TORONTO — “Can you say mashgiach?” The COR’s Rabbi Tsvi Heber is standing in front of a group of middle-school students at the Village Shul Hebrew School. On this chilly evening, he is Mister Kosher, tossing out Post-It notes and pens for every correct answer.
Rabbi Tsvi Heber
“And who’s the rabbi who slaughters the animals? The sho-” – a student calls out “shofar,” but Rabbi Heber gently offers “shochet.”
From classroom visits to synagogue forums, supermarket tours and even koshering home kitchens, the Council of Orthodox Rabbis’ educational and outreach services are expanding as it positions itself to become the friendly face of kashrut in Toronto.
“What do we check an egg for?” Rabbi Heber asks the class.
“There might be an omelette inside!” shouts one student.
“Poison!” calls another.
Joking aside, the kids are fascinated. Few consumers know exactly what kashrut agencies do. Many assume they just look at ingredient lists and supply a symbol for packaging.
With Rabbi Heber at its helm, COR in the community is all about proving that keeping kosher at home doesn’t have to be difficult – or expensive, for example, with this year’s brand-new Passover pricing initiative.
This year for the first time, several divisions of COR (the hechsher of the Kashruth Council of Toronto) have come together under the leadership of Rabbi Yacov Felder in a four-fold approach to keeping food costs down: educating consumers about items that don’t require Passover supervision (they can be purchased at regular prices); working with retailers to minimize costs at Passover; initiating dialogue with wholesalers; and getting the message out to synagogue leadership in the Orthodox community.
Rabbi Felder understands the scope of his undertaking and admits this “isn’t just a one-year project.”
Some savings may be immediate. From mouthwash to juice to dishwasher detergent, what goes into your mouth or onto your plates doesn’t always need expensive Passover certification. This year’s Passover Guide, available online and from COR, contains an expanded list of these and other categories where regular products may be used during Passover.
On the retail front, COR will “identify areas where prices seem to be inflated [and] seek the root cause,” whether wholesaler, manufacturer or both. “If we can keep prices down, it will be good for the retailer” because customers may start buying kosher year-round, spreading out the profits, Rabbi Felder says.
He is aware that there may be resistance. Passover is retailers’ busiest season, and many feel they must mark up prices to make money. Rabbi Felder admits that slightly higher prices may be justified by additional labour and inventory, “however, it doesn’t justify a major hike.
“Contrary to popular belief,” he says, “kashrut fees are not what cause [prices] to go up,” since establishments under COR pay the same amount for full-time kosher supervision year-round. “We’d like it to be a positive message.”
COR also seeks ongoing dialogue with consumers and community leaders about Pesach pricing, Rabbi Felder says, not because “we have control… but we do have some sway, and we’d like to bring this issue to the forefront.”
Back in Rabbi Heber’s classroom, he’s polling the kids about junk food: “Which chips do you like best?”
“Can I have two favourites?” one calls out.
It’s late, and talking about food is distracting, but they’re still asking questions: “Is all water kosher?” “If water had bugs in it, would it still be kosher?”
Bugs have become a popular topic, given recent infestations of the nearly-invisible critters that can render even the most kosher strawberry inedible. In-home demonstrations are a great way to learn more, Rabbi Heber says. “We can actually stand around a kitchen island with a lightbox and a sink and discuss how to check and wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly.”
But produce doesn’t only mean bugs: “We had a class… on fruits and vegetables coming from Israel… encouraging people to buy them and educating them in how to deal with them [halachically, separating Torah-mandated tithes] at the same time.” Programs are also available on kosher alcohol, separating challah and many more: there is hardly a food-related topic COR won’t come talk about.
“What makes a bird kosher?” Rabbi Heber asks the kids.
“Because it has wings?” one student calls.
“No, feathers!” another interrupts.
Along with PowerPoint presentations and Rabbi Heber’s upbeat outreach, COR has also updated its website and added that essential of the modern age, a twitter feed, so that consumers can keep up with kosher alerts, the adventures of COR rabbis, and under-140-character gems such as, “Half the food on supermarket shelves is now reported to be kosher! I’m on fire today.”
Hands go up when Rabbi Heber asks, “How many kosher symbols are there in the world?” “Forty!” “Fifty thousand!” He agrees that there are over 1,000, and passes out copies of the COR’s new wallet-sized card with many of the most common symbols.
Two important services, as Passover approaches, are community koshering events – one to be held in the BAYT in Thornhill and another at a location further south – and a Passover hotline. To reach COR with a Passover kashrut question, call 416-635-9550, ext. 274 (or just wait to hear the prompts), e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or, on the website, click the “ask the rabbi” forum.
Will someone get back to consumers, even at the last minute? On erev Pesach, a rotation of rabbis are given one-hour timeslots to check messages and return calls and e-mails.
As for the rest of the year, Rabbi Felder “would like those people who only keep kosher for Pesach to become more educated, more knowledgeable, and try to keep kosher for more than just Pesach.”
In a community where, according to Rabbi Heber, “many kids don’t know the name of a kosher restaurant,” his classroom visit is often their first introduction to kashrut as part of Jewish life. COR hopes some of his paraphernalia makes it home so that the parents, too, can start talking about keeping kosher – at Passover and beyond.