Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

9 Tammuz 5762 - June 19, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








A Mashgiach's Loneliness in Faraway Lands

by Rochel Gil

The man we interviewed visited more than twenty-five countries in nine years as a well-known kashrus mashgiach who is an expert on kosher raw materials from chutz la'aretz. Besides problems of language, kosher food for himself during trips, and unpleasant loneliness, hashgacha abroad requires much intuitive wisdom. There are places where one can't believe what the locals say. There are other places that the size of the factory poses a tremendous challenge.

A mashgiach has to be prepared to fly at unconventional hours, and to be on the road for a long time by himself. Shabbosim may be spent with crackers and tuna fish, and sometimes he has to work twelve hours straight. He told Yated Ne'eman about the confusion he caused in a tuna fish factory in China, a five star hotel by Turkish standards, and an unexpected Shabbos on the twenty- sixth floor in China. "You must set nonnegotiable standards in advance," he said, "so they won't trick you. The mashgiach has to be a real chemist, so he does not inadvertently cause a michshol, cholila."

One Chareidi and Thousands of Chinese

His first overseas job was in China. The "small" (according to Chinese standards) village, which is not even on the map, is home to six million people -- as many as the entire State of Israel. There is still no running water or electricity in the village; they draw water from wells and wash clothing at the shores of a nearby lake. The average salary per month is three dollars.

Reb Dovid (not his real name) was then a young kashrus supervisor, relatively new to the field. Armed with lots of energy and a strong will, he arrived at the fish plant he was to kasher with another mashgiach. The two supervisors had to work twenty- four hours a day, because the factory worked continuously, seven days a week, all year, every year.

One mashgiach came in before the other left, so as not to leave the workers or the fish, which no longer had their kosher signs, unsupervised for a second. Thousands of Chinese workers and one chareidi is a complicated business, especially the first time. R' Dovid was forced to show "muscles" from the beginning, as the Chinese tested him. (Reb Dovid did not want to disclose the name of the village and factory from which a sizable amount of canned fish is imported.)

The factory workers, all married, live about 300 to 500 kilometers away from the factory, which becomes their home all week long. The place is run like a dormitory with a main dining room, bedrooms and rigid schedules, set by the chief manager of the whole factory. The workers only see their families at the end of the week for a short visit. They are used to blind obedience of the "boss," which was why the infraction of one of the workers was so unexpected.

When the mashgichim came to the plant, they were immediately given a translator to mediate between their broken English and professional Chinese. Reb Dovid set up strict rules in advance, and the manager agreed that during his production no food at all could be brought into the plant without the mashgiach's approval.

The manager signed; it was clear that no one would dare disobey his orders. In most Chinese factories, the manager has undisputed authority, just like a king. As soon as the manager enters the production hall, all the workers stand up and bow. When they speak to him, they have to keep their faces down and can never look into his eyes. The manager is the only one who owns a car with a flickering siren on its roof. The rest ride bicycles.

"One day," Reb Dovid relates, "I came into the factory and saw a worker walking around with a piece of hot dog in his hand. It was clearly non-kosher meat. The worker had broken the rule. Without delay, I checked how many cartons were produced until that day and canceled all of them. Then I went to the manager and asked him to order a taxi to the hotel, to leave the factory and go back to Israel. The manager, who realized that the business was slipping out of his hands, refused. He apologized for the fact that taxi stations in China only speak Chinese. Also, there was only one taxi station with three taxis for six million people, so there was no chance someone would pay attention to my broken English.

"In the end, I decided to call the hotel and asked them in English to send a taxi. When I got to the hotel, I asked them not to forward any calls to me for two hours. As soon as the two hours were up, the phone started ringing. The translator was on the line, asking me to return, but I told him that I already ordered a ticket and was on my way to Israel."

You Weren't Afraid to Lose The Business, to Take the Loss Upon Yourself?

"Everything was discussed with the kashrus organization in Israel. The factory has very high standards of cleanliness and this infraction could not be dismissed lightly. If I did not teach them a lesson of how terrible bringing food into the factory is, it could happen again. They all had to know that there is no compromise on this issue."

After exhausting discussions, Dovid said that he was prepared to continue production on the condition that the manager come to him in his hotel. The translator was shocked at the very idea: "It was like asking to bring the president. But Dovid said, `If he does not come to me, I am getting on the next flight.' " It seems that 500 tons of tuna weigh more than honor, because the manager and his translator actually came to the hotel to straighten matters out. Anyone who knows Dovid, a calm, cheerful person, knows that this stubbornness took a lot of effort. He himself could not believe that he could be so strict and stubborn. The end of the story was that the arrogant manager bowed his head. He instructed his workers to kasher the plant again, which included pouring boiling water on all stainless steel tables and replacing all knives -- ultimatums for the mashgiach's return.

