03 Jan Exclusive Interview With R’ MENACHEM GENACK, CEO OF THE OU & R’ MOSHE ELEFANT, COO OF THE OU
The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (UOJCA), more popularly known as the Orthodox Union (OU), is one of the oldest & largest Orthodox Jewish organizations in the United States. It is best known for its kosher certification service. Its circled-U symbol, , a hechsher mark, is found on the labels of many kosher commercial and consumer food products.
Rabbi Menachem Genack is the CEO of the Orthodox Union Kosher Division, a supervisory organization of kosher food and has worked for the OU since 1980. As such, he oversees the kosher certification of products throughout the world. He is known as one of the foremost talmidim of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l under whom he studied for over a decade. He was also very close to Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro and Rabbi Shmuel Berenbaum.
Rabbi Moshe Elefant is the Executive Rabbinic Coordinator and COO of the Orthodox Union’s Kashruth Department – the world’s largest not-for-profit kosher certification agency- and is charged with managing the day-to-day operations of the Orthodox Union. He has been with the OU since 1987 and gives a very popular Daf Yomi shuir.
Last month Ari Hirsch of The Vues had a chance to sit down with both Rabbi Genack & Rabbi Elefant at the Kosherfest in the Meadowlands Exposition Center in Secaucus, NJ to discuss the OU and kashrus at large.
THE VUES: How many years has the OU been around?
Rabbi Genack: As a communal organization it was originally started in 1898. Its first supervision of Kashrut began in the 1920’s.
VUES: Who were the pioneers of the OU?
Rabbi Genack: On the Kosher side, the pioneer is my predecessor, Rabbi Alexander Rosenberg, who took over in 1950 until 1972. He put a lot of the building blocks together. He set it up as a not-for-profit organization. He focused on getting basic ingredients of products. He was a distinguished man, very well respected, and a talmid chacham.
VUES: How many employees are currently working for the OU?
Rabbi Genack: When you talk about the OU there are various divisions. There’s OU Kosher and then there’s the part of the OU that deals with community needs, such as Yachad for children with disabilities, summer programs (Birthright, Michlelet etc.). We’re also active politically, we have a tuition initiative, NCSY- a large kiruv organization. These are only some of the programs. We are a not-for-profit organization and OU Kashruth partly funds these other programs. We have well over a thousand employees.
VUES: How many products are you currently supervising?
Rabbi Genack: We have 9,000 plants in 80 countries around the globe. Firstly, you need to hire talented people, like I did with Rabbi Elefant. We have many different components. We are very highly computerized now. We have a whole division (IAR) that evaluates ingredients, the status, and how often it needs to be inspected.
Rabbi Elefant: We have a database of over a million ingredients. We also have an online database called UKD (Universal Kosher Database) where anyone can check to see if a particular ingredient is kosher, even through different supervisions. So anyone who is OU certified can check to see if a particular ingredient is supervised.
Rabbi Genack: Which is important because part of what we want to do is to make it easy for companies to manage their kosher programs. This makes it easy for them because they can have constant online access to these resources 24/7.
VUES: What is your goal?
Rabbi Elefant: Our goal is to make kosher food available to anyone who wants to keep kosher. The simpler we can make it, the more likely it will be that they are part of this kosher program. We are a non-profit organization and we are world-wide. We can’t limit ourselves to 9-5 because we are worldwide so we really need to be available 24-7.
VUES: How has the kashrus business changed over the years?
Rabbi Genack: We have a lot more competition, but we also represent a larger segment of the kosher industry. One of the changes I’ve seen is that when I first came to the OU, most of the suppliers were domestic. Now in today’s global economy, companies are looking for ingredients across the globe. We have 100’s of companies all over the world looking for ingredients all over the world. So the global economy has changed the nature of how we do business. We now have many companies in China & India.
VUES: What distinguishes the OU from other kashrut organizations?
Rabbi Genack: The OU is much larger than the other companies. We are completely a not-for-profit organization and all of our money is reinvested back into the community. The level of supervision we have, inspection, the staff, evaluating ingredients is much higher than other kashrus organizations.
Rabbi Elefant: Rabbi Genack is very modest, I don’t think there has ever been a kashrus organization that has been assembled from every type of yeshiva: YU, Lakewood, Torah and V’Daas… and the one common denominator is that they are all talmid chachamaim and yirei shamayim. Nobody does this because they’re becoming partner. We all do it as avodas hakodesh.
VUES: Tell us about having Rav Hershel Schachter Shlit”a as the only posek being that Rav Belsky zt”l is no longer with us.
Rabbi Genack: The loss of Rav Belsky zt”l was very profound because he was irreplaceable. Aside from his Torah knowledge he had such a strong knowledge of the equipment and was all self-taught. When he came to a plant he intuitively understood what was involved. Besides Rav Schachter Shlit”a, when we have sheilahs we turn to Rav Asher Weiss in Eretz Yisrael and to others. Rav Schachter Shlit”a and I headed a magazine call Mesorah which we did together about what Rav Soloveitchik zt”l poskined and also other sheilahs and halachos related to Kashrus.
