Masorti Hashgacha Program Pioneers in Ukraine

It would seem ironic for a Masorti community to rely on the ultra-Orthodox to provide kashrut services for Camp Ramah, Family Camp, teacher’s seminars and synagogue events, but until recently this was the reality in Ukraine. The irony was not lost on Rabbi Reuven Stamov—rabbi of the Masorti community in Ukraine. This was the primary factor which spurred him to make the members of his community active in the Kashrut process, rather than merely passive consumers.

Course participant Yulia Kleiman and her husband Lev perform “tevilat keilim,” (immersing new vessels) in the mikvah in Chernowitz.

As part of Rabbi Stamov’s mission to make the Masorti community in Ukraine completely independent of the Ultra-Orthodox establishment, he consulted his rabbinic mentor, Rabbi Shlomo Zacharow of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem to explore the possibility of training members of the community as Mashgichei Kashrut (Kosher supervisors)—an important task for which they had always relied on the Orthodox community.

Together, they designed a year-long online course with participants joining in via Skype, and Lena Stamov, Director of Education at the Masoret Kiev Community, (and  a participant) translating into Russian. In addition to the online lessons, there were also two face-to-face seminars, one of which was a weekend session with a world renowned food chemist and the second a hands-on practicum where the participants kashered an industrial kitchen.

The first seminar was held with Rabbi Zacharow and Professor Joe Mac Regenstein, Professor Emeritus at the department of Food Science at Cornell and a world expert on Kashrut and a food chemist who volunteered to come to Ukraine to run the seminar. The seminar with Prof. Regenstein provided a comprehensive overview of the issues which arise in the field of  industrial Kashrut certification from the eyes of a food chemist with extensive background on Kashrut. Students studies the intricacies of the issues surrounding Shechita, as well as alcohol, animal and grape based chemical additives and insects, the leniencies and stringencies that exist in Kashrut as well as complications which can arise from recycling within the industry. They also examined the business aspects of Kosher supervision and discussed how to inspect a plant, relations with their clients, and how to deal with explaining potential recalls, and other problems that can arise.

Dr. Regenstein recalls the seminar being quite intensive with sessions going from morning until night, taking breaks only for their meals, which they ate at the Masort Kiev Community. “I must admit it was a wonderful experience” said Dr. Regenstein “The students were eager to learn, and many good questions”. The seminar was also a big hit with the students. Yulia Fresh, a participant from Chernowitz described Dr. Regenstein’s course as being really high level. “I love him so much” she says. “He knows how to laugh, and explains it all in such an easy way. He’s just the top”.

What Dr. Regenstein found most surprising was the experience of teaching a trilingual course in English, Hebrew and Russian—and also by the fact that none of the students spoke Ukrainian as their primary language. He says that the syllabus for the seminar was developed for the Rav Hamachshir course which he teaches along with Rabbis Joel Roth and Paul Plotkin at JTS.

The second seminar consisted of a hands-on practicum in which the six course participants applied their newfound knowledge to kasher an actual industrial facility under the guidance of Rabbi Zacharow. They visited a local hummus producer in Kiev and examined the facility to evaluate what was able to be kashered and what had to be replaced. They proceeded to kasher entire facility, and at the end of this final seminar the participants sat to take a thorough examination on the course.

Participants sat all day to answer the 70 question examination which took them seven hours to complete. In the exam they were faced with a multitude of potential scenarios and had to write essays outlining as how to deal with the kashrut issues and any potential complications, as well a section of short answer questions to test their knowledge.

Participants gather during the Kashrut Seminar with Dr. Regenstein in Kiev.

In addition to the formal education of each participant, participants also shared knowledge with their home communities. Yulia recalls taking part in a a culinary midrash session in her community every two weeks where she would help tie each session in with a different aspect of kashrut. Her favorite activity involved learning about kosher fish and having community members scan a sushi menu from a restaurant to identify which rolls were made with exclusively kosher fish and which were not. Following that exercise, they practiced making the kosher rolls, along with a professional sushi chef brought in for the occasion.

Additionally, they also held sessions on Kashrut during the NOAM youth movement’s Shabbat afternoon sessions. Yulia, who is also a leader in NOAM taught the NOAM members how to check vegetables for insects, as well as the rationale behind it. Before Pesach they also learned how to kasher the community’s kitchen for the holiday, which they did together.

At the time of publication, Rabbi Stamov is currently grading the lengthy exams in order to certify participants as Mashgichim, but in the meanwhile two participants have already started working as Mashgichei kashrut, replacing the Orthodox Mashgichim at Camp Ramah Yahad Ukraine.

Word of the Hashgacha program go about and several months ago Rabbi Stamov was contacted by the Jewish Agency and the Joint who were interested in using the Kashrut services of the Masorti movement in Ukraine, but the Orthodox caught wind of this arrangement and scuttled the deal before anything concrete developed from it.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Zacharow maintains that training Mashgichim is central to the Movement’s ability to be a strong and independent Jewish stream, and must be expanded.  “I have always been interested in the sacred skills” says Rabbi Zacharow. “It is very important to me that the Conservative movement train its own shochetim, mashgichim, sofrei STAM, mohalim and build its own mikvaot and eruvim. We should take these integral parts of Judaism into our own hands and be active with them”.