"I'll never forget the sight," Reb Dovid describes. "A good number of years have passed since, and I still get excited each time I remember it. Two thousand Chinese workers were standing in awe, waiting next to steamy tables; you could actually see the steam rising. The manager came to me and asked in English, `Everything is all right?' I said yes and everyone started to work!"

Five Factories in Eight Hours

Overseas kashrus is divided into three main steps: 1. Investigating factories. When an importer wants to import a product from some country in the world, he has to investigate whether that factory is under kashrus supervision or not.

2. Factory production. Besides the product that is to be made kosher, the other raw materials and products that the factory produces must be evaluated, to make sure that they do not make the utensils treif.

3. Factory visits. When a specific product is kashered, the mashgiach must visit the factory.

Reb Dovid is known among the kashrus organizations in Israel and abroad as an expert in importing kosher raw materials. He is an address for rabbonim and rabbinical authorities who regularly consult him in kashrus problems. It takes him a good number of minutes to relate which countries he's visited so far.

Reb Dovid has been in at least twenty-five countries. Sometimes he's more "there" than here, and he views flights like we view intercity trips. On short notice, he packs and goes -- sometimes for only 24 or 48 hours. He measures time in quality, not quantity, and can kasher a number of factories in one day.

On one trip to Turkey, he left Israel at 5:30 in the morning and was already back at 9:00 that night. In eight hours he kashered five factories in a 300 kilometer radius.

Kashering factories in chutz laaretz is an entirely different kashrus realm than that in Israel, Reb Dovid relates, with entirely different rules. It requires the ability to act spontaneously. "A mashgiach who did not prepare himself for the tremendous dimensions of the factories abroad could lose his hands and feet, stumble and cause others to stumble," Reb Dovid said. "Sometimes the production site and the machines themselves are very far away from each other. If the mashgiach does not find out by himself where the machines and utensils are, no one will volunteer to do this for him, and he'll have very severe problems. The gentiles do not understand that there is a connection between the cucumbers they produce and the steam apparatus that stands outside; it definitely does not enter their minds, for example, that the boiler for the entire factory has to be kashered so that the heat transmitting pipe does not become treif."

"The Work Must Be Interesting . . ."

It is backbreaking work, round the clock, with almost no rest at all, Reb Dovid answers. "Anyone who is drawn to this profession because of the traveling is not acknowledging the responsibility and difficulty. There are no relaxing sightseeing or shopping; it's absolutely impossible to fit them into the tight schedule. Usually, you come, kasher and leave. Sometimes you land after a tiring, twelve-hour flight and go straight to the factory, to heavy responsibilities. And it's not just a business where you could succeed or fail; it's avodas hakodesh where your word determines kosher or treif. Tiredness could cost terrible issurim that could cause an entire G-d fearing congregation, who automatically rely on the hechsher you represent, to sin."

Fortunately, Reb Dovid does not suffer from fear of flying, just from an inability to sit for long, which causes him to walk around the plane and count the minutes to landing. "Lately I've started taking sleeping pills," he reveals, "so I can function better. I saw that I couldn't sleep a wink on the plane and had to immediately enter a fifteen hour work shift in the factory. Without rest, it is just impossible!"

One rare moment of fear he does remember on a flight to Turkey. It was during a conversation with a man who swallowed all kinds of pills and had shots against all kinds of diseases, including malaria. "I suddenly realized that I forgot to inoculate myself against malaria. My seat mate was describing the polluted water and warned me not to catch the dangerous disease that lurks in every corner."

Besides the flights, another problem with kashrus abroad is the lack of command of the local language. It's not enough to depend on the Israeli "crutch" and make do with bits of languages you pick up here and there when you need to thoroughly investigate a factory. Dovid is therefore learning English intensively, telling his teachers which words he needs for his job. Although he has more to learn, at least they can't deceive him so easily anymore.

In Europe, he said, except for patriotic, religious France where English is a disgraceful language, one can manage relatively easily with English. The people are pleasant and try to help as much as possible. The Europeans are known for their integrity and there is no need to try to figure out their hidden intentions. The Chinese and Turks, on the other hand, do not have such high standards, and they could take advantage of the mashgiach's ignorance of the local language and customs.

On one of Dovid's trips to Turkey, he arrived in the large city, Istanbul, and from there was supposed to continue on an internal flight to a small city in Turkey. When he inquired how to get there, he was directed to a bus that would bring him to the airport forty minutes away. As soon as he reached the bus stop, a bus pulled away. Before he could decide what to do next, two Turks in a taxi appeared and convinced him that if he didn't go with them, he would miss the flight, which was to take off in an hour and a half. Only one bus transported the passengers to and from the bus stop.