VUES: Do you personally eat food with different hashgachas?
Rabbi Genack: We do, the OU permits other supervisions if we think their standards is equivalent to the OU’s. I had an intense conversation with Rav Soloveitchik about this. We don’t want the whole world monopolized by the OU. What we do insist is that the level of supervision is equivalent to the OU- in terms of how often an inspection is made, who the mashgiach is, his knowledge, and so on. We don’t automatically use other supervisions; we have to look into it, what the product is and the nature of the supervision.
Rabbi Elefant: Again, our goal is to make kosher food available for everybody. We don’t want to be the only hashgacha out there. We as a policy support local hashgachas. I just got an email from someone who wants to open up a butcher shop in Canada. I told them to get the hashgacha of the local rabbanim. Same thing happened in Queens where someone wanted the OU hashgacha for a restaurant. I told him to go to the Vaad of Queens. We could easily give all the hashgachas, but we want the local Rabbanim strengthened and involved.
VUES: What are your thoughts on Hasagus Hagvul? Does it exist anymore in business or kashrus?
Rabbi Elefant: I can’t speak as far as business is concerned, but as far as kashrus, we never solicit an account that has a reliable hashgacha. We tell them to stay where they are. And if an account wants to switch to the OU because they want a lower standard, we will tell them to stay where they are. So we are very careful.
VUES: What’s the OU’s take on having hot coffee in Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks?
Rabbi Genack: In Starbucks they don’t just serve coffee but they also serve food. So the concern is that they may wash dishes together with the coffee urns. We support the CRC’s decision that l’chatchilah you shouldn’t get coffee there. B’dieved, the amount would be batel and be very small.
VUES: A lot of the hashgachas do not let TVs inside a restaurant. Do you feel that this is outside the realm of a hashgacha or is that within their rights?
Rabbi Genack: We believe that the ambiance of a restaurant has to be something that is not offensive in any way. I don’t think television per say is the problem, it depends on the channel.
Rabbi Elefant: The OU allows it, but we don’t believe it’s our place to dictate to the local rabbanim. If the local Rabbanim feel it’s inappropriate to their community then they should make that decision.
VUES: In five or ten years will there be hashgachas outside of food?
Rabbi Genack: There was a time that we had considered getting involved with sheitals, when people were getting concerned about the hair from India and possible avoda zarah- which by the way, Rav Belsky did not think of it as an issue. There was a conversation between him and Rav Elyashuv which we published in Mesorah Magazines. Conceptually we could go there.
Rabbi Elefant: We do certify tzitzis, warming ovens & shaimos. We’re not limited to food, but we are limited to high standards.
VUES: Is there anything you’d like to say right now about the convention at Citifield on Jan. 15, 2017?
OU: It’s the first time at Citifield and its meant to be a Torah occasion- many shiurim and hopefully inspiring. The focus is on Talmud Torah.
VUES: Many people in Brooklyn knew Rabbi Philip (Feivel) Reiss a”h of Cong. Bnai Israel (Bedford Ave. between Ave. J &K) as part of the OU. Please tell our readership about Rabbi Reiss z”l as we approach his 10th yartzheit.
Rabbi Genack: When I first came to the OU, Rabbi Reiss z”l was there. He was a Talmud of the Rav and was there together with Rabbi Yankel Lifshitz who was the Rabbinic coordinator- the senior coordinator of the Kashrus staff. Rabbi Reiss was there part-time as he taught at YU at JSS.
VUES: In 10 years from now, where do you see the OU?
Rabbi Genack: We’re hoping that over the 10 years we will see continued expansion and to help the companies in terms of managing and helping their kosher programs to make it simpler and more efficient.
VUES: If you could have any three dinner guests from the beginning of time, who would they be?
Rabbi Genack: The Ramban, he was my hero. He was amongst those who revolutionized learning. The Brisker Rav. And if could have one person outside the Torah realm, I would love to meet Abraham Lincoln. I was just in London and saw at Parliament Square a statue of Abraham Lincoln dedicated at the turn of the century by Lord George. The Prime Minister said that some people, though they are Hebrew or Greek or Roman, they outstrip their nationality and belong to humanity. That’s Abraham Lincoln. He said that at the time of the dedication of this statue.
Rabbi Elefant: Rav Meir Shapiro (being a big Daf Yomi guy), The Divrei Chaim from a halachik standpoint, and the Brisker Rav.
Rabbi Genack: So for that meal we can eat together.
Rabbi Elefant: We’ve done that before. He eats fish, I eat steak.
VUES: In honor of R’ Shlomo Carlebach yahrtzeit, please tell me your favorite Carlebach song?
Rabbi Elefant: That’s easy, Mizmor L’Dovid.
Rabbi Genack: Lulei Sorascha (the song that R’ Aaron Kotler liked for him to sing.)