with the position,” an organization executive stated. “Entering the store not dressed for the part or whittling away the time with frivolous behavior is a recipe for disrespect. I know a mashgiach who serves as the baal tefillah at the Minchah minyan, which helps engender a deference for his rabbinic position and enhances his esteem.”

(Photo by Andrea DiCenzo/Getty Images)

In his position as chairman of the meeting, Rabbi Fishbane masterfully allowed each participant to share his thoughts and ideas, yet helped move the meeting on to cover its agenda. “I’ve learned it is important to review what has been discussed and decided, and to have the written minutes of the meeting reflect it accurately,” he said. “These will be sent to all members for their review and to help them implement the decisions we made.

“In addition, we discussed how we will inform our clients, which means the establishments under our supervision, as well as potential new hires, as to the salary structure for new hires. We hope that by improving the wages and working conditions of these important personnel we can once again attract a staff of mashgichim to ensure that the foods we consume maintain the highest level of kashrus.”

Camp Kashrus Initiative

As a public service, the Association of Kashrus Organizations has inaugurated its Camp Kashrus Initiative, where at no charge, a team of leading kashrus experts from the most respected agencies will analyze and assess the current kashrus infrastructure of each camp, and provide guidance and assistance to ensure the necessary level of kashrus is upheld.

After an initial virtual consultation with a kashrus professional, the AKO will issue an assessment and schedule an onsite visit to check out all kashrus-related issues. This will be followed with a written assessment, and, if applicable, a training session for the camp’s kitchen personnel.

“Over the course of a summer, tens of thousands of meals are served in camps, and maintaining the kashrus of such an operation can be challenging,” the AKO said. “Many unfamiliar issues may crop up, including bishul akum, separation of milchigs and fleishigs, Shabbos-related halachos, and other matters.”
Through this new initiative, the AKO hopes to assist the camps in upholding a high level of kashrus during the summer months.

For more information, the AKO may be contacted via email at camps@akokosher.org or by calling or texting (617) 651-1584.

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