What does a man who is rav of a shul, overseer of two eruvim and the executive director of a school do with his spare time? Well, if you are Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz of North Hollywood, CA you dedicate yourself to helping those with kashrus questions.
Rabbi Eidlitz is a busy man – he has a full time job as the executive director of Yeshiva Aharon Yaakov Ohr Eliyahu in Los Angeles, in addition to his responsibilities as the rav of Beis Midrash Mordechai Yaakov, a congregation of about 150 people, and as the rav hamachshir of two eruvim in the Greater Los Angeles area. Yet Rabbi Eidlitz carves out about two hours every day to attend to the needs of the millions of visitors to KosherQuest, the website of the Kosher Information Bureau, a job for which he receives no financial compensation whatsoever. He sees KosherQuest’s work as his way to express his dedication to klal Yisrael.
The idea behind KosherQuest was born when, back in 1977, Rabbi Eidlitz was teaching a class on kashrus to seminary girls in Northern California. The girls asked a lot of practical questions, and Rabbi Eidlitz suggested calling up different kosher certification agencies. The girls called a number of agencies, large and small, but found that they would only answer questions regarding the particular products that they certify, but had no answers for general kashrus questions. Rabbi Eidlitz encouraged his students to do their own research. Under his guidance, they explored the local supermarkets and took notes on the kosher items. They also contacted the manufacturers of the products for additional information.
Slowly, Rabbi Eidlitz’s class complied a shoe box, and then two boxes, full of index cards with information about various products. Before long, people began calling Rabbi Eidlitz with their kashrus questions. Surprised that no other organization provided comprehensive kashrus information that was not limited to a specific company or hechsher, Rabbi Eidlitz decided to make the information stored in the shoe boxes available to the public, first through the phone, and then online. Thus, KosherQuest was born.
Over three decades later, KosherQuest remains unique in its breadth. Over a thousand kashrus agencies and individual certifiers are listed in its database of hechsherim. Rabbi Eidlitz does extensive research on each one of them before including it in his list, making sure it meets his standards of reliability. In addition, he advises new agencies that are starting out in the field of kosher certification.
To keep up with the times, KosherQuest has recently released a new app, available for both Android and iOS, making it even easier for those with kashrus questions to use its services, which are provided completely free of charge.
KosherQuest also sends out a weekly email newsletter with the latest kashrus updates and alerts. Whenever inadvertent errors happen, the kashrus agencies are quick to notify the community. Rabbi Eidlitz explains that sometimes the manufacturer prints a kosher symbol on a label by mistake. Once a company printed an OU on pork and beans. Another time, a store on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn was selling treif food in packages with a chassidishe hashgacha. It turned out that it was a halal store which did a lot of business with kosher companies and had purchased a labeling machine from one of these companies, not realizing that everything the machine printed had that hechsher. Once mistakes like that are discovered, kosher alerts are immediately placed on the KosherQuest website. “If there is an error, [the kashrus agencies] want people to know so that nobody is nichshal because of them,” says Rabbi Eidlitz.
Visitors come to KosherQuest from all over the world, and many contact Rabbi Eidlitz directly with their questions. Once,Rabbi Eidlitz even received a phone call from the Pentagon at 2:00 a.m. The Pentagon urgently needed a database of kosher products as they had been sued for not providing kosher food to their Jewish soldiers who were dispatched to Iraq. With Rabbi Eidlitz’s help they were able to send thousands of kosher ready-to-eat meals to soldiers. Since then, the Pentagon has been in touch with Rabbi Eidlitz whenever a kashrus issue comes up.
Many kosher consumers consult KosherQuest while traveling, as they find it difficult to identify kosher food in an unfamiliar location. Others live in places with small Jewish populations all year. Having the kashrus information accessible to them “affects their quality of life,” says Rabbi Eidlitz.
Some people who visit the site or contact Rabbi Eidlitz for information are not even Jewish. They prefer to buy kosher food because they trust the integrity of the certifiers. For example, many Muslims, including those who serve in the army, request kosher food when halal food is unavailable. Others rely on kosher symbols because of severe food allergies. “Some product was labeled non-dairy, and highly allergic people almost died,” recalls Rabbi Eidlitz. They turned to KosherQuest for product information because they know that if something is labeled pareve then it truly is pareve, with no dairy ingredients whatsoever. Some people have to avoid even dairy equipment due to their allergies, and they appreciate the “dairy equipment” label on kosher products.
Living in Los Angeles, Rabbi Eidlitz has received inquiries from movie producers. They wanted to know if ostrich eggs were kosher because they wanted to use them in a movie involving Jews. Rabbi Eidlitz had to disappoint them – ostrich eggs are not kosher.
In addition to general kashrus questions, Rabbi Eidlitz is sometimes contacted for information about specific chumros or minhagim. Familiar with many of them, he is able to provide the needed information to his callers. For example, when a Chabad callers ask about their own minhagim Rabbi Eidlitz is able to tell them if the product meets the requirements of the Shulchan Aruch Harav. When a litvishe caller asks whether a dairy product is chalav yisrael, Rabbi Eidlitz specifies whether the milk used in the product is fresh or powdered, since some hold that chalav yisrael doesn’t apply to powdered milk.Yehudis Litvak