Mishpacha Magazine: Five-Star Standard

By: Eytan Kobre/Mishpacha Magazine

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In his varied roles — as the head of the STAR-K, longtime rav of the Agudath Israel of Baltimore, and a sagacious leader of the city’s Torah community — Rav Heinemann has charted a path that prioritizes two values, emes and shalom, above all else (Photo Credit: Reb Eli Greengart)

For over half a century, Rav Moshe Heinemann has set the bar high on kashrus, as head of STAR-K and as a foremost authority in the ever-more-complex field of kosher certification.

When the time came to build a mikveh in Lakewood shortly after Rav Aharon Kotler’s petirah in 1962, that all-important mission was entrusted to a talmid for whom the Lakewood rosh yeshivah had forseen a shining future as a moreh hora’ah for Klal Yisrael: Rav Moshe Heinemann, then a Beth Medrash Govoha yungerman in his mid-twenties.

As we sit together in the conference room of the STAR-K, the Baltimore-based kashrus certification agency Rav Moshe Heinemann has led for half a century, he recalls his visit to the venerable Rebbe Yoel of Satmar to discuss the mikveh project. “I asked the Rebbe, ‘What’s the best way to make a mikveh?’ and he replied with customary wit: ‘The best way is not to make it based on the Shulchan Aruch.’ After a pause, he continued, ‘If you need to look in Shulchan Aruch, it’s already a problem.’ ”

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The lesson, Rav Heinemann says, was clear: Optimal mitzvah performance means avoiding sh’eilos, even if ultimately they can be resolved.

Over 60 years later, as the beacon of Rav Moshe Heinemann’s halachic guidance shines forth from Baltimore, Maryland throughout the United States and beyond, the Satmar Rebbe’s long-ago admonition to strive for halachic excellence, not baseline compliance, remains his own guiding principle. His prime vehicle for setting the frum community’s halachic bar high is the STAR-K, through which he has become perhaps America’s foremost authority in the multifaceted, ever-more-complex field of kashrus.

In his varied roles — as the head of the STAR-K, longtime rav of the Agudath Israel of Baltimore, and a sagacious leader of the city’s Torah community — Rav Heinemann has charted a path that prioritizes two values, emes and shalom, above all else. His seamless synthesis of the potentially competing tenets of standing up for truth and promoting peace has helped both his community and his kashrus organization reach great heights of success. With a staff of 60 at its headquarters and some 800 full- and part-time employees around the globe, STAR-K has grown to be one of the largest kosher certifiers worldwide, providing supervision for tens of thousands of producers, products, and eateries on five continents.

And it all started when Moshe Heinemann was just nine years old. Born in 1937 in Furth, Germany, to a family with roots there stretching back to the 17th century, little Moshe left with his parents for England shortly after Kristallnacht.

“We were sent by the British government to live in a small country village where chalav Yisrael, which my father had always insisted on for his family, was not readily available,” Rav Heinemann relates. “But since the halachah permits even a mature minor to supervise the milking process, I — at just nine years old — became the mashgiach over the milk production of a local dairy farmer’s 25-cow herd.”

The family spent the next 11 years in England, where five of his siblings were born, but in 1950, his parents’ dissatisfaction with the available chinuch spurred them to emigrate to New York, where another brother, Shmuel Aron, was born.

An expert in shechitah and nikkur (deveining), Reb Shmuel Aron has been with STAR-K since 1982 and is currently its kashrus administrator for the greater New York/New Jersey region. But 13 years younger than Reb Moshe, Reb Shmuel says that as a child he hardly knew his oldest brother.

“When we moved to New York, my brother attended Torah Vodaath, completing high school in three years,” Rabbi Shmuel Heinemann recalls. “At age 16, he entered the Lakewood yeshivah, which at that time had only 48 talmidim in total. He became very close with Rav Aharon Kotler and learned with great hasmadah, returning home for little more than one week in the entire year — he’d arrive a few days before Pesach and go back to yeshivah the day after Yom Tov.”

With his clear, organized, and detail-oriented mind and a penchant for the practical, Moshe was drawn even then to the study of practical halachah. He and chavrusa Shimon Eider a”h — who’d later earn his own reputation as a venerated posek — would sit in the back of the beis medrash for hours on end learning through the Shulchan Aruch and its commentaries.