"How much does the trip cost?" Reb Dovid asked. The Turks told him an outrageous price, the equivalent of 180 shekels. Reb Dovid bargained with them until they agreed to the equivalent of forty shekels. However, Reb Dovid thought something was fishy and refused to go with them, to their great disappointment. After tiring negotiations, he got out of the taxi and at that minute, another bus reached the station. The lie was exposed. Reb Dovid then realized that he had to stay alert and suspicious in this country.

In China, for example, poverty is rampant, Reb Dovid relates, although in Beijing, the capital, it is less apparent than in the villages.

In Turkey the situation is extremely bad. There are no words to describe the poverty there. The streets are full of people thrown on the ground in disgrace. At night, the streets and sidewalks become sleeping quarters for about half of the populace. At every intersection, at least four or five people with screaming babies in their hands fall on you and beg for a handout. The poverty is heartbreaking.

Once Reb Dovid kashered a vegetable factory in Turkey and when he finished, he was planning to go the closest hotel. The owner of the factory suggested that he go to a more aesthetic hotel, "five star," about forty-five minutes away.

Reb Dovid jumped at the suggestion, but when he saw the "luxurious" hotel, his eyes darkened. The entrance was dark, the bed in his room was shaky, with dirty linen and numerous bugs making themselves at home. Bands of mosquitoes flew freely and a horrible stench filled the air. There were no towels, and when he wanted to take a shower (after putting his clothes on the dirty floor), he discovered there was no hot water. The receptionist explained that he had to order hot water a half an hour in advance. Instead of sleeping, he spent most of the night trapping mosquitoes and killing ants, wondering what would have awaited him in the cheap hotel.

Unlimited Matzoh and Tuna

Reb Dovid's eizer kenegdo accepts her husband's unique lifestyle with a smile and runs an exemplary household. The unconventional times he is sent on kashrus missions are also an unpleasant experience for her, especially when he has to be away for Shabbos.

He sometimes has to be away even on fast days. Last Shiva Ossor BeTammuz he was in northern Europe and paid an extra "price" when the fast there ended at 11:30 at night!

On Shabbosim spent far from any Jewish community, with only canned food, he longs for davening in the neighborhood shul and homemade food. Reb Dovid, however, with his characteristic optimism, overcomes his feelings of deep loneliness and strengthens himself in these difficult times, when it's only him among thousands of goyim.

Every overseas mashgiach takes into account that while working, his menu is limited to crackers, matzoh, tuna fish, water, and again crackers, matzoh and tuna. When Shabbos comes, the matzos become lechem mishneh and a can of fish is added -- you handle it as well as your mood and mental stamina, Dovid admits.

After many such trips, he can barely swallow them and eats with his eyes practically closed, only to ward off hunger. There are no particular kashrus problems with fruits and vegetables around the world, besides the need to check for bugs. After returning to civilization, Dovid keeps tuna and crackers off his menu -- until the next trip.

On these trips, nothing is final in advance besides the plane ticket home. Even the date of arrival can be changed because of delays and unexpected problems. The gastronomical problem is dwarfed by the endless technical halachic problems that every step in chutz la'aretz hotels can bring.

For example, most hotels use an automatic key card to open the room doors, which is ossur on Shabbos. Of course, there is the common problem of elevators and automatic doors.

Dovid has a number of tricks to circumvent the stumbling blocks. He stuffs paper into the door of his hotel room so it can't lock, and develops a number of "exercises" so as not to need the intervention of hotel workers. They do not understand the strange requests at all and consider Orthodox Jews somewhat eccentric.

One Shabbos in China, Reb Dovid and another mashgiach had a most difficult experience. It was only about an hour and a half before Shabbos that they landed in China. They reached the hotel by taxi, in great haste, rushing to get ready for Shabbos. They didn't even know where they were placed until they found out that, out of sixty floors in the hotel, they were on the twenty-sixth. The receptionist saw that they were in a big rush, so he promised to send their luggage up to their room.

After they finished their preparations and tefillos and wanted to make kiddush, the mashgichim realized that the wine was in the luggage, which hadn't come. So began a series of searches for the steps; they could only find an elevator. They went up and down in the luxurious hall until they met an English-speaking hotel worker who directed them to the steps.

In the staircase it was completely dark. In order to go down twenty-six flights of steps, they needed a light. More searching and explanations with desperate hand motions, until finally a worker came with a flashlight who agreed to lead them down the spiral stairwell.

They reached reception completely dizzy. But they had to locate the suitcases. The hotel staff was enlisted for the search until the suitcases were found outside of the hotel, exactly how they were left a few hours ago. They were right opposite the automatic doors.

