Shortage of kosher supervisors strains restaurants

Holy Chow in 2018. Photo by Hannah Monicken

Two weeks ago, the wife of one of Holy Chow kosher Chinese restaurant’s mashgichim, or kosher supervisors, became gravely ill. The couple are in New York now, where she is receiving treatment.

Around the same time, the restaurant’s other mashgiach left for an eight-day trip to Israel. Restaurant owner Ami Schreiber had no one to fill in. There are not that many people trained to inspect a restaurant and certify it as kosher.

“Frankly, it has always been difficult to find someone to fill in. If one had to go to the dentist, it was always a frantic chase,” Schreiber said.

Lately, Schreiber has been posting on the Kemp Mill restaurant’s Facebook whether it will be open during its regular hours. He said it’s difficult to know from day to day whether he can keep his doors open.

Now, he just hopes some kind members of the community will volunteer for a few hours at a time to help him muddle through.

“This mashgiach thing, it kills me,” Schreiber said. “I am floored how difficult it is.”

Mashgichim are the employees who make sure a food establishment follows all the laws of kashrut. A mashgiach must be Shabbat observant and knowledgeable about the laws on slaughtering meat, cooking meat and fish and separating milk and meat. A mashgiach can be male or female.

Often, their primary responsibility is washing and inspecting produce and checking the shipments that come into the kosher establishment.

For the five years he has owned Holy Chow restaurant, Schreiber has somehow managed to juggle having two mashgichim as well as one or two others able to step in with little notice to make sure it is always covered, and all kosher rules are followed. However, he said, “It’s never been great.”

At Ben Yehuda Pizza, located across the parking lot from Holy Chow in the same Kemp Mill Center, things are not quite as dire.

However, said owner Josh Katz, “It has always been difficult. For 10 years [that he has owned the restaurant], it’s always been the hardest position to fill.”

“It would definitely be helpful if there were more mashgichim,” he said. He acknowledged that the salary is not one that would enable a family to put their children through Jewish day school.

Washington Jewish Week reached out to several of the area’s other kosher restaurants but did not receive any replies.

Five years ago, the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington, or Va’ad, mandated a minimum hourly pay for a mashgiach of $18. That has since risen to $23 an hour. “Now, we can’t get anyone for less than $25,” Schreiber said.

The shortage of mashgichim is not just a local issue. It is a national one, said Rabbi Moshe Walter, executive director of the Vaad.

“The most salient reason for the shortage of mashgichim is due to the COVID years where many workers stopped working, found other means of employment or retired early,” Walter said. “The food industry in particular suffered greatly from COVID as the lack of employees interested in returning to the food industry caused business closures, bankruptcy, and severe chain supply issues.

“Many mashgichim similarly began looking for other employment and left the field of kosher supervision,” he noted.

Schreiber believes that area Orthodox schools could train students to be mashgichim. He said he contacted Yeshiva of Greater Washington about it. The students can earn extra money while learning the ins and outs of running a kosher restaurant, he said.

He also has spoken to the Vaad to see if area Hebrew day schools could add the study of kashrut to the curriculum, including visits to local kosher restaurants and supermarkets. Schreiber believes that upon completion of the class, the students would be able to be hired as mashgichim.

He also has tried offering to pay a mashgiach from the yeshivah $18 an hour with another $5 an hour going to the school or catering free meals for certain school programs for free if the school provided a mashgiach.

So far, nothing has materialized.

A recent increase in hourly pay to $23 by the Star-K kosher-certifying firm in Baltimore has dried up the likelihood of someone driving to the D.C. area for better pay, Schreiber said, adding, “No one is going to shlep down here.”

Things are particularly difficult at Holy Chow, which uses more vegetables that need checking for bug infestation than most restaurants, Schreiber said.

To Katz, the recent lack of mashgichim driving from Baltimore has made it more difficult.

In a post, Rabbi Dovid Stern of Star-K in Baltimore agreed.

“There really is a severe shortage of mashgichim and all offers of help are appreciated.”

Last week, his organization offered a one-hour Zoom training session to cover the basics of the job. “I know this is short notice, but we’re trying to get some mashgichim trained and working ASAP,” he wrote.

Walter suggested a few ways to improve the situation. He believes that raising salaries and granting benefits like reduced rates on grocery bills and food orders would help. Creating a job database would help as a recruitment tool.

And, Walter said, it also is important that people acknowledge the mashgichim, giving them “the honor they rightfully deserve.” ■

Suzanne Pollak is a freelance writer.

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