A Woman’s Place Is In The (Kosher) Kitchen
Tue, 06/21/2011
Editorial Assistant
Louise Powers dishes up food and bonds with students as a mashgicha at the Dickinson College dining hall in Carlisle, Pa.
Louise Powers dishes up food and bonds with students as a mashgicha at the Dickinson College dining hall in Carlisle, Pa.

Donyel Meese had to check with her rabbi before accepting a job at a major Midwestern university — one she wasn’t sure women were allowed to hold. “I had never even heard of a woman mashgiach before,” said Meese, 19.

So when a fellow student asked Meese if she would work as a supervisor in the Ohio State University Hillel café, “I asked my rabbi, ‘Can I do this?’” she said. When he replied that there were no halachic issues preventing it, Meese, a rising junior and pre-med student, began work in the kitchen, sharing the job of kosher supervisor with three other students.

“It’s a wonderful job, and I enjoy doing it,” said Meese, who was trained by the Va’ad Hoeir of Columbus, the rabbinic board that certifies the café. And while she never receives any negative reactions, many people are “just a little bit shocked” to see a woman working as a kosher supervisor — particularly customers from the local community, which has no other kosher restaurants.

That shock likely stems from the sheer rarity of a female mashgicha (the feminine version of the Hebrew word, “mashgiach”). There are “very few” women working as kosher supervisors, according to Rabbi Moshe Elefant, COO of the Orthodox Union’s Kashrut Department, the largest supervising agency in the world. While there is a misconception for many people that a mashgiach must be male or even a rabbi, in truth neither are required.

“You need to be extremely flexible in being available to go where you’re needed,” said Rabbi Elefant. “Sometimes people aren’t that available to leave their families, and it’s not such a high-paying job.”

While there is no official data available on the current number of female mashgichot, there has been a significant uptick in training, seminars and discussions for women interested in kashrut. The Star-K certifying agency held its first-ever training session for women in November 2009 — hosting 18 participants for two days — and it is planning a second for the fall. And the Orthodox Union held a weeklong “advanced kashrus seminar for women” for the first time in August 2009 — with 25 women — and the group is planning another in September.

“There was a request made to us [by women] to try to enhance their knowledge and expertise,” said Rabbi Meyer Kurcfeld, assistant director of supervision at Star-K, who conducted most of the training. The program attracted a varied group of people — from women already working as kosher supervisors to those hoping to increase their knowledge in their own kitchens. But the rabbi warns that the session won’t lead to a job at Star-K. These training programs (for both men and women) are run “to share our knowledge and experience for local kosher organizations from the many towns and cities” from where the trainees hail, Rabbi Kurcfeld said. Star-K employees go through a separate process of training and testing.

The Orthodox Union does not bill its program as designed for mashgichot, but rather for women interested in a higher level of kashrut awareness.

“Everyone who was there took it for their own reason,” said Rabbi Yosef Grossman, director of the OU’s kosher education department. “Our mandate is to service all segments of the Jewish community,” he said, noting that the program came about after several women made requests. An OU program for men’s advanced kashrut, which is geared towards mashgiach training, alternates summers with the women’s program.

Alizah Hochstead, a working mashgicha in Efrat, attended both the Star-K and OU kashrut programs in 2009, traveling from Israel to brush up on her skills. But most of her training came on the job — as a secretary at the Kof-K for five years in the 1990s. “A secretary in a kashrus agency has a tremendous amount of responsibility,” said Hochstead. She recounts frequent “mashgiach-type work,” from answering questions to checking product labels and separating challah in a bakery (a ritual required when a significant amount of bread is baked).

While she often acted as a mashgicha, Hochstead had no problem with the title of secretary, as “secretaries get better paid than mashgichim do,” she said. While she doesn’t think there are more women working as supervisors in Israel (where she moved in 2002) than in America, “here in Israel the title has been less of a problem.”

For Hochstead, 64, being a female kosher supervisor is nothing new. “It’s something that I’ve grown up with my whole life,” said Hochstead, who tells of accompanying her mother to the market and to the shochet (ritual slaughterer) in Cleveland as a child, and hearing stories of her grandmother, who oversaw much of the kashrut activity as a rabbi’s wife in a small town in the Ukraine.

“I’ve been working in kashrus field in one aspect or another since I was a kid in high school,” she said. For years Hochstead taught kashrut, and would do small supervisory jobs before accepting a full-time position at the Kof-K.

She now works full time as a mashgicha for the community of Efrat, supervising several restaurants, supermarkets, caterers and a bakery.

“It’s inconvenient, and the hours are horrible,” she said, “but I really like my job.”

Though Hochstead has been working as a mashgicha for years, she says there is always more to learn.

“So much is not just about the halachas,” she said, referring to points of Jewish law, “but issues of food science and product knowledge.”

In addition to the OU and Star-K conferences, Hochstead has attended the AKO (Association of Kashrus Organizations) conference twice, and also organized a one-day seminar on kashrut for 46 women in Israel.

“Just because you know something today doesn’t mean it’s the same thing tomorrow,” she said. “The halachas are the same but the food industry is a very technical area and it changes constantly.”

Louise Powers is new to the job of mashgicha. After working for 23 years as a kindergarten teacher, “I just thought it was time to take something new and challenging,” she said. So when the opportunity arose to work as a supervisor in the kosher section of the Dickinson College dining hall in Carlisle, Pa., she jumped at the chance.

Powers, 61 — who shares the job with another woman, Rikki Gold — works for Star-K, which certifies the cafeteria. She and Gold traveled to Baltimore (the Star-K’s headquarters) last year to train, “learning how to check vegetables,” she said, “and reviewing the mashgiach handbook.” While Powers never worked as a mashgicha before, she had experience working during summers in her husband’s kosher restaurant.

After almost a year behind the counter, “I love the job,” Powers said. “I love having the contact with the students.”

While the numbers of female mashgichot remain small, they garner great respect.

“They are sincere and dedicated mashgichot,” said Rabbi Kurcfeld of Star-K. “For them, it’s not just punching a card. They do their job with heart and soul, and with concern and care. They are not easily intimidated.”