The mashgichim felt like two of the good citizens of the fabled city of Chelm. They could not go through the doors, so they had to search for an alternative.

After a careful search that was seen clearly by the Chinese staff, who couldn't understand these two people who made new problems every minute, they found a regular side door that could be opened with a key. There was a tumult in the hotel, with raised voices and arguments. They refused to give them the key, and called the hotel owner to authorize the strange request.

You could imagine how strange these two men seemed. They refused to use the elevator, went down twenty-six dark flights of steps with a flashlight, and finally insisted on a problematic side door instead of using the main entrance. The manager and his workers expressed their opinion: "Crazy men."

The whole scene was extremely uncomfortable for the mashgichim as well and they wanted to finish as fast as possible. After they received the key and reached their luggage, they realized that the distance created a problem of tiltul. So, they had to explain to the onlookers, who were already disgusted with their craziness, why two big strong men couldn't carry two little suitcases. And after everything, the ascent to their room awaited, twenty-six flights back up. Reb Dovid said, "Exasperation like this joins the storehouse of zechusim and I try to bear it without complaint."

Another story: One Shabbos in a hotel in Switzerland, he could not sleep due to the bright lights. The plan was to leave on only the light in the bathroom. But five minutes after licht benching, a chambermaid came in to clean the room and turned on all the lights. When Reb Dovid reached the room, he saw what awaited him: A bright Shabbos, without a moment of rest!

They Give Signs

Mehadrin kashrus abroad requires bishul Yisroel, which means the mashgichim must light the ovens, pots and boilers. Factories that require bishul Yisroel after they are kashered are tuna fish producers, for example, or potato flakes (which are used as filling for borekas).

Factories that work twenty-four hours a day require two mashgichim who each work a twelve-hour shift. Factories that only work eight hours hire one mashgiach for bishul Yisroel. When the workday ends and he's ready to leave, he has to lock the doors and leave clear signs that only he can identify. The mashgiach's signs prove that his absence was not used to circumvent kashrus rules and helps insure himself in untrustworthy places.

After production is finished, labels are not put on the product for another ten to fifteen days in order to check if the cans keep the product fresh. Only then does another mashgiach come from Israel to supervise the labeling. Meanwhile, how do they know if anyone took advantage of the interval to switch the products for cheaper alternatives?

The mashgichim take notes and leave signs that only they can recognize and interpret. Dovid makes precise charts in which he lists exactly how many cartons and how many cans he placed in which corner and in which configuration they stood when he left. He closes everything with a special seal and any slight movement would betray the attempt.

He tells the next mashgiach the signs. According to the chart, the next man can see whether there were no changes and can authorize the labeling, for which he is present for the entire process.

People on the outside do not always understand what a hechsher on a certain product entails, especially if it's from a large factory in China or America where you have to be on top of everything from top to bottom. "You have to become a chemist to understand kashrus," Dovid relates. "Take the simple rugela you buy for Shabbos. What does it have in it already, you think, besides dough and chocolate? You don't imagine that an average rugela could have between fifty and sixty raw materials, and the mashgiach has to keep his eyes open to make sure ingredients like milk powder or non-kosher ingredients don't slip into this pastry.

The filling of rugelach is comprised, two-thirds of the time, of pieces of leftover cakes. The cake scraps are ground, re-baked, mixed with chocolate or jelly and put into the rugela. When a mashgiach does not know what a rugela can contain, milchig cake crumbs could be ground right under his eyes for a pareve rugela!"

Dovid recently went to Turkey to give a hechsher on a pickle factory. What kind of dramatic problems could be with pickles? Some water and salt, nothing more, we think. It does not occur to us that there are many problematic ingredients such as synthetic vinegar, preservatives, garlic and dill, each one of which has to be tested in and of itself.

Another typical example: A large canned fruit company in Thailand, which produces many tons a day, was kashered by Reb Dovid for Pesach. It was a thirteen-hour flight to Hong Kong and then a three hour flight to Bangkok. He landed at three in the morning, without rest in the interim, and went straight to the factory for an initial briefing and to check the raw materials.

The next morning at seven, he was supposed to kasher the factory. Canned fruits contain lemon juice, which is brought from Israel with a mehadrin hechsher, marked by the production codes. One of the first things Dovid checked was the codes. To his fear, he saw that they were not the right dates, meaning that the product did not appear to be kosher lePesach.

After numerous phone calls to the hechsher, it was clarified that the code was authorized. By 9:30 in the morning, the factory was kashered. This included thorough cleaning of work tables, replacing all the knives and kashering the pipes and pots in 100 degree heat. This was all done so chareidi Jews could enjoy canned fruits for the seven days of Pesach.


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