“The Rosh Yeshivah lived in Boro Park,” says Rav Heinemann, “remaining there all week and coming to the yeshivah only for Shabbos, when he would deliver his shiur. On Friday nights between Kabbalas Shabbos and Maariv, I was zocheh to have an hour-long halachah seder with him.” Indeed, most of the unpublished piskei halachah of Reb Aharon in kashrus and other areas that have become well-known over the years are those that Rav Heinemann heard directly from him. During the week, when Reb Aharon was absent from the yeshivah, he made sure Moshe would be the baal korei, so that if any sh’eilos were to arise concerning the sefer Torah, he would be able to answer them.

Seeking to nurture his cherished talmid’s aptitude for psak halachah, Reb Aharon encouraged him to acquire shimush with Rav Moshe Feinstein, from whom he eventually received a prestigious semichah, Yoreh Yoreh, Yadin Yadin. He also pursued shimush with renowned posek Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, and also with Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky.

In addition to his work on the town’s mikveh, Reb Moshe was also responsible for overseeing the construction of an eiruv around the yeshivah.

“When making the eiruv in Lakewood, the Rav purposely incorporated many features that raised various halachic issues — sagging wires, bent lechis and more — and then accompanied Reb Aharon around the whole perimeter to see how he would pasken on each one,” says Dr. Avrom Pollak, a former cancer researcher at the University of Maryland Cancer Center who, as STAR-K’s president since its early days, has been a constant presence at Rav Heinemann’s side.

When Rav Aharon Kotler was niftar, Reb Moshe was among the handful of close talmidim who accompanied his aron to Eretz Yisrael for burial. The following year, Reb Moshe married Miriam (nee Sonn) of Brookline, Massachusetts, whose family, like his, hailed from Germany, and stayed on in the kollel of Beth Medrash Govoha for four more years.

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Rav Heinemann moved to Baltimore in 1966 to become the 11th grade rebbi in the high school of Yeshivah Ner Israel. Although he later gave up that position after becoming rav of the Agudath Israel of Baltimore in 1981, his long association with the yeshivah continues until today, and he still presents a weekly Motzaei Shabbos chaburah there on topics in halachah.

“The high school menahel who hired me,” says Rav Heinemann, “was a former chavrusa of mine in Lakewood, Rav Yosef Tendler a”h, and he’s the one who gave me a start in the kashrus field too, years before the STAR-K’s inception.” As he had done back in Lakewood, Rav Tendler had established a chalav Yisrael dairy farm in the Maryland countryside, and — as an ironic throwback to the dairy farm of his youth — entrusted Rav Heinemann with its supervision. Today, Pride of the Farm is America’s largest chalav Yisrael dairy producer, with 1,800 milking cows providing an array of products for Baltimore and numerous other frum communities, all with the STAR-K symbol.

As Good as the Eidah

In 1970, a group of former avreichim from Ner Israel’s kollel who had settled in Baltimore began to express deep dissatisfaction with the prevailing state of kashrus there. “The local food establishments were under hashgachah, but their standards often were based more on expedience than ehrlichkeit,” Rav Heinemann says of those years.

But this cadre of young bnei Torah wanted higher standards, and so they banded together to form the Va’ad Hakashrus of Baltimore, which began providing certification to Baltimore-area stores and eateries. Sometime later, when Giant Foods, a large Maryland-based food producer, sought the Va’ad’s stamp of approval for its private-label soda line, the Va’ad created its own kashrus symbol, and thus was the STAR-K — the kashrus agency and the symbol that represents it — born.

As time went on, the organization’s reach and scope grew exponentially to include supervision of a vast array of producers of both food items and raw ingredients in tens of countries the world over, with a client list of nearly 700 companies in China alone. In the United States, the agency certifies everything from factories to restaurants to campus dining halls, in major cities and rural backwaters across the country.

Rav Moshe Heinemann was appointed the first and only rabbinic administrator of the Va’ad and then of its successor organization, the STAR-K. Although he was then still teaching in Ner Israel, his interest and experience in the real-world application of halachah through eiruvin, mikvaos and of course, kashrus, made him a prime choice for the position.

