Maintaining Proper Standards of Kashrus In Our Yeshivos & Schools

Published Fall 2013

Kashrus has come a long way. Kashrus agencies ensure the highest standards of kashrus in factories and food establishments worldwide, by maintaining a staff of experts in halacha, and in food technology, equipment and ingredients. Consumers have been trained to know which products are acceptable and how to maintain a kosher kitchen l’mehadrin. Kashrus in shuls is usually overseen by the rav of the kehila.

However, one area of kashrus that has received little attention – even throughout the past several decades of unprecedented kashrus growth – is kashrus in our schools. These “heiligeh mekomos”, where tens of thousands of our “tinokos shel bais rabban” spend much of their time during the course of their formative years, deserve the same attention as factories, eating establishments, shuls and our homes.

It is difficult to address the needs of each school as every situation is different. The issues at a yeshiva with a full-service kitchen, open seven days a week, are different than those of an elementary school that has no kitchen. The purpose of this article is to address specific issues that apply to an array of different schools. [Sections 1, 4, 5 and 6 below relate to all schools. Sections 2 and 3 below relate primarily to schools with kitchens or lunch programs.]

1. Kosher Policy – First and foremost, every school should create written kashrus guidelines, and a clear and consistent system should be put in place. Policies should be adopted which address these guidelines. They should be distributed to the entire staff and on some level, the parents and students as well. They must be periodically reviewed and updated. New staff should be taught these guidelines.

2. Someone in Charge – If there is an active school kitchen, someone should be placed in charge of the kashrus program in the school. That individual should be trained (as a mashgiach) by someone knowledgeable in kashrus (e.g., by the local vaad hakashrus). He or she should also be familiar with all school policies and ensure that those using the kitchen are in compliance. He should also keep up to date with the kashrus industry to know what is acceptable. For example, years ago canned vegetables were acceptable without kosher certification. However, due to changes in the canning industry that policy changed and kashrus agencies now recommend only canned vegetables with a hechsher. When a change takes place, the school representative should be notified (like any mashgiach for the local kashrus agency) so that he remains up to date. All school personnel should be aware that this person is the clearinghouse for all kashrus issues. The mashgiach should have the support of rabbanim and/or kashrus personnel to whom he can go with shaalos (e.g., “kitchen” mix-up or whether or not a hechsher is acceptable). A “rav hamachshir” should be appointed for final say on all policy (e.g., menahel, rav or rabbinic members of the vaad hachinuch, etc.)

3. Specific Issues to Address – Furthermore, schools that have an active school kitchen should be treated no differently than local restaurants that have approved kosher certification. It is critical to address almost all kashrus issues that arise at eating establishments. This is not only true in yeshiva kitchens that cook three meals a day, but also in schools where the kitchen is used periodically. The following is a checklist:

a. 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 food are exposed when meat is being processed)?

b. Are bishul akum issues addressed? If the cook is an akum,who is turning on the flames? Who is present if the flame is extinguished?

c. If leafy vegetables (e.g., romaine lettuce) or fruit that may be infested (e.g., strawberries) are being served, who is ensuring that all tolaim issues have been addressed? Who is conducting b’dikas tolaim?

d. Is there a trained mashgiach on premises? Is the mashgiach present for enough time?Are the standards  of this “commercial kitchen” acceptable to the local vaad hakashrus?

e. Is there an overall system of oversight and accountability for all kitchen personnel?

f. Who has keys and/or access to the kitchen?

g. Who can bring in food? Can a 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?

h. Do parents and students who cook in the kitchen (e.g., Chanuka and graduation dinners, G.O. and student council events, Ladies Auxillary luncheons, etc.) know all of the policies? Is someone overseeing their activities?

i. 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 they are 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.

j. Is there a clear list of acceptable hechsherim? A list of kosher-approved beverages?

