Wanting the Best for Our Children: Meeting Kashrus Challenges in Yeshiva, Camp, and Day School Kitchens

Kashrus Kurrents, Winter 2023

Kashrus has come a long way over the past fifty years. Agencies ensure the highest standards of kashrus in factories and food establishments worldwide, with experts in halacha, food technology, equipment, and ingredients. Consumers have been trained to know which products are acceptable and how to maintain a kosher kitchen l’mehadrin.

However, one area of kashrus that has received far less attention – even throughout the past several decades of unprecedented kashrus growth – is kashrus in our schools. This is due to several inaccurate reasons, including the following:

Myth #1: “Religious teachers are in the building all day and they oversee kashrus and everyone is careful.” Realistically, this is not the case. Unless a teacher is told to “be on top” of the situation, only minimal oversight will typically occur. Unfortunately, not everyone is familiar with the intricacies of kashrus, and without guidelines a lot can go wrong.

Myth #2: “Unlike a for-profit eating establishment, which obviously needs oversight to prevent questionable cost cutting measures, in a non-profit school nothing will go wrong.” Most problems in eating establishments are due to human error and carelessness. This can easily happen in a school with everyone busy with their primary job of teaching the children. Furthermore, schools often run on tight budgets and in an effort to save money a kashrus issue might get overlooked.

Myth #3: “Schools are busy dealing with so many other student-related issues. There is no time to enforce kashrus standards, and we also don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.” Using the “fifth cheilek of Shulchan Aruch” (i.e., seichel), guidelines can be implemented with the help of others, who can make the time and assess the situation without hurting anyone’s feelings. If and when sensitivities become an issue, a shaila should be asked. It is not enough of a reason simply “to look the other way l’maan hashalom”.

Yeshivos, camps, and schools, where tens of thousands of our tinokos shel beis rabban spend their formative years, deserve the same attention as factories, restaurants, and our homes. The new food trends that have been embraced by society at large have led to a similar preoccupation with food served and consumed in schools, making this issue all that more critical.

It is difficult to address the needs of each school, as each situation is different. The issues at a yeshiva or camp with a full-service kitchen, open seven days a week, are different than those of an elementary school that has a small kitchen. A yeshiva in Lakewood will have different challenges than a day school in the Midwest. The purpose of this article is to address issues that may apply to an array of schools.

1. Kosher Policy. Every school should adopt policies and create clear kashrus guidelines on par with at least the regularly accepted policies of the local vaad hakashrus or local rabbinic authority. Furthermore, it is important to consult with these authorities when developing a school’s kosher policy. The policies should be documented and distributed to the entire staff and to parents and students as well. They must be periodically reviewed and updated. New staff should become familiar with these guidelines.

2. Who’s In Charge? If there is an active school kitchen, someone familiar with all school policies should be trained. That individual must be up to date with the kashrus industry to know what is acceptable; be appointed with the approval of the administration, vaad hachinuch and school board; and maintain the support of local rabbonim and/or kashrus personnel to whom he can go with shailos (e.g., “kitchen” mix-up or whether a certain hechsher is acceptable). To help ensure that someone devotes the necessary time, consider offering a rebbe or someone else in the school a financial incentive for this extra responsibility.

3. What to Focus On. Schools that have an active school kitchen should address most kashrus issues that arise at eating establishments. This is true not only in yeshiva kitchens that cook three meals a day, but also in schools where the kitchen is used periodically. Yeshivos and camps should consider having their kitchens reviewed by a kashrus professional (or even consider obtaining a hechsher) to ensure they have proper standards.

The following is a partial checklist of issues:

