A World of Jewish Resources in One Tiny Symbol

As North American Jews living in the twenty-first century, we take the widespread availability of kosher food for granted. We are accustomed to walking into a typical supermarket and finding that more than 50 percent of the products are certified kosher. We at the Orthodox Union are proud that our organization is at the forefront of the explosion in kosher products. The OU has always been and will continue to be the gold standard in kashrut, after setting the bar high and creating an international kashrut supervision agency that other organizations strive to emulate.

Indeed, it’s impossible to eat kosher in America if one doesn’t trust the OU. This is because a large percentage of the ingredients that go into any kosher product are certified kosher by the OU.

I’ll never forget a lesson I once learned. I was driving in Los Angeles on a hot summer day when I noticed two young boys wearing kippot selling lemonade. As an entrepreneur, I was glad to see such enterprising kids, and I decided to buy a glass of lemonade.

As I got closer I noticed they had posted a little sign that stated, “Lemonade: $1 a Cup.” At the bottom of the sign, there was the OU kosher symbol. I approached them and asked, “What is that strange symbol, the O with a U in the middle?”
“It means the lemonade’s kosher,” one of the boys responded.
“Just because there’s a symbol, how do I know it’s really kosher?” I asked him.
He looked me straight in the eye and said, “If you can’t trust the OU, who can you trust?” At that point, it dawned upon me that this is the secret to the OU’s extraordinary success—trust.

Unfortunately, in the world in which we live, trust is almost a forgotten word. However, there is still one symbol that depicts all that’s right in the Jewish world–the OU symbol. Chief Executive Officer of OU Kosher Rabbi Menachem Genack often quotes his rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik: “The OU symbol affirms the vitality of the Jewish community.” We are extremely proud of the facts that the OU certifies over 400,000 products manufactured in eighty countries around the globe and that its symbol is the most trusted and recognizable kosher symbol in the entire Jewish world.

OU Kosher is guided by two outstanding posekim: Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, shlita, and Rabbi Hershel Schachter, shlita. In addition to Rabbi Genack, whose moral standing and brilliance is well known, OU Kosher is blessed to have Rabbi Moshe Elefant, a man of incredible knowledge, as chief operating officer. Thousands of people tune in every day to his Daf Yomi shiur on the OU web site. In addition, we must recognize the tireless dedication of the hundreds of OU rabbinic coordinators and rabbinic field representatives throughout the world who exhibit much mesirut nefesh overseeing food-manufacturing plants in all corners of the globe. Finally, Rabbi Dr. Simcha Katz, OU Kosher’s talented and capable lay leader, ensures that OU Kosher runs smoothly and with the highest level of integrity.

The world of kashrut today is far more complex than it was years ago. I recall reading food labels as a child, looking to see that the vegetable shortening listed was “pure.” That was our way of discerning the kosher status of a product. Nowadays, however, to understand the complexities of emulsifiers, chemicals, preservatives and the like, one must have an incredible knowledge of food technology and chemistry. In order to kasher a contemporary food plant, one needs to have an in-depth understanding of food manufacturing and plant engineering. Kashrut today is highly sophisticated, and many mom-and-pop hashgachot simply don’t have the personnel or the requisite skills to meet the needs of the kosher-keeping public.

Moreover, kashrut is a global entity. The products found in your local supermarket contain ingredients from China, India, Turkey, Malaysia and a host of other countries. In order to safeguard the integrity of kashrut, we need one organization to set the standards for the industry, one organization whose reputation is impeccable, one organization that has the technical knowledge, halachic resources and marketing clout to ensure that all products—even those made halfway around the world—meet the same high standards. That organization is the OU.

We also take great pride in the fact that our expertise spans the Jewish world. Our ASK OU KOSHER program has made presentations in Yeshiva University as well as in Lakewood, bringing the message of achdut to communities far and wide. I’ve written about the need to bring all Jews together in previous columns. OU Kosher is just another way in which all segments of the Jewish world can unite under one banner.

Recently Rabbi Genack and OU Kosher staff members visited a new chicken slaughterhouse opened by the Satmar community in upstate New York. The Satmar community has, of course, it own local kosher certification, which is widely known for its impeccable standards. However, the upstate Satmar community wanted to have the OU certification as well.

During that visit, Rabbi Genack spent time discussing Torah thoughts with the Satmar Rebbe and shared beautiful divrei Torah from his rebbe. It was wonderful to see the artificial barriers of Jewish life melt away by the sublime words of Torah. It was apparent that we were there not only to certify the plant but also to rekindle a relationship that goes back many decades. This visit reminded us all of our responsibility to emphasize the 95 percent that unites us rather than the 5 percent that divides us.

What many people do not realize is that every penny that comes in from OU Kosher is invested right back into the Jewish community. We provide services to synagogues in communities large and small across North America; we bring estranged youth back to Judaism through NCSY/JSU, the largest outreach program for teens in North America; we strengthen Jewish young adults through our phenomenally successful college program, the Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus; we provide for the social, religious and other needs of individuals with disabilities through Yachad and Our Way; we advocate on behalf of Orthodox Jewish interests through our Institute for Public Affairs in Washington; we provide jobs and a sense of dignity to the unemployed through our Job Board; and we provide extensive programming for English-speaking olim through our Seymour J. Abrams OU Jerusalem World Center. I could go on and on about the good work we do at the OU.
Kashrut is the engine that fuels the system, and the Jewish community is the beneficiary of all the good work we do. When you buy an OU-certified product, you not only have a product that adheres to the highest standards of kashrut, but you have also contributed to the growth and vitality of the Jewish community.

So the next time you find yourself in a strange city and pick up a product with the ubiquitous OU symbol on it, say “baruch Hashem” for this wonderful organization.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Spring 2010.

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