k. Who is monitoring incoming ingredients? 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. Meat and poultry in particular need two seals. Fish (including fishsticks, a very popular food served in schools), grape juice and other potential issurei d’oraisa also need two seals. Other products, including cheese, pizza, bread, cake and milk must also come in properly sealed (one seal is enough  for these potential issurei d’rabonon). Seals often break in transport, and in such cases the certifying agency does not take responsibility. It is critical that all seals are intact. Furthermore, it is critical for someone to carefully check every label – even if multiple “identical products” come into the kitchen. It is common for a similar non-kosher product to “find its way” onto a kosher pallet or into a shopping bag. Just because one or two labels bear a proper hechsher does not mean they all do. Check every label.

l. When necessary, who is toveling the keilim? Do they know the halachos?

m. If vessels become treif, who is kashering these keilim?

n. 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)? Does the cleaning crew or other workers have access to these ovens at night, when no one is around to see what they might heat?

o. Is hafrashas challah done properly and when necessary?

p. Is there a policy regarding cholov Yisroel, pas Yisroel and yoshon? Is someone knowledgeable in the halachos regarding produce coming from Israel? Are the kashrus needs of Sfardim being addressed (e.g., stricter bishul akum standards)?

q. Shabbos and Yom Tov catered events are beyond the scope of this article. When relevant, special preparations must be made. For Shabbos, someone familiar with amira l’akum and other Shabbos issues should be present. If the school is used as a catering hall for weddings and dinners, additional controls must be in place.

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

a. Can children bring homemade items to class or school events (e.g., a siyum)?

b. Can teachers bring homemade items?

c. Can a non-shomer Shabbos individual bake with her students? If yes, who is in charge of turning on the flames?

d. If packaged food is brought in to the school, which hechsherim may be used?

e. Meat and Dairy meals brought to school should be properly segregated. Lunchroom monitors should know which tablecloths are used with meat and dairy, and where children who bring dairy on “fleishig day” should eat (and vice versa).

5. Training Our Children – My father, a”h, was a mechanech for 27 years from 1950-1977 in St. Louis, Missouri. In his later years, he told me how impressed he was with the “chinuch system of today” (this was 20 years ago). The amount of yedios our children ka”h receive is amazing!

It is vital that they are also given yedios in kashrus issues. They should be taught basic aspects of kashrus, including separation of milk and meat, restrictions regarding heating food in ovens,
toasters and microwave ovens. Tevilas keilim, hafroshas challah, and many other halachos are also necessary when relevant.

They should also know when to ask a shaala 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 is appropriate to purchase. Bochurim and seminary students going to Israel should familiarize themselves with the Israeli hechsherim and the guidelines for mitzvos hateluyos ba’aretz (terumah, maaser and shmitta, etc.).

6. Sensitivities – Many of these issues are quite sensitive and require the “fifth chelek of Shulchan Aruch” (i.e., seichel and common sense) when implementing. Nonetheless, a school cannot simply ignore kashrus issues “l’maan hashalom.” A morah horaa will take into consideration all situations in guiding a school. Undoubtedly, policies in Williamsburg will be different than in Kansas. It is not an easy task to address issues including how to deal with children from non-religious homes sharing food with children from religious homes, or the level of trust one may or may not have with regard to certain employees and parents. Subjecting staff and parents to more oversight than they are used to is not simple. Nonetheless, these issues must be addressed with the goal of clear guidelines established in conjunction with kashrus

Undoubtedly, some menahelim who try to tighten the kashrus program will be met with resistance and claims of, “You don’t trust the teachers? You don’t trust the parents?”

Besides the halachos that relate to “ne’emanas” that address this topic and are beyond the scope of this article, another answer to this question is simple: Mistakes happen. Even restaurants, with the most ehrliche owners and best mashgichim receive cases of questionable products (e.g., a non-kosher substitute) that were inadvertently sent (and stopped at that door). A school is no different, and oversight is critical.

The neshamos of our children are precious. Poor kashrus controls can 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.