The Guru of Kashrut: Rabbi Alexander S. Rosenberg and the Transformation of Kosher Certification in America

by | in History

By Timothy D. Lytton

Rabbi Alexander Rosenberg, rabbinic administrator of the OU Kosher Division from 1950 to 1972, was a seminal figure in shaping the modern kashrut system.

Rabbi Alexander Rosenberg, rabbinic administrator of the OU Kosher Division from 1950 to 1972, was a seminal figure in shaping the modern kashrut system.

If you had asked someone a hundred years ago to name the defining characteristic of kashrut in America, they would probably have answered “corruption.” In 1925, the New York City Department of Markets estimated that 40 percent of the meat sold in the city as kosher was actually treif. Industry associations and consumer groups thought the true figure was between 50 and 65 percent.

Fraud was not the worst problem. Organized crime dominated kashrut. In perhaps the most notorious example, the Live Poultry Commission Merchants’ Protective Association operated a price-fixing scheme and distribution racket that dominated New York City’s kosher chicken trade from 1906 to 1911. Local butchers who refused to knuckle under would find stores set up next door to undersell them and drive them out of business. In some cases, nonconforming butchers suffered physical violence. Finally, a store owner named Bernard Baff testified against the association in a trial that put an end to the association’s illegal activities and landed its leaders in prison. Following the trial, Baff’s horse and chickens were poisoned, his summer cottage and one of his stores were bombed and he was gunned down in broad daylight in Manhattan’s Washington Market by unknown assailants, who fled in a getaway car. Suspicions, of course, focused on the defunct Live Poultry Commission Merchants’ Protective Association. However, it turned out that the murder was arranged not by the imprisoned gangsters, but by a group of one hundred ordinary poultry retailers who resented Baff’s successful efforts after the trial to take over New York City’s poultry distribution.

The problems of fraud and corruption in kashrut proved too big for even the government to handle. Six full-time kosher inspectors in the New York City Department of Markets and ten in the New York State Kosher Enforcement Bureau were insufficient to oversee the 18,000 kosher food establishments in New York City by the late 1930s.

The world-famous OU logo, the symbol of the Orthodox Union's kosher certification

The world-famous OU logo, the symbol of the Orthodox Union’s kosher certification

Reform finally came to kashrut with the rise of a new institution: the independent private kosher certification agency. And no one did more to shape the modern kashrut system than Rabbi Alexander S. Rosenberg, rabbinic administrator of the OU Kosher Division from 1950 to 1972.

Rabbi Rosenberg believed passionately in the importance of making kosher food widely and easily available. At the end of World War II, he had been attached to the US Army in Germany, where he successfully advocated and established kosher meat slaughter for Jewish survivors in displaced persons’ camps. Rabbi Rosenberg’s ambition was rooted in his religious faith. In the words of Rabbi Berel Wein, his deputy at the OU, Rabbi Rosenberg “was always working for God . . . he was working for the Jewish people.”

The problems of fraud and corruption in kashrut proved too big for even the government to handle.

The OU Kosher Division had been founded in the mid-1920s. When Rabbi Rosenberg took charge of it, the division employed about forty mashgichim to certify 184 products for thirty-seven companies. By the end of Rabbi Rosenberg’s tenure, the OU employed more than 750 mashgichim to certify more than 2,500 products for 475 companies. This extraordinary expansion was due to Jewish demand for kosher certification for the rapidly growing number of industrially produced and prepared packaged foods—from canned soup to cake mixes—that emerged in the twentieth century and that helped free homemakers from the time-consuming labors of making everything from scratch. By providing kosher certification to America’s leading food companies, the OU, under Rabbi Rosenberg, helped satisfy this demand.

Rabbi Rosenberg was a handsome man with an aristocratic bearing and a charming manner. His passionate commitment to making kosher-certified food available in every supermarket in America earned him a reputation among food-industry executives as the “guru” of kosher marketing. He cultivated personal relationships with key executives, coaching them on marketing strategy and even, on occasion, providing counseling on personal matters. And they believed in him—“like a Chassid believes in his rebbe,” according to Rabbi Wein.

Timothy D. Lytton’s new book, Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food, discusses the turbulent history of kashrut in America and the OU’s leading role in its transformation.

Timothy D. Lytton’s new book, Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food, discusses the turbulent history of kashrut in America and the OU’s leading role in its transformation.

Rabbi Rosenberg explained to food company executives that kosher consumers were a small but highly influential demographic because they were concentrated disproportionately in major metropolitan markets, such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. By increasing a company’s share in those major markets, the company’s products would achieve better positioning on store shelves, where all consumers, not just kosher consumers, would be more likely to see and buy them. According to Rabbi Wein, a marketing manager at Duncan Hines recalls that Rabbi Rosenberg taught him that “the whole grocery business depends on shelf space.” As a result of OU certification, sales of the company’s cake mix to kosher consumers in key urban markets increased, leading to more prominent placement on grocery shelves, so that sales among ordinary consumers rose dramatically—more than 40 percent in two months.

Even more important than his efforts to make kosher food more widely available, Rabbi Rosenberg helped make widespread fraud and corruption in kashrut a thing of the past. Some of the reduction in fraud and corruption resulted from the increased focus on dairy and pareve packaged foods which, unlike meat, require much less supervision and therefore little, if any, mark-up in price. Since kosher-certified cake mix costs no more than uncertified cake mix, there is less incentive to intentionally defraud consumers. The complexity and high volume of industrial food production, however, increased the risk of mistakes. Rabbi Rosenberg instituted reforms that reduced the risk of mistakes and counteracted any remaining incentives to intentionally defraud consumers.

Having demonstrated to food executives the value of kosher certification, the kashrut guru convinced them that not all hechsherim were of equal quality. In kosher certification, as in most businesses, you get what you pay for. Rabbi Rosenberg developed the OU’s good name among industry executives and consumers into America’s leading brand of kosher certification. He asserted that the OU provided the nation’s most reliable assurance of kashrut, and he supported this claim with concrete reforms designed to reduce the potential for mistakes and wrongdoing within the organization. He hired a full-time professional staff that set high uniform standards for kashrut supervision throughout the country and made sure that local rabbis working for the OU conformed to them. To reduce the conflict of interest that resulted when mashgichim were paid by the companies whose products they certified, Rabbi Rosenberg insisted that company clients pay the OU, which would then pay mashgichim. In addition, to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, Rabbi Rosenberg forbade mashgichim from accepting any gifts from clients. He believed that the OU’s real interest lay not in pleasing any particular company by reducing its demands on them, but rather in building a reputation for reliability that would increase the value of the OU brand.

In sum, Rabbi Rosenberg transformed the OU and established the foundation of the modern industrial kashrut system by professionalizing supervision and instituting new management controls. The full realization of these reforms would have to wait for the appointment of Rabbi Menachem Genack, the OU’s current rabbinic administrator, in 1980. Under more than three decades of Rabbi Genack’s leadership, the OU has trained a new generation of kashrut professionals, with expertise in halachah and industrial food production, and instituted a highly developed system of management controls, including extensive oversight and sophisticated information technology.

The roots of these accomplishments, however, lie in the vision and efforts of Rabbi Alexander S. Rosenberg. Thanks to him, kashrut in America is no longer synonymous with corruption but instead with trust and reliability.

Listen to Timothy Lytton discuss the birth of the modern kosher food industry at ou.org/modernkosher.

Timothy D. Lytton is the Albert and Angela Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School. Readers can find more about the turbulent history of kashrut in American and the OU’s leading role in its transformation in his new book, Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food, published by Harvard University Press.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Fall 2013.

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