December 1, 2008

The Mashgichim: Tragedy in Mumbai

When I first heard the news of the attacks and hostage situation in Mumbai, my mind immediately wandered to other recent natural disasters and terrorists attacks where mashgichim (kashrus supervisors) were caught in harm’s way. Who would think of the notion that travelling to supervise a plant could possibly be a dangerous occupation? But then again we live in an era where even being a tourist can be dangerous. In fact, terrorists purposely select tourist centers as their targets for obvious reasons. It can cripple a nation whose economy depends on tourism for revenue.

But even in good times, the young men who crisscross the globe to certify plants live very difficult lives. They are often separated from their families with many children at home for many days and even weeks. They live in hotels and have to be creative in feeding themselves kosher food. One mashgiach who was assigned to hashgacha work in Thailand told me of his 6-hour bus trip on an old bumpy road just to get to the plant. Many of these mashgichim double as shluchim (emissaries) of the Chabad movement who work tirelessly with small numbers of Jews who either live there, travel on business, or visit as tourists. The late Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg, the energetic head of the Chabad Center in Mumbai doubled as a mashgiach for the OK. You cannot imagine what it means to be in a place with little or no Jewish life and to be served a hot meal by someone like Holtzberg and his late wife Rivkah, both so brutally murdered in Mumbai. I know. I’ve been there.

As consumers, we sometimes take for granted that the delicious foods that are manufactured abroad somehow manage to get to the grocery shelves kosher. We have no idea of what some mashgichim go through to get there until we hear the tragic news from places like Mumbai. Rabbi Aryeh Leibish Teitelbaum and Rabbi Benzion Chorman were the latest heroes who found themselves in harm’s way just to be able to bring us more kosher products. I have often called them the unsung heroes of our generation. I remember writing a similar piece after the tragic death of Rabbi Thumim, who perished in a crash of a small plane.

Even mashgichim, and even rabbis and kosher slaughterers who work in this country often travel long distances, rise in the middle of the night, eat out of a can of tuna fish, sleep in motels and are separated from their families. We pray and hope that the sad news out of Mumbai will be the last.