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RABBI SHOLEM FISHBANE had just returned from a two-day conference in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania of AKO (Association of Kosher Agencies) when Ami sat down with him to become educated about the cRc and AKO. One of the many hats he wears is Executive Director of the Association of Kosher Organizations, umbrella group for all major kashrus agencies in America and throughout the world. “Every year we hold a regular conference addressing larger agency’s concerns, and every other year, a two-day convention focusing on kashrus issues pertaining to small city vaadim. This year, 75 people attended from agencies as far away as Australia and as close as Baltimore.”

Rabbi Fishbane’s leadership of the AKO since 2003 is no sideline responsibility in his packed daily schedule. He is often called upon to mediate between agencies that need a trained,respected mediator to help them hammer out contracts and understandings related to territory and community. “I do a lot of mediation between agencies in my AKO hat. When I’m able to bring peace, it’s extremely rewarding. We help agencies better their kashrus, mediate between agencies, and lift to a higher standard the kashrus supervision in small communities all over the globe. The AKO established minimum standards on what ingredients need to be kosher, subcommittees of who qualifies to be a mashgiach, and I am often contacted by the member of a vaad from a small community asking for clarity on an AKO standard in order to address certain concessions to bend to the requests of their constituents. When I respond: ‘As a member of AKO, we maintain certain universal kashrus standards throughout the world, so we can’t bend on that,” a good amount of the time, that vaad will choose to elevate their community standards in order to remain a part of AKO.Everyone wins.”

In fact, it is through Rabbi Fishbane and others’ dedication to AKO that the Orthodox Jewish public is protected at KosherFest from treif food samples that years ago could be snuck in and disguised as kosher food. He recalls: “We actually had an incident where a vendor selling kosher certified tortilla wraps (as indicated by the large kosher logo of his hechsher at his booth) figured that the attendees sampling his wraps would want something to go along with his wraps so he went to the local store and bought non-kosher turkey roll! The assumption then was, if it was at the KosherFest, it must be kosher, but there was no one taking responsibility for certifying the vendors. The AKO stepped in, and now we certify the KosherFest, which is no simple matter. Hundreds of different issues, especially with making sure everything cooked on site is bishul Yisrael, come into play with a massive convention like this. We work closely with the convention administration to only allow those that follow our standards.

Rabbi Fishbane’s role in the AKO fits perfectly with his role as the Kashrus Administrator for the cRc of Chicago since 2001. As the 5th largest kashrus agency in the world, the cRc is fully dedicated around the clock to ensuring the kashrus standards of our global community.

Rabbi Fishbane explains the unique role of the cRc amongst many agency giants.“The cRc is substantial in size, and around the world. We just rejected a new plant in China but approved one in Korea, but at the same time, we are very much a local vaad. My bosses are 15 local pulpit rabbis of the Chicago community. We don’t make more, or less, money depending on whether we hold on to a contract, or lose it. All the money we make goes back to cRc sponsored programs in Chicago. We don’t make decisions based on money, or politics. We are from the few kosher certification agencies that is willing to share information about other agencies and the products they certify. Every other agency—if you call them and ask them to tell you about a product they don’t certify—they will tell you that they can’t discuss it with you, because it’s not their product. But that’s not how the cRc operates.”

In fact, most Orthodox Jewish women know about, or carry with them,the wallet size card that lists the hechsherim that the cRc approves. (Rabbi Fishbane is contacted often by rebbeim from kosher certifying agencies who are desperate to get on to that all-important list. When Rabbi Fishbane tells them what it will take, he does more than give them ten minutes of his time on the phone and wish them well. He will fly or drive to their location and spend a day or two with their community, without even charging them for his time, to help them assess what they need to do to raise their standards of kashrus in order to be approved of by the cRc.) The cRc has other popular methods for informing Jewish customers—on the spot—whether an item has an acceptable hechsher, or if it needs one at all.

“If we get a call from a woman standing in the supermarket with an item in her hand, wondering if she can buy it, we are not going to tell her that we don’t answer such questions. We will help her as much as we can. Two ebbeim:Rabbi Abe Sharp and Rabbi Dovid Aronin, and any of our longtime very highly-educated secretaries, are often available to help this woman(or man) in the moment. We get a lot of the same questions over and over again and the staff is very skilled. Then, Rabbi Aronin answers email questions through, and we have an incredible app that you can download for free to your phone. You want to know if a certain ingredient,product or medicine is kosher? You can get an instant answer. Rabbi Dovid Cohen created, a special website through which thousands of consumers every year receive on-the-spot guidance for their kashrus questions. We also share more in-depth information for mashgichim who really need to understand what is going on with a particular product or ingredient. Also, we keep a list in the office of certain products that are not recommended by the cRc for purchase, even if the supervising agency could be a perfectly good hechsher for other products they supervise. For reasons we know, this particular product is problematic, and we keep the information available for those people who need to know the ins and outs of why the cRc is not able to approve of this product or ingredient.”

The cRc is also recognized and respected for its very popular beis din including matters related to Choshen Mishpat (matters of money). Four different dayanim sit on the beis din, and rebbeim all over the US and North America who are members of the cRc have direct access to the cRc’s beis din and kashrus department.The cRc’s profits are funneled back into the Chicago community

Rabbi Fishbane (who lives in the area with his wife, Rivkie, raising
their seven children in the community),is a Chicago an through and through. Other than some years in Eretz Yisrael and Buffalo, NY, where he was a shul