  • What is the system for segregating meat, pareve and dairy? Fish and meat? When relevant, are utensils clearly marked and properly stored (i.e., no dairy utensils or foods are exposed when meat is being processed)?
  • Are bishul akum issues addressed? If the cook is not Jewish, who is turning on the flames? Who is present if the flame is extinguished and needs to be re-lit by an erlich Yid to insure it is bishul Yisroel?
  • If leafy vegetables or fruit at risk for infestation (e.g., lettuce or strawberries) are served, who is ensuring that all the many tolaim issues have been addressed? Is the one conducting bedikas tolaim properly trained?
  • When cooking is being done, is there a trained mashgiach on premises? Is the mashgiach present for enough time? At the very least, are the standards of this ‘commercial kitchen’ acceptable to the local vaad hakashrus or local rabbinic authority?
  • Is there an overall system of oversight and accountability for all kitchen personnel?
  • Who has keys or access to the kitchen?
  • Who can bring in food? Can a non-Jewish or non-shomer Shabbos teacher cook in the kitchen? Are all the Jewish teachers trained in the halachos of kashrus, and can they be relied upon?
  • Do parents and students who cook in the kitchen (e.g., Chanukahand graduation dinners, G.O. and student council events, Ladies Auxiliary luncheons, Shabbatons in school, etc.) know the school’s policies? Is someone overseeing their activities?
  • Federal and state lunch programs in Jewish schools require kashrus protocols. If the food is produced on-site, the school kitchen should have proper kashrus standards, as it is now a miniature catering hall. If food is delivered from a local kosher certified restaurant or caterer (i.e., contracted out), it is critical that a proper system is set up once the food leaves the production facility (e.g., who makes the delivery? is it properly sealed? who oversees the food when it comes to the school? etc.). Every step of the system in place should be reviewed by a kashrus professional.
  • Is there a clear list of acceptable hechsherim? A list of kosher-approved beverages? Is anyone confirming that prohibited medications (e.g., chewable pain reliever that contains gelatin) are not being dispensed by the school nurse?
  • Someone must check all incoming items to ensure the approved hechsher is on the label, and that all necessary seals are on the incoming products. For example, meat and poultry products require two seals. Seals sometimes break in transport, and in such cases the certifying agency may not take responsibility. It is critical that all seals are intact and that labels are checked when deliveries arrive.
  • When necessary, who is toveling the keilim? Do they know the halachos?
  • Who determines if a vessel has become treif and, if they are considered treif, who is kashering these keilim, or disposing of them if they are not kasherable?
  • Have workers been given proper guidelines? What controls are in place? Who is authorized to use the microwave and toaster ovens? What controls are in place to ensure that no one heats meat in a dairy microwave or pareve toaster oven (and vice versa)? Do the cleaning crew or other maintenance staff have access to these appliances at night, when no one is around to see what they might heat?
  • Is hafrashas challah done properly and when necessary?
  • Is there a known policy regarding cholov Yisroel, pas Yisroel and Yoshon? Are the kashrus needs of Sephardimbeing addressed (e.g., stricter bishul akum standards)?
  • Is someone checking for products coming from Eretz Yisroel? Is someone knowledgeable in the halachos regarding terumos, maasros, and shemita for produce coming fromEretz Yisroel?
  • Trips: Where will food be purchased along the way? Who is responsible for all aspects of kashrus during the trip (e.g., ensuring out-of-town food establishments are approved)?
  • Shabbos, Yom Tov and catered events in the school (e.g., weddings) are beyond the scope of this article. When relevant, special preparations must be made.
  • Yeshiva and camp kitchens that serve three meals a day must have a system of hashgacha. Such an operation should be viewed like a food establishment with all the necessary guidelines. This, unfortunately, is not always the case and requires much attention and tikkun beyond the scope of our discussion.
  • Training Our Children. It is vital that children are trained in kashrus issues. Time should be devoted to teaching them basic aspects of kashrus, including separation of milk and meat and restrictions regarding heating food. They should understand practical applications of tevilas keilim, hafrashas challah, and which hechsherim are acceptable. Age-appropriate lessons should be part of the curriculum.

4. Food Brought to Class and School. Every school should develop policies that address the following:

  • Can children bring homemade items to class or school events (e.g., a siyum)? Who is checking over the packaged items they bring in to ensure a proper hechsher and that no mix-ups (e.g., milk and meat) develop? Do the students know which hechsherim are acceptable?
  • Can teachers bring homemade items? If yes, who is ensuring that they are knowledgeable in bedikas tolaim, hafrashas challah, and terumos and maasros (very relevant halachos to homemade items)?
  • Can a non-shomer Shabbos individual bake with her students? If yes, who oversees turning on the flames?
  • Meat and dairy meals brought to school should be properly segregated. Lunchroom monitors should know which tablecloths are meant for meat and dairy, and at which tables children who bring dairy should eat on ‘fleishig day,’ and vice versa.
  • A complicated issue is the items children bring in their own lunchboxes. It is common for classmates to trade or share items. What controls are in place to ensure that a child from a home with a higher standard of kashrus for the entire family is not trading food with a child whose family does not have the same set of standards? This can be especially relevant in day schools where children come from homes that at the present time do not keep kosher.

5. Training Our Children. It is vital that children are trained in kashrus issues. Time should be devoted to teaching them basic aspects of kashrus, including separation of milk and meat and restrictions regarding heating food. They should understand practical applications of tevilas keilim, hafrashas challah, and which hechsherim are acceptable. Age-appropriate lessons should be part of the curriculum.

Children should also know when to ask a shaila and how to inquire about hechsherim that they do not recognize. Yeshivos should teach bochurim this information before Purim, when they will buy products for mishloach manos. For some bochurim, it is their only trip to the supermarket all year! The same is true with children who stock up on nosh before class trips. They need to know what items are appropriate to purchase. Bochurim and seminary students going to Israel should familiarize themselves with the Israeli hechsherim and the guidelines for mitzvos hatluyos ba’aretz (terumos, maasros and shemita, etc.).

The neshamos of our children are precious. Poor kashrus controls can chas v’sholom lead to mistakes, devarim ha’asurim (forbidden products) and timtum halev. Therefore, it is our responsibility to ensure that our schools maintain the highest standards of kashrus so that the environment in which our children learn remains kadosh v’tahor.