He brought to the table not only a brilliant mind and wide-ranging Torah knowledge, but also a very clear vision of what he hoped to accomplish. At his core, the Rav is a faithful talmid of his great rebbe, Reb Aharon, whose singular focus was nothing less than transforming America’s Jewishly arid desert into a flourishing Torah oasis. Some talmidim of the Lakewood Rosh Yeshivah gave his vision expression by founding many of the yeshivos and kollelim that now dot the national landscape.

While Rav Heinemann’s mission has been complementary to theirs, there was a difference: He sought to bring the outlook of the beis medrash, the standards and strivings of the bnei hayeshivos, directly into the heart of the broader lay community. Through his leadership of STAR-K and the Baltimore kehillah, he has succeeded in educating an entire generation of rank-and-file balebatim in how to live an observant life in an optimal and uncompromising way.

Rabbi Zvi Holland, a rosh kollel in Phoenix, Arizona, before joining STAR-K as a kashrus administrator and educator, puts it this way: “All the interesting halachic issues that engage and concern yeshivahleit are things that he was concerned about decades ago.”

Due to STAR-K’s pioneering policies, superior kashrus standards like glatt kosher meat and chalav Yisrael are now the expected norm wherever frum Jews live. Rav Heinemann says that decades ago, when he first told the lay members of the Baltimore Va’ad that it would only be certifying chalav Yisrael products, they initially balked.

“I wrote a letter to every member of the board saying if you don’t go along with me, I’m leaving, and they agreed to go along with my ‘mishegas,’ which has been our policy ever since,” Rav Heinemann says.

Baltimore is the only city in America that still has local shechitah, and, Rabbi Holland notes, “the Rav goes to these two slaughterhouses every week to observe the shechitah. Who else does that?” A well-known chassidishe rebbe from Jerusalem who was visiting Baltimore reported that prior to his trip, Rav Meir Brandsdorfer, who oversaw shechitah for the Eidah Hacharedis, told him, “In Baltimore, by Rav Heinemann, the shechitah is every bit as good as that of the Eidah.”

The Rav was a trailblazer in regard to yashan, too, turning it from an obscure chumrah for the select few into an accepted, widely available option. The same ethos of halachic excellence is why STAR-K was the first kashrus agency to require tuna producers to check each individual fish for kosher signs, in accordance with Rav Moshe Feinstein’s ruling.

Baltimore was the first large American city to have a first-class eiruv, and since then Rav Heinemann has guided major eiruv projects in close to one hundred other cities. Likewise, Rav Heinemann has served as a consultant on the building of scores of communal mikvaos, another area in which he is a preeminent expert. His involvement in these projects doesn’t consist of telephone conferences from the comfort of his study, either. His brother Reb Shmuel, who accompanied him on his inspection of the eiruv encircling Deal and other Jersey Shore communities, says, “Before giving his final approval, he walked the entire ten miles of the eiruv’s circumference in order to inspect each individual lechi, walking up close to ensure the wire ran straight over its top. He did the same when we walked around the Cherry Hill, New Jersey, eiruv.”

Nothing Personal

Rabbi Dovid Heber, the rav of Baltimore’s Khal Ahavas Yisroel Tzemach Tzedek, is STAR-K’s resident expert on kosher pharmaceuticals, and also oversees its kashrus database and edits its annual Pesach Directory. He observes that Rav Heinemann used Rav Aharon Kotler’s paradigm on a communal level. “He replicated what Reb Aharon did within the koslei beis medrash to build American teenagers into bnei Torah, and showed balabatim that they, too, could act like bnei Torah. Fifty years ago, for example, there were no late Maariv minyanim in shuls here, but he instituted that because, after all, a person needs to daven Maariv b’tzibbur too. He said a shul has to have a cemetery, a book and tape-lending library, and a keilim mikveh — and when he introduced them in the Agudah in the 1980s, these were all new concepts.”

Rabbi Shmuel Heinemann says his brother was also the first one, decades ago, to publish summaries of halachos in the vernacular — setting forth in clear, straightforward terms, without getting overly technical or including a confusing multiplicity of views, exactly how to perform various mitzvos and what to do on various occasions on the Jewish calendar.

