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Kashering Kosherfest

Rachel Bachrach

Hashgacha at the international kosher food show

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

 Mishpacha image

Photo: Shutterstock


abbi Aaron Mendelson is the rabbi representing the Association of Kashrus Organizations at Kosherfest, where he’s been officiating for eight years. The international kosher food show is this week at theMeadowlandsExpositionCenterinNew Jersey.


What does your job entail?

There are six main points I’m in charge of: One, that each product itself is kosher; two, the equipment —toaster oven, cutting board, knife — is new and not from the house; three, there are no issues of basar b’chalav, meat and milk; four, if they’re cooking something it needs to be bishul Yisrael; five, if the wine isn’t mevushal, it can’t be poured by an irreligious Jew or non-Jew, so I have to approve the person pouring it; and six, that any products served with the main product, condiments or spreads or crackers or anything, are kosher. There was a guy one year who had bread, and he brought a nonkosher meat to put on top. Good thing we saw that…


How did you get involved?

The first year I did Kosherfest, I was called by the OU a day or two before. They said that all the years, no one was really overseeing the show. I came and did the best I could, but with no advance notice or knowledge of how to run such a large operation, it was very overwhelming.


Do you have a staff today?

AKO — the Association of Kashrus Organizations — is an umbrella organization of many different kashrus organizations from around the world, and that’s who I work with. After the first year, I sat down with Rabbi Sholem Fishbane, the head of AKO, and we said we need to figure out a plan. We made a list, how to run it like a proper operation, and we agreed that AKO should oversee the kashrus of Kosherfest — this way all the major organizations are involved. If there’s a problem at a booth, I can work it out with the specific hechsher.


How early do you get started?

The minute last year’s show is over. While everyone is packing up and preparing to leave, I’m working another two hours. Anyone who bought new equipment to the show, I’ll go over and say, “I can pack your toaster oven, seal it with a special tape, and this way all I need to do next year is make sure the seal is intact, open it, and we don’t need to kasher it.” Throughout the year I’m getting calls or e-mails about the show, but the real work starts a few weeks before when we send out a questionnaire to anyone with a booth. They fill it out — what equipment they’ll be using, for example. The day before the show, when everyone is setting up, I go through my list of every booth that needs TLC. They all have my number, and I’m always getting calls. “Rabbi, I’m in booth 512, can you come light the fire?”


What’s your day job?

I work as a mashgiach kashering places that aren’t kosher — a hotel doing a kosher wedding, for example. I work for many agencies, and one day I can be inBinghamton, the next day in the city, and then the next day in Philly. I think because I do this kind of work — nonkosher to kosher, and I work with so many organizations — that’s why they called me for Kosherfest. Because I do commercial and industrial kashering, my truck is full of interesting supplies and tools. I don’t want to say it’s a mad scientist’s lab, but that’s what it looks like! It’s a mobile kashering center. Once one of the major certifying agencies told me someone came to Kosherfest with a used piece of equipment and there wouldn’t be enough time before the show to buy a new one. I ran with the equipment out to the parking lot, and ten minutes later it was kashered.


Let’s talk numbers: How many booths are you overseeing? People?

The last few years Kosherfest has been totally sold out, bumper to bumper, you couldn’t fit another booth in if you tried. There are hundreds of companies and booths, sometimes two companies share a booth, and not all are showcasing food. There are kashrus organizations promoting their hechsher, paper goods companies, distributors. I probably deal with 100 companies. People are coming by the thousands, and from all over:Australia,China,Italy,Argentina.Italysent a large group last year.Israelalways sends the most. 



What interesting sh’eilos have you dealt with?

Many years ago, I was applying for a job as a lifeguard, and the lady in charge said, “I’m not looking for someone who’s going to be rescuing kids from the bottom of the pool all day, I want someone who will make sure the kids don’t need saving.” Someone once told me, “You’re a good mashgiach. You probably throw out a lot of food.” I said, “No, the job of a good mashgiach is to be a few steps ahead of everyone else, to anticipate so you don’t have a sh’eilah of if something is treif.” That’s the goal — to prevent sh’eilos from happening.


Any last-minute catches?

Last year, a guy from a different country came with a chicken product. He had a letter of certification from Rabbi XYZ in his country, who I didn’t know, and then I found out that that rabbi died a few years ago. We sent that man out. This was a meizid — he’s trying to fool us to serve nonkosher. But most times at Kosherfest it’s a shogeig issue — the lady making scrambled eggs knows the eggs are kosher, her equipment is new, but she has no idea that it’s an issue if I don’t turn on the fire.


What’s your personal favorite — what booth do you make a beeline for?

My fridge, at eight o’clock at night. I’m at Kosherfest 6:30 a.m. for Shacharis, after seven we’re in and working. I’m on my feet till it’s over at five. I don’t fast — I’ll nibble here and there — but I can’t stop to eat. Kosherfest’s nickname is “the world’s biggest kiddush.” Most people come home stuffed. I come home starving.


Any memorable feedback from the show?

Of course! One year a lady had an item, we spoke about it a little, the next year she’s back. She tells me, “The show last year was great. Walmart approached me, and now I’m in Walmart!” All the key buyers, the big stores, are at Kosherfest, and these are people who have the ability to buy 10,000 cases of your product. And then there are the people who come for fun, to taste a new kind of kugel. I’ve also gotten feedback to my job, and that’s rewarding. The first year I was there, a key player in the kashrus industry told me he’s ecstatic there’s a mashgiach, but that Kosherfest is too big and too vast to really control things. I showed him my list, a full page of notes, and said, “I see a lot of the problems, but it will be a thousand times better next year, I can tell you that.” He’s here every year since, and every year we remember that and laugh.


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