Upon entering Rabbi Yerachmiel Morrison’s corner office, which faces Broadway on one side and Manhattan’s East River on the other, an array of pastries and chocolates greeted me. Decoratively arranged on a cabinet amid assorted liquors, including a classic bottle of Cherry Heering, the display of good taste and elegance served as a fitting introduction to the decorous rabbi seated behind the desk, focused on an involved phone conversation about figs. He welcomed me with his veddy proper South African accent. “Please help yourself,” he motioned to the abovementioned goodies. “My son just got engaged,” he explained and continued with his fig call. I turned down the offer, but wished him mazal tov. “Give me a report on the process you are using as soon as you can, won’t you? Thank you.” With that he hung up. As the honking below us receded from earshot, I felt I had officially entered the hectic, essential world of the OU’s Director of the Ingredient Approval Registry (IAR).
Rabbi Morrison began his work at the OU over a decade ago. Before entering the field of kashrut, he served for seven years as Rav of the Springs Hebrew Congregation, a suburb of Johannesburg and for six in South Africa’s Port Elizabeth community. Among his other varied rabbinical responsibilities, he oversaw both areas’ kashrut needs. This wealth of experience proved invaluable for the formidable demands placed on the Rabbinical Coordinator (a.k.a. RC) at the helm of the OU’s ingredients registry. “This is the grassroots, the absolute foundation of kashrut,” says Rabbi Morrison. “You can’t have kashrut unless you are going to start off with kosher ingredients.” According to Rabbi Morrison, the procedures he and his adept staff implement daily leave no room for error (as much as humanly possible). The OU’s database contains 200,000 products from food companies across the globe, of which it keeps close track. “We have to review constantly what we are accepting and rejecting, as well as what we are uncertain about,” says the rabbi. “This meticulous surveillance and a lot of siyata d’Shmaya (Divine assistance) insures that we are able to certify products that are meeting the highest standards.”
How the Jews Got to South Africa/The Errant Flight of the Fig Wasp
Born in Johannesburg to native South Africans, Rabbi Morrison actually comes from Lithuanian ancestry. “My grandparents emigrated from Lithuania, as did the forbearers of most South African Jews,” he says. “The story goes that a lone Lithuanian Jew, named Sammy Marks, ventured to South Africa back in the 1870’s, made a fortune, and then single-handedly rebuilt his shtetl’s old shul back home.” Apparently, this made quite an impression on the Lithuanian Jewish community. Enough so that many others followed his mazaldik lead. “I think there’s a more persuasive reason they settled there,” says Rabbi Morrison. “With its small villages at the time, South Africa most likely reminded them of the shtetlach of home.”
“Mazal tov! Mazal tov! You should have nachas.” More delighted partakers of the sweet offerings, among them a fellow RC. “Please make a bracha; don’t hesitate.” The pressing fig issue came up again. “Figs have reached a point that many times I opened them and I did in fact find insects, a worm or a fly,” said Rabbi Morrison to his colleague happily munching on a cookie. “Something you definitely don’t want to eat. I haven’t eaten figs for decades.” His colleague heartily agreed. “There’s actually a fig wasp,” he said, supporting the Rabbi Morrison’s case. “Enzymes dissolve much of it, but the wing parts often remain.” He finished up his chocolate delicacy, wished the father of the chatan well and left.
Rabbi Morrison attended the local yeshiva high school and at 17 flew to Cleveland, Ohio (his first trip to America) to attend the Telshe Yeshiva, where he learned for six pivotal years under the brilliant Torah tutelage of Rav Mordechai Gifter, Rav Boruch Sorotzkin, and YBL”H Rabbi Chaim Stein. “What a zechut it was,” says Rabbi Morrison. “to be in the same institution as so many outstanding minds and to be able to study under such giants as were the Rashei Yeshiva of Telshe, past and present. They were people of tremendous depth and character and brought with them a wealth of history – a world my parents and grandparents often spoke about.” Rabbi Morrison maintained a strong connection with the Rashei Yeshiva over the years. “The Telshe outlook was believing one should not position himself in a secluded ivory tower, rather, they stressed that one has a responsibility towards the wider community – a community consciousness.”
Rabbi Morrison brought that community consciousness back to South Africa and accepted his first rabbinical position. Not yet married, he traveled to Israel on vacation and met his future wife through her brother-in-law, who happened to be the rabbi’s friend. He returned to South Africa and continued his congregational duties as he took on the added station of husband and soon father.
Next Stop – OU
After 13 productive years in the pulpit, Rabbi Morrison heard about and applied for the position of RC at the OU. The job entailed approving or rejecting ingredients that OU-certified companies and plants wished to use. “It’s a task that requires a close liaison with all the other certifying agencies and attaining a comprehensive familiarity with each of their kashrut standards,” says Rabbi Morrison. “I have to make absolutely certain that these various agencies’ standards meet those of the OU’s.” He explains that many products under OU supervision use ingredients certified by other agencies and that there are hundreds of these agencies throughout the world. “One product might have a hundred different ingredients used along the production line certified by all sorts of agencies,” he continues. “We have to make absolutely sure each one of these components and sub-components are meeting our criteria. When a consumer buys a product with an OU on the label, he is entitled to expect that everything that went into making that product meets OU standards.” If necessary, Rabbi Morrison sends an OU kashrut rabbi to a factory in order to review the processes and hashgacha associated with a particular ingredient or sub-ingredient.
The world’s ever-advancing technological blitz does not only determine what our minds ingest, but our bodies as well. Food production has become an increasingly complicated business and OU kashrut rabbis require a significant measure of scientific knowledge. They frequently consult with professionals within the industry to clarify the precise chemical makeup of products under consideration. A typical company’s products may contain a few hundred ingredients and Rabbi Morrison’s rabbinical crew carefully educates and guides those unfamiliar with the intricacies of kashrut through the process of producing kosher products. “When we have the facts and know the minute details involved in the manufacturing process, we can then determine how it impacts upon the product’s kashrut status,” says Rabbi Morrison. Once a product and/or ingredient passes, all the pertinent details are recorded and takes its place among OU’s massive files. “We have a long hallway wall lined with files,” says the OU’s ingredients maven. His department employs a worker who files full-time, seven people busy entering the nonstop flow of data, and additional staff to process new company applications.
Although this intensive investigative process keeps most of his moments occupied, the rabbi manages to invest some quality time with his family, as well as in Torah learning and teaching. He also enjoys a classical music break, with a preference for Bach. He wants his children to be happy and to find self-fulfillment as good, committed, and loyal Jews. “That’s what we all pray for.”
As director of the IAR, Rabbi Morrison has seen many interested cases come across his desk. “Anything that can potentially be used in the production of food is going to come through the Registry,” he says. The rabbi asked me to pick up a Styrofoam container amid the important documents before him. “Do you know what that is?” I gazed at what looked like tiny, translucent flower petals. “Those are scales. We are examining if a particular fish is kosher or not,” he explained. “We picked the scales off a fresh King Clip and brought it in for our poskim to have a look in order to determine if they are halachically considered to be scales.” Apparently, this is not a fish generally found in the USA and other countries are now attempting to export it.
The rigorous research continues. As Rabbi Morrison said, “This is the grassroots, the absolute foundation of kashrut.” And the main ingredient that formulates that solid start is the managerial finesse of a dedicated, seasoned Rabbinical Coordinator.
“I came to wish you a mazal tov, rabbi.”
“Thank you and you yours. Please make a bracha; take some Cherry Heering!”
Bayla Sheva Brenner is Senior Writer in the Communications and Marketing Department at the OU.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.