One sunny afternoon, Josh Wildman, mashgiach (kosher food supervisor) with the Vaad HaKashruth of the Capital District, locked the door of the room of the Department of Correctional Services Food Production Center facility in Rome, NY and ran the tail of an OU seal through the two ports affixed to the doors.
“I record the number on the seal in my book,” he said, “and tomorrow when I come in I make sure that no one has tampered with it.”
For the past year the Orthodox Union, working with the Vaad of the Capital District, has been maintaining a pilot project for the New York State Department of Correctional Services at its central Food Production Center facility located in Central New York, on the Oneida Correctional Facility real estate. The project serves a dual purpose, in that it both provides for local packaging of all the kosher food for the entire state prison system as well as a number of county lockups, and also is a training facility for inmates who use their incarceration as a means of learning a food service skill that will make them more employable when they’ve done their time and return to private life.
Under the general supervision of the Orthodox Union, serviced by Rabbinic Coordinator Rabbi Leonard Steinberg, assisted by Rabbi Tzvi Jacobs of Monsey, NY, OU Rabbinic Field Representative Rabbi Dr. Moshe E. Bomzer who heads the Capital District Vaad, Wildman and other lay mashgichim, the operation currently involves only the repackaging of previously certified glatt meats and chalav Yisrael (with special rabbinic supervision) American cheese into quarter-pound servings. Nonetheless, and despite the fact that only ten percent of the prison inmates who request kosher meals are Jews, and of that number only a handful kept kosher before going to prison, the operation slices, packages and vacuum seals an average of 3,000 individual servings each day, Monday through Thursday, for a total of a ton-and-a-half of food per week.
It is not, of course, the easiest place to work. Ten hours each day are spent in a 38-40 degree refrigerated room with half a dozen convicted criminals, none of whom themselves keep kosher. The personnel changes are unpredictable as inmates receive parole and leave the facility on a week’s notice; or worse, are involved in some violation of the rules that removes them from the workforce and denies them the privileges of employment. The supervisory staff are not permitted to have cell phones or any electronic devices within the prison; even an accidental possession discovered before any contact with an inmate has been initiated will result in immediate dismissal and an escort from the grounds.
But those who work in the program praise it. “I have never had such a rewarding job,” says Seth Eben Shapiro, who retired from the practice of law in 1994 and has worked for the Vaad in numerous industries since 2001. “Not only are we providing our Jewish brothers and sisters who have had the misfortune to be incarcerated with the comfort and confidence of having their meals certified as kosher by the OU, but we are also creating a wonderful environment of understanding and gratitude with non-Jewish inmates who thanks to us are acquiring skills that may keep them from ever having to see the inside of a prison again!”
Facility Director Howard Dean is so impressed with the success of the program that he is in active discussions with the OU’s Rabbi Steinberg on the possibility of increasing the production to include salads and other cold foods, all with OU certification, that would be a general offering to the entire prison population. Already, the OU can be found on apple and pineapple juice servings that are processed in the plant. “We are, in reality, no different than any other food production company, even though our product serves only a specific customer base,” Dean said, “but the OU certification increases the confidence that our food is being held to the highest standards.”