A 30 Year Retrospective on Kashrus Kurrents
Avrom Pollak, Star-K President
Approximately thirty years ago shortly before "Pesach" 5738 Mr. A. J. Levin, a vice president of the Orthodox Jewish Council, began publishing Kashrus Kurrents. In that first issue, printed on the familiar yellow paper with the blue Kashrus Kurrents logo, it was deemed necessary to advise the Baltimore community that they cannot rely on labels or advertisements that merely states 'Kosher for Passover'. From that same issue we learned that the fledgling Star-K organization had just inaugurated its kosher hot-line whereby one could get accurate kashrus information Monday through Thursday between the hours of 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.
A most welcome and popular feature was a list of items that did not require special Passover certification. Included were specific brands of sugar and cocoa as well as a number of commonly used over the counter medications. Compiling the list required substantial research by volunteers and Rabbi Eliyahu Shuman, at the time the only paid Rabbi on our staff. Rav Moshe Heinemann, a R"M at Yeshivas Ner Israel served as Rav Hamachshir who reviewed and approved all the information in Kashrus Kurrents.
It was a novel concept for a kashrus organization to inform kosher consumers about items that were inherently kosher for Pesach and could be bought in regular stores at regular prices. The annual list was widely copied and most welcomed by shoppers at a time when the fare of available items was quite limited.
Back in 1978 the Star-K office was located in an empty classroom at Suburban Orthodox Synagogue and besides Rabbi Shuman, a part-time secretary, and part-time executive director completed the paid staff.
Now fast-forward thirty years. Kashrus Kurrents, today under the editorship of Rabbi Tzvi Rosen, has been published continuously and its lists are widely reproduced with permission in other magazines, shul and school bulletins, and websites offering kashruth information. Examples of some favorite lists are Kosher Liquors, Medicines, and Kosher Cereals and their Brochos. Comprehensive articles have instructed readers on how to deal with the halachic intricacies of Shmitta, Terumos and Ma'asros, Tevilas Keilim, Microwaving in the Workplace, and the Do's and Don'ts of Oven Kashrus, both during the week and on Shabbos and Yom Tov. Many articles have been simply informative and provide interesting facts about many different types of processing plants which prepare our daily foods. A series of articles prepared by Rabbi Dovid Heber, our in-house expert on the Kashrus of Medicines and Nutraceuticals has been most beneficial in elucidating the complex world of over the counter medications. Detailed instructions are given on how to cope with the situation of one needing to use a vitamin or pediatric formulation whose kosher status is questionable.
Each article that appears in Kashrus Kurrents is carefully researched by one of our Rabbinic Coordinators and then reviewed for halachic accuracy by Rav Moshe Heinemann. Happily, both Rabbis Heinemann and Shuman are still with Star-K. They are part of the Star-K family that employs about fifty full time and over 400 part time employees. Incidentally, that part-time secretary, Mrs. Pesi Herskovitz, retains the record as the Star-K employee with the most seniority. Today she rules the roost over our support staff in her role as office manager.
In 1978 the fledgling Vaad Hakashrus of Baltimore certified about 25 establishments consisting mostly of local caterers, bakeries, butcher shops, and restaurants. Support of the organization came mostly from individuals in the Baltimore community who paid membership dues, attended an annual dinner and inserted ads in a journal. A number of synagogues actively participated by imposing a one dollar seat tax for kashrus on every seat purchased for the High Holidays.
Today Star-K certifies well over one thousand locations scattered throughout the world. A large percentage of these companies manufacture food chemicals and other basic ingredients used by other food companies. Thus there is a good chance that some of the food you ate today certified by other kashrus organizations will contain flavors, acidulants, artificial sweeteners, or seasonings certified by Star-K.
Today our budget is met almost exclusively from fees charged to certified establishments. With a great amount of "Siyata Dishmaya" we have balanced our budget allowing our staff to be paid on time. Fortunately, we are in the position of being able to make grants to some worthy mosdos, such as the $100,000 grant made to dedicate the Kashrus Library at the Etz Chaim Center in Baltimore. Star-K, a not-for-profit organization, has the luxury of being able to devote itself to projects which do not generate any revenue but are nevertheless of vital interest to the world of kosher consumers. Our Rabbinic staff is sufficiently large so as not to be overburdened with caring only for fee paying companies. Our Rabbonim are encouraged to spend a significant amount of their time researching and disseminating information helpful to kosher consumers. It is this type of research that forms the nucleus of Star-K lists. We spend a great deal of time working with Rabbonim in small communities that do not have the resources of a large kashrus organization. This allows the local Rav to do a much better job in administering kashrus in his own community. Often we consult and even subsidize nursing homes, university kosher dining programs, and or other public institutions that cannot afford a full time mashgiach so that even if they do not have an official hashgocha, they can still offer their clientele kosher meals.
As we begin a much wider circulation of Kashrus Kurrents, particularly outside the Baltimore area, I believe that our readers would be interested in learning a bit about the makeup of Star-K. In the early 1970's a group of "Baalei Batim" mostly former talmidim of Ner Israel, headed by Mr. Leonard Sperling, recognized the need for a strong local organization dedicated exclusively to dealing with kashrus issues. Kashrus standards would have to be set up in a manner that would be fully acceptable to the substantial population of "Bnei Torah" in the rapidly growing Baltimore community. To accomplish these goals they revitalized the pre-existing Orthodox Jewish Council, chartered in 1947, and persuaded HaRav Moshe Heinemann, who had already earned a considerable reputation for expertise in practical halacha, to join their efforts. Several years later when the Star-K symbol was first registered the lay board of directors and officers, then headed by Mr. Hillel Soclof, insisted that the trademark be registered personally in the name of Rabbi Heinemann. The reason for this was to assure that at no time would a new board or group of individuals be able to take over the organization and dilute the high standards of kashruth set forward by the founding board. An agreement with the board and Rabbi Heinemann that the symbol could never be utilized for personal use remains in effect today. Thus Star-K is unique in that it is essentially a lay organization whereby all kashrus related matters are the sole responsibility of Rav Heinemann and the Rabbinic staff answering directly and only to Rav Heinemann.
In future issues of Kashrus Kurrents we hope IY"H to begin providing our public with more details about our numerous activities as well as introducing to you, our readers, the individual Rabbonim at the Star-K. It is this devoted Rabbinical staff who stand behind the symbol and assure the high standards and integrity that are the hallmark of Star-K. As the one in charge of administration at Star-K I wish to reiterate our commitment that the interests of you, the kosher consumer, are paramount when formulating Star-K policy.