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Friday, August 1, 2014

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Kashrut goes corporate: COR gets new CEO

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TORONTO — In today’s global scene, kashrut agencies can no longer afford to remain small or local. “If someone sees a COR [symbol], they shouldn’t have to think a second time… they should know the standards are world class,” says the Kashruth Council of Canada’s new CEO, Rabbi Tuvia Basser, a Torontonian who’s spent years in the business world, most recently as a senior manager with Nortel. 

Rabbi Tuvia Basser

Rabbi Basser hopes his newly created position will allow him to exercise his strengths in both the business and the rabbinic worlds. “I can bring the best of all aspirations together with the pursuit of strengthening religious observance in the community and across the country.”

Creating the CEO position shows how far the Kashruth Council has come over the last 50 years. Rabbi Basser’s first challenge will be creating structures within the organization to reflect its complex day-to-day operations.  

While consumers may see the Kashruth Council’s “COR” symbol as just a hech­sher on local restaurants or packages, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. “We are the largest community kashrut organization in North America,” says Rabbi Tsvi Heber, director of kashrut.

Beyond approximately 140 establishments in the Toronto area that are certified by its food service division, its industrial division supervises some 625 companies from coast to coast.

Rabbi Basser believes his corporate outlook will help the COR to “upgrade its professionalism.”  

The organization has grown so quickly that it has not had a chance to create a formal corporate structure, leaving major gaps, such as the lack of a formal HR department or a sales and marketing division.  

“You don’t think of a religious organization as needing sales and marketing,” says Rabbi Basser, but “in the real world, you need a financial base. You need sales and marketing.”

Rabbi Basser believes his business background will be a tremendous asset. “For-profit organizations can measure their progress – it’s called dollars.” With a non-profit organization, analyzing success can be tougher, but a solid business background can be helpful in implementing objective measures of success, he says.

The hurdles facing the Kashruth Council in the near future are both local and global: making kosher food available to a broad spectrum of Torontonians reliably and inexpensively while maintaining standards that are widely recognized as comparable to the “big name” international agencies.  

The proliferation of private kashrut agencies, as seen in other communities, is not a good solution here. Small agencies may be “world class, reliable organizations,” says Rabbi Basser, but “they are nonetheless not community  organizations… serving the community’s needs. It’s an admirable business, but it’s a business.” A private agency wouldn’t be “here to serve the Toronto community. COR is.”

Serving the Toronto community means balancing the requirements of the many types of kosher consumers here.  That group ranges from haredi Orthodox communities who might require chalav Yisrael (for dairy products) or pas Yisrael (for wheat products) certification to observant Sephardim, with their own needs for cooked foods, to non-Orthodox Jews who keep kosher and rely on the COR hechsher.

Rabbi Heber says the Kashruth Council is “probably the only kashrut organization that certifies all synagogues in their respective city – all Conservative shuls that have asked for certification.”

In the last few years, the organization has actually changed some of its policies to reflect this diversity. Chalav Yisrael milk, for instance, was previously a requirement of its food service division. Now, a store or restaurant may offer non-chalav Yisrael dairy products if a prominent sign indicates their status.

Also, the council previously insisted that at least one business partner be shomer Shabbat, but a new “mashgiach temidi” (full-time supervisor) system, also recently adopted by some other major kashrut organizations, allows any business owner to be certified.

Then there’s the global arena. “Part of being a world-class organization is to have expert insights into the issues,” says Rabbi Basser. “We need top expertise.” COR kashrut administrator Rabbi Sholom Adler is on the standards committee of the Chicago-based Association of Kashrus Organizations (AKO), and COR experts have led the way in recent controversies over raisin infestations and fish parasites.

But the Kashrut Council is also still thinking local. “If we can get a more secure financial base, we’d like to expand into the breadth of services that the community needs,not just what’s more profitable,” Rabbi Basser says.  

It already offers many other services, such as in-home seminars on checking produce for insects or the kashrut of alcohol products, along with supermarket tours and regular recipe publications, “kashrut alerts” and annual lists of approved Passover products.  They’ll even help you kasher (make kosher) your home.

Educating consumers could go a long way in a community that sometimes wrongly blames the organization for its kashrut woes, such as the high cost of kosher food or perceived inconsistencies in catering fees.

When it comes to catering, Rabbi Heber cautions that the organization’s charges are standardized, but may not always be passed on accurately. “If you see a ‘supervision fee’ [on a catering bill], that is not necessarily our fee.”

As for Rabbi Basser, he’s still feeling out what this city needs from its main kashrut organization, listening to the many stakeholders, including ordinary shoppers.

“I don’t know whether the consumer is my customer or my employer. I’m more inclined to think of the kosher consumer as my employer.  One way or another they’re going to let me know what they want.”

There’s no doubt he’s aiming high, and looking to give the Kashrut Council’s COR hechsher the kind of ubiquity on store shelves that the OU hechsher enjoys in the States. “I would like to feel that COR can do that… in the Canadian scene and perhaps beyond.”

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