And, Rabbi Heber notes, “People don’t realize that he does all these things for free. It’s unheard of, but he travels all over to do brissen, to say a shiur or give a farher to a kollel, to check eiruvin and inspect mikvaos, which can be a two- or three-day affair — all without pay. It’s a level of l’sheim Shamayim that almost doesn’t exist today.” The Rav has never even accepted money for mechiras chometz, although it’s traditional for rabbanim to do so, nor will he accept money for performing a bris.

Rabbi Shmuel Heinemann describes his brother as “allergic to money, and he runs the other way when there’s a possibility of financial bias.” He’s been using the same old suitcase for the past 40 years, yet once, after traveling to South America to observe the shechitah on behalf of another agency, he found upon his return a brand-new set of lighter luggage waiting for him, courtesy of the owner of the meat-production company. The Rav wrote him a letter thanking him, but explaining that he couldn’t accept the gift, despite having spent an entire week in Argentina without any personal compensation.

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According to Dr. Pollak, “he would bring four pairs of tefillin with him, explaining to Russian customs officials that he and his wife each needed two pairs, for weekdays and Shabbos.”

For Rabbi Heinemann, it’s never just been about responsibility for his personal community. Beginning in 1984, he was among the earliest emissaries of the Va’ad L’hatzalas Nidchei Yisroel, making multiple trips to teach nascent baalei teshuvah in the Soviet Union. According to Dr. Pollak, “he would bring four pairs of tefillin with him, explaining to Russian customs officials that he and his wife each needed two pairs, for weekdays and Shabbos.”

As recounted by Yaakov Astor in the book The Underground (Judaica Press), Rav Heinemann became a favorite teacher of a Leningrad network of over one hundred returnees to Judaism. The group’s leader, Grisha (later Rabbi Tzvi) Wasserman, remarked, “We saw many poskim after him, but none made as lasting an impression on us as Rabbi Heinemann,” adding that the members of the group would ask him their most complex questions about living as religious Jews under a totalitarian regime and “it was amazing to watch him think over the question and then explain the logic behind his decision. He never said one extra word.”

The fact that the Rav is multitalented — a Renaissance man, yeshivah-style — whose skills include expertise in shechitah, milah and safrus, made him a particularly valued emissary behind the Iron Curtain. Rabbi Holland recalls once observing a shechitah performed by a Russian-born émigré to the United States and thinking that the knife he was using looked strange. When he asked the Russian shochet about it, he said, “I received it from Rav Heinemann in Russia. It was originally a cheese knife that he brought in to turn into a chalaf for use in kosher slaughter.”

In her book Blue Star Over Red Square, well-known refusenik Carmela Raiz tells of the time that Rav Heinemann stood in a small Leningrad kitchen as a shochet slaughtered a chicken under his tutelage. Then the Rav cut apart the chicken to show the group how to check for treifos: “When the hostess offered him an apron, he declined, rolled up his sleeves and got to work. In his hands, the slaughter of a chicken was transformed into a spiritual experience, one of those in attendance said…. Just as remarkable to those in attendance, when Rabbi Heinemann finished there was not a single stain on his white shirt!”

That immaculate white shirt notwithstanding, Rav Heinemann has always been ready to “get his hands dirty” on behalf of a mitzvah, relishing the opportunity to plunge straight into the nitty-gritty details with mind, body and soul, to make sure it’s done right or, better yet, figure out a way to perform it with even greater hiddur. To this day, there’s a mikveh in the basement of the Heinemanns’ Baltimore home that the Rav built with his own hands, a joint project together with his children when they were young.

Dr. Pollak relates that many years ago, he would accompany the Rav on long trips to the Falls Poultry plant in the Catskills to observe the shechitah there. “The first time we went, we spent a lot of time reviewing their procedures. The first step after shechitah is defeathering the chickens, followed by a hadachah rishonah, a first rinsing, which must be done using lukewarm water.

