Women Kosher Supervisors on the Rise

By Sue Fishkoff (JTA)

Published June 30, 2009.
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Evelyn Prizont does it for the glamor.

“And the respect,” she adds with a smirk.

Prizont, an Orthodox woman in her early 40s, is a mashgicha, a female kosher supervisor in Seattle.

Under contract with the Va’ad HaRabanim of Greater Seattle, she spends her days poking around commercial kitchens, making sure kosher laws are observed and treif is kept at bay.

The mashgiach, or kosher supervisor, is the foot soldier of the kosher food industry. Thousands of them travel the world to inspect factories, kitchens, tanker trucks, slaughterhouses, bakeries, butchers and supermarkets, overseeing meal preparation for hotels, Jewish schools, synagogues and summer camps.

They kasher people’s homes, clean bugs from vegetables, and watch over the religiously sensitive operations of kosher wine and cheese making.

There are no hard figures, but very few kosher supervisors are women, despite no prohibitions in Jewish law.

Unlike with rabbis or cantors, Jewish law holds that an observant woman has the authority to supervise kosher standards in a kitchen. Kashrut is one of the few areas of Orthodox Jewish life where women have the same legal status as men.

As the kosher food industry continues to swell, so does the number of female kosher supervisors. And now they are receiving professional recognition.

The first known training course for mashgichot will be held this fall in Baltimore. Organized by the Star-K kosher certification agency, the weeklong seminar is aimed at women supervisors in the food service industry. It will include an overview of proper procedures, an analysis of kosher laws and policies, and field trips to working kitchens.

Mashgichim have enjoyed this kind of professional support for years, but women have had to train themselves.

Yael Kaner, a Chabad-Lubavitcher and chief kosher supervisor at the Pearlstone Retreat Center in Reisterstown, Md., says it’s about time women got their due.

“I’ve been jealous of the guys for years,” she says. “I wanted to go to their course, but it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to sit in a roomful of men.”

When Kaner started doing kosher supervision 30 years ago, she was not paid nearly the same as her male counterparts. Today at Pearlstone, she makes a good salary and has full benefits and a 401K plan.

It was a long haul, fraught with stereotypes to overcome.

Upon moving to Washington, D.C., in 1987, she applied to work for the local kosher board.

“They asked, ‘why do you want to do this? It’s such a dirty job,’ ” she recalls.

Six years ago in Great Neck, N.Y., Kaner was told not even to bother applying, that only men were hired for the jobs.

Rabbi Mayer Kurcfeld of the Star-K, who is organizing the fall training course, oversees several women supervisors and says they are often better than men because they are particular about details.

“They’re very meticulous,” he says. “They don’t deviate – either a thing is right or it’s not. A guy, a lot of times he’ll do a Talmudic analysis. I don’t want a Talmudic analysis. A mashgiach’s job is to see and to hear and to report.”

Most female supervisors work in the food services industry and tend to be found in cities outside New York and Los Angeles, where plenty of Orthodox men are available to fill the jobs.

Prizont is among the few women with a full-time position. Many are mothers with young children and can only take part-time work.

Under her purview, Prizont has a number of establishments: a retirement home, a Chinese restaurant, a bagel shop, a deli section, a couple of natural food shops and the Hillel kitchen at the University of Washington.

She’s a hands-on supervisor, examining fresh produce for infestation, climbing into pantries and rummaging through bulk-food bins to make sure the dried beans, rice and granola mixes are kosher-certified.

Slender and soft-spoken, Prizont may not strike fear into the hearts of hard-bitten commercial line cooks, but she has other ways of making them talk.

“Never underestimate the power of lipstick,” she says. “I do a lot of information gathering. I’m there as the narc, right? I’m in and out of these places pretty quickly, so I have to rely on personal relationships, getting people to speak to me openly and honestly.”

Prizont sees her gender as a plus, believing she is seen as less threatening than a rabbi, the more typical kosher supervisor. One kitchen worker “who decided he liked me – again the lipstick, you know,” clued her in to kosher violations taking place in his restaurant, fingering a co-worker who mixed dairy with meat equipment and used produce that had not been checked for infestation.

It helps that Prizont speaks Spanish, the lingua franca in many kitchens.

“He begged me, in Spanish, not to tell anyone it was him,” she says.

When Kaner’s son, now a student at the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, was a baby, she would take him on jobs with her in his stroller. Waiters would play with him while she poked around their kitchens. It was akin to a single guy walking his dog – babies put folks off guard, disarming them.

Kaner and Prizont both say they aren’t afraid to come down hard on violators. They can impose fines or take away an establishment’s kosher certification.

“I work with some high-powered chefs, huge guys with sharp knives,” Prizont says. “They start to sweat when I come around. They see me shaking my head at something across the room and they get nervous. I wield power, and they know it.”

“They are tough,” Kurcfeld says of the mashgichot he knows. “They’ll stand their ground and are not intimidated.”

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