The Kosher Machine
The Star-K was founded in 1947 by Leo M. Storch, although it only became active in the 1970s when the then-Orthodox Jewish Council was replaced by the Va’ad HaRabbonim, which made kashrut a priority. The group appointed Rabbi Heinemann as the head. Pollak joined in 1976.
“It started in my living room,” recalled Rabbi Heinemann with a nostalgic grin. The company graduated to a room in the basement of Suburban Orthodox Congregation Toras Chaim for $10 per month, to the upstairs offices for $450 per month, and finally to its own facility, which cost $100,000, on Warren Road. It bought its current location in 2001.
Since the 1970s, the two leaders have been at the helm. There is a three-person bais din, or rabbinic advisory board, which includes Rabbi Heinemann, Pollak explained. However, it hasn’t convened in decades.
“Rabbi Heinemann basically determines what the standard is,” said Pollak.
Making The Mark
Who gets a heksher? That’s the million-dollar question. Of course, anyone who is willing to serve kosher food is eligible for certification, but it is not just about if the lettuce is checked for bugs or the meat has been slaughtered by a shochet [ritual slaughterer].
The Star-K, according to Pollak, considers the product, too.
“If the product requesting certification has a lewd message or is the kind of product that kosher consumers may find offensive, we may elect not to certify it,” Pollak explained, noting that one time the Star-K was asked to certify a cruise ship. The organization first had to ensure that religious couples who might need the beds separated in order to follow the laws of family purity would be able to do so.
“If they were bolted to the ground and together, that could be a problem,” he said.
Hotels under Star-K supervision have to be Shabbat accessible; the locks, for example, have to work with standard key and not solely via electronic pass.
In addition, he said, sometimes the Star-K will opt out of supervising an establishment it thinks would “not be comfortable for the average Orthodox person.” He noted that hotels whose ballrooms look out to the pool (where skimpily clad women may be present) or restaurants who bring in female singers may fall into this category.
Another proponent of the decision-making process is the honesty of the store owners and
managers. Bad vibe means no heksher.
“They don’t have to be Jewish,” said Rabbi Heinemann, “but they have to be honest. … If we catch them trying to deceive us — or someone else — we would consider the certification shaky and would probably give them up.”
This is not the same, however, as ethical kashrut, which is a push by the Conservative Movement to bring animal treatment, workers’ conditions and environmental issues to the kashrut industry.
“Our mission is to make kosher products available to consumers who need those products. If we start interfering with the companies’ business practices, they will resent us and they will say, ‘Why do we need to bother?’” said Pollak. “We would like to see everyone treated fairly. If we see abuse, we think carefully [about giving our certification]. The same is true with sanitary conditions — if they’re sloppy, this can affect the kashrus. But it is not our job to take the place of the health inspector. …. We don’t get involved.”
Although he did note that if the Star-K is aware of unsanitary practices, they will bring them up and press for a remedy.
What needs a heksher?
“You have to think about kosher in two broad categories: the retail product — the product you see in the supermarket — and the one that is the larger part but the part that is not seen — the ingredients that make up the product,” said Rabbi Elefant.
The OU predominates in both of these parts of the kashrut industry.
Rabbi Elefant explained that in any given item there could be dozens of ingredients. Take cherry flavoring — 20 or 30 ingredients can comprise just this one “natural flavor,” which is itself an ingredient in a product.
“And these are complex ingredients, and each one has to be OU certified,” he said.
The OU streamlines the process for its companies by running OU Direct, a comprehensive web-based ingredient registry listing some 600,000 “approved” ingredients. Not all of them are OU certified, but all are approved to be used in OU products.
“Everything is computerized — everything. Anybody OU certified can access it. … So, if you are an OU-certified company in China and you want to start using a new ingredient, you go to the database, and you are able to see if the ingredient is approved,” he said.