Women break the kashrut barrier

By Sue Fishkoff, Los Angeles, October 1, 2009
Evelyn Prizont, a rare female kashrut supervisor. When the chefs see her approaching, they sweat, she says

Evelyn Prizont, a rare female kashrut supervisor. When the chefs see her approaching, they sweat, she says

Evelyn Prizont, an Orthodox woman in Washington State, spends her days poking through pantries, vetting vegetables and sniffing spices, all part of her job as a kosher supervisor for the Rabbinical council of Greater Seattle.

“I do it for the glamour,” she notes sarcastically, “and the respect”.

Mrs Prizont is in the minority. There are thousands of shomrim, or kosher supervisors, working in North America, but very few are women.

But as the kosher food industry continues to swell, so does the need for more supervisors. Women are increasingly filling that need, and for the first time, are receiving professional recognition.

In August, the Orthodox Union, the world’s largest kosher certification agency, ran a five-day advanced kashrut course in New York for 25 women. The class visited industrial kitchens and received classroom instruction in practical kashrut.

In November, the Star-K kosher certification will hold a similar two-day course for up to 20 women at its headquarters in Baltimore, Md.

There is no prohibition against women kashrut supervisors in Jewish law, as an observant woman has the authority to supervise kosher standards in a kitchen. Still, the announcement of these courses stirred up some opposition in religious circles.

In response, the organisers insist they are not seeking to train new shomrot, but to enhance the skills and knowledge of women already working in the field.

Participants will not visit slaughterhouses or food manufacturing plants, as their male counterparts do in the agencies’ more in-depth courses for shomrim.

Yael Kaner, chief kosher supervisor at the Pearlstone Retreat Centre in Reiserstown, Md., says it is about time women received advanced training.

“I’ve been jealous of the guys for years,” she says, noting that as a Lubavitcher, she would not have been comfortable attending one of the training courses for men.

When Mrs Kaner started working three decades ago, she was paid considerably less than her male colleagues. In some cities, she was told not to bother applying for jobs, as only men were hired.

Today at Pearlstone she receives a good salary, with full benefits and a pension plan.

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

Most female supervisors prefer part-time work, as they have children at home. Mrs Prizont is one of the few women she knows with a full-time position. She oversees a retirement home, some restaurants and the Hillel kitchen at the University of Washington.

Rather than seeing her gender as a drawback, she says it helps her ferret out wrongdoing.

“Never underestimate the power of lipstick,” she says. “I have to rely on personal relationships, getting people to speak to me openly and honestly.”

When chefs see her approaching, they start to sweat, she says.

“I wield power, and they know it.”

Rabbi Mayer Kurcfeld, who is organising the Star-K course, says 20 per cent of the agency’s local kosher supervisors in hospitals and restaurants are women.

“They’re very meticulous,” he says. “They don’t deviate — either a thing is right, or it’s not. And they’re tough. They stand their ground and are not intimidated.”

Last updated: 5:18pm, October 1 2009