“To everyone’s astonishment, the Rav asked for a ladder, which he used to climb up some twenty feet to the top of the huge tank holding the water. There, he pulled out a thermometer and gauged the water’s temperature. Afterward, Harvey Potkin, the company’s president, told me, ‘I’ve seen lots of rabbis come through here, but when Rabbi Heinemann pulled out that thermometer, I knew I was in the presence of the real deal, that this was a standard of kosher we weren’t used to.’ ”

Whenever he’s called upon to write something of a formal, public nature, such as an approbation to a sefer, Rav Heinemann employs his scribal skills to do so in a rich Rashi script, which makes it very difficult to forge (and he can do so with either hand, even both simultaneously). In truth, however, it’s the Rav himself who’s one-of-a-kind and impossible to duplicate.

His abundant, almost mischievous ingenuity and natural curiosity — a sense of wonder about the world around him and what makes it tick — are rare but priceless traits for a posek of his standing. Rabbi Mayer Kurcfeld, a STAR-K kashrus administrator for over two decades in the areas of kosher slaughter and food service, was in Rav Heinemann’s shiur in Ner Israel, where, he says, “the Rav’s sharp sense of humor made him a sought-after speaker at sheva brachos and on Purim. I used to play the guitar at yeshivah mesibos in his house, and while everyone else was enjoying the music he’d be watching my fingers, amazed at how I placed them.

“I don’t know of a single other rav who, no matter what technical aspect in the industry you bring up — the machines, the procedures — he knows what you’re talking about. His car was a rusty green Rambler, and instead of using compound to patch the damaged areas, he’d use dough that he painted green after it hardened — and then he gave a whole shiur about whether it would be considered chometz nuksheh on Pesach.”

When Rav Heinemann lived on Ner Israel’s Yeshiva Lane, yeshivah policy wouldn’t allow him to do auto repairs outdoors. Instead, he’d remove the sliding doors on his living room, spread a plastic sheet on the floor and drive his car right into the house for car maintenance like oil changes, replacing sparkplugs and the like.

Rabbi Holland says that the Rav is “that unique individual who revels in the reality. He’s an unbelievably busy person, but if you want his full attention, bring along a machine. I was once in his house for an hour and a half, with all the phones ringing constantly, but we were busy taking apart an expresso machine that I needed the Rav to look at. He had every tool you can imagine for this contraption. Once we finished dismantling it, I said I was going to throw it out, but he said, ‘No, what a waste! We’ll put it back together’ — and we did.”

No Ego

Rav Heinemann’s multifarious talents are complements to the Torah greatness that has made him one of American Jewry’s preeminent morei hora’ah in an ever-changing and challenging world. In recent years, the assistant rav of Agudath Israel of Baltimore, Rabbi Mordechai Frankel, joined STAR-K as head of its Institute of Halacha. In that capacity, he receives a large volume of calls and emails asking questions in all areas of halachic observance, and he responds to them after researching the topic and consulting with Rav Heinemann on his view.

The Rav’s in-depth mastery of halachah, says Rabbi Frankel, is comprehensive in scope. “I once came to the Rav with a serious end-of-life sh’eilah and was amazed to hear him respond, ‘I get asked that question every day….’ He’s like our Urim V’tumim, giving an answer on the spot. I’ve also witnessed the siyata d’Shmaya he has, the way things work out as he said they would.”

Rabbi Holland recalls a similar experience: “I previously lived in a place where there was a dearth of people who could answer sh’eilos, so I had to learn various halachic areas in-depth. I once had a long-running situation involving end-of-life issues and I spent weeks working out the halachah. Then I came here, and one day, someone asked the Rav an end-of-life question. On the spot, he shook out of his sleeve a clear, organized answer, walking them through all sides of the predicament as if he were responding to a simple kashrus question.

“But what is really unique,” Rabbi Holland continues, “is the way his gadlus in Torah and hora’ah converge with such down-to-earth humility and the most refined demeanor. I don’t know of anyone who’s ever seen him get angry. There’s a woman who calls here sometimes who is somewhat obsessive-compulsive. She’ll say, ‘I can’t get hold of Rav Heinemann, can you help me get hold of him?’ I asked her, ‘Do you ask him all your sh’eilos?’ and she said, ‘Every single one.’ This, even though he’s an extremely busy person and even we at STAR-K or his shul president often can’t reach him. I was once at a simchah out of town and the hostess introduced me to her friend, a modern-looking middle-aged woman, as a rabbi who works for STAR-K in Baltimore. The woman said to me, ‘Oh, so you must know my friend Moshe.’ I said, ‘Who?’ ‘My friend Moshe — Moshe Heinemann. You know, I’ve never actually met him, but I call him with all my questions.’ ”

Rabbi Kurcfeld observes that “it’s not that the Rav doesn’t understand who he is and what position he occupies. But even though he knows everything about anything you ask him, his authentic anavah makes him so open to suggestions. He’s willing to hear, and if he feels you’re right, he’ll flip it and do things differently. And that’s why he doesn’t get angry, there’s no such thing if there’s no ego.”

The Last Word

Over the years, there’s been a stream of many hundreds of aspiring rabbanim and shochtim who have made their way to Baltimore to be tested by the Rav and receive his semichah or a kabbalah in shechitah. His brother Reb Shmuel emphasizes that “getting semichah from him is no one- or two-hour affair. He goes through the whole Yoreh Dei’ah, siman by siman, and it takes two full days. The same is true for a shochet — he’s got to know every siman, with all the commentaries. People come to the Rav from all over and he never says, ‘I don’t have time’ — even though he really doesn’t have time — because when it comes to the individual, he makes the time.”

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HaRav Moshe Heinemann, shlit”a

A visitor to Beis Aharon, one of the main batei medrash within Lakewood’s Beth Medrash Govoha complex, will encounter some 60 avreichim learning in a kollel established through a partnership of STAR-K with the Lakewood yeshivah. Led by Rav Heinemann’s son Rav Yaakov, himself a moreh hora’ah in the yeshivah, its members devote their study to the halachos of kashrus and regularly attend shiurim given by STAR-K rabbanim, with the goal of preparing them to take their places as experts in the kashrus field.

STAR-K’s sterling reputation in both the food industry and among the consumer public notwithstanding, the Rav, with characteristic self-effacement, says that “even though everyone likes to think his hechsher is the best, we don’t say our hechsher is better than anyone else’s. The one thing I do say about our hechsher is that I take responsibility for it — and for the 500 mashgichim far-flung throughout the world.”

“We have a rav hamachshir whose authority is binding. We represent him and he shoulders the responsibility. And the STAR-K staff has full access to his guidance. We meet with him every Friday, and he takes questions from any field, on any topic, responding with halachic and technical expertise, history and stories, in every area,” says Rabbi Tzvi Rosen, a longtime kashrus administrator in the areas of industrial kashrus and liquors and editor of STAR-K’s widely-read Kashrus Kurrents journal.

With Rav Heinemann’s view serving as the agency’s last word, his attitudes and aspirations — the wariness about money’s influence, the striving for excellence and innovation, and the balancing of emes and shalom — are reflected in the organization’s success and popularity.

“I feel our growth is directly related to the fact that we don’t allow financial considerations to play a role in policy, we don’t take the easy way out, and we don’t step on anyone else’s toes,” says Rabbi Shmuel Heinemann. “We try to avoid machlokes, refusing to go into an area to give a hechsher unless we’ve been invited to do by the local va’ad or have asked their permission. That’s a reflection of my brother, who regards peace as paramount. He won’t even go to check the possibility of an eiruv in a city unless all of its rabbanim agree there should be one there.”

The premium Rav Heinemann places on shalom is matched by his unbending commitment to emes at all costs. Rabbi Kurcfeld says that an oft-heard refrain of the Rav is that “we need to always remember that after all the technical details, kashrus is ultimately about Torah, it’s a way to serve Hashem, no different than the mitzvah of Shabbos or shofar.”

“And so,” Rabbi Kurcfeld says, “this changes your whole perspective on things, and it’s why there have been many times when we had a lucrative opportunity and the Rav said, ‘I don’t feel comfortable with this,’ or ‘I don’t have nachas from it.’ That’s his way of talking. He’s saying no and you know what he means, but it’s a refined way of saying it.”

A slight misstep during the production process can mean a monetary loss of major proportions, and that requires the mashgiach in a production facility to display a principled fortitude in the face of pressure. Rabbi Avrohom Mushell, who has overseen STAR-K’s operations in China and India for over two decades, recalls the time when he was supervising a major production run of balsamic vinegar and there was a sudden power outage. When the electricity came back on, it was the non-Jewish owner of the factory who flipped the switch, creating a problem of stam yeinam. Rabbi Mushell called Rav Heinemann, who told him to walk away from the entire run.

Harking back to the advice Rav Heinemann received from the Satmar Rebbe about steering clear of questionable areas, Rabbi Holland says that “a lot of times, the question isn’t even whether something is muttar or assur. Instead, it’s often about the gray areas, whether we’re willing to declare a product kosher even though it was made in a keili about which there are a lot of sh’eilos, although we found a little-known Bi’ur HaGra to permit it…. And we have to ask ourselves: Would we want to write that on the package?”

Rabbi Shmuel Heinemann explains that everyone at STAR-K is salaried and no one makes any more money, in raises or bonuses, based on how many clients they bring in. Even in the Far East, STAR-K’s mashgichim are largely the organization’s own salaried employees, and only occasionally does it use local mashgichim. When a mashgiach knows he won’t profit any more even if he’s less strict, it empowers all staff members to stand on principle, since their pay doesn’t depend on keeping the business account. (The goal of preventing vested financial interests from skewing decision making is one Rav Heinemann has pursued in the communal context as well. Although Baltimore’s beis din has two employees whose salaries are funded by nominal per-case fees, no money goes to the individual dayanim on a case and there’s no incentive to prolong deliberations on a case.)

Rav Heinemann says he’s driven by a simple motto: “Do what’s best for the kosher consumer.” That means, of course, providing them with products meeting high halachic standards, but it also means that the more products available to consumers, and the more reasonable their prices, the likelier it is they’ll purchase those halachically optimal products.

Rav Heinemann recalls when the agency began certifying Goldman’s chalav Yisrael milk, which sold for much cheaper than other brands. “The other companies were very upset, even placing ads in the Jewish papers saying it’s impossible to make chalav Yisrael for that cheap,” the Rav relates. “The owner of one of Goldman’s competitors came to see us and complained that he was supporting a kollel of 30 yungeleit and this would cause them to have to stop learning full-time. But we don’t have an obligation to support his kollel — our job is to do what’s best for the kosher consumer.”

Dr. Pollak elaborates on his boss’s consumers-first credo: “We’re not in it for the vendors, and sometimes they have complaints against us for acting in the consumers’ interests, not theirs.”

Putting the consumer first is also why Rav Heinemann jumped into the field of Shabbos-mode appliances. When advances in appliances like ovens and refrigerators started to cause real problems of chillul Shabbos, not too many people out there were ready to get their hands dirty to figure it out. But Rav Heinemann, ever-fearless in the face of a halachic challenge, was. He and Rabbi Avrohom Mushell began working in conjunction with Jonah Ottensosser, an engineer who’d been on the US Department of Defense team that designed the Super Cobra Navy helicopters, to figure out ways for companies to make their products Shabbos-compliant.

In It Together

The last year has challenged us all in so many different ways, but surely it has been an exceptionally trying time for someone like Rav Heinemann, who is responsible for the wellbeing of so many other Jews. Describing his community’s exceptional experience during the harrowing COVID-19 rollercoaster of a year, he says, “The Ribbono shel Olam was very good to us and only two Yidden were niftar here in Baltimore. Even though we had differences, the Vaad Harabbanim came out with a unified voice about what to do: Shuls closed entirely for six weeks, with no outdoor minyanim either; for the next two months, we permitted outdoor minyanim; and now we’re back inside our shuls, and I would say we had near-universal compliance. I’m not sure whether the Ribbono shel Olam had rachmanus on us because we did things together or if the hishtadlus that we did meant anything, but baruch Hashem, we didn’t have the problems they had elsewhere.”

And then, a final reflection from someone whose quintessence is the synthesis of truth and peace on what Jews everywhere can glean from his own kehillah’s experience: “It’s a special brachah from the Ribbono shel Olam when you have shalom in a town like ours, which has 31 shuls of a hundred or more mispallelim. We don’t have to agree on everything to have shalom, just as a husband and wife don’t agree on everything.

“Part of the problem is that the leaders themselves would be able to get along even if they have different opinions, but their followers are often the ones who stick up for their rav or rebbe and create machlokes. So it’s really a credit to the people here, and a zechus to be part of it.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 855 – Parshas Shemini 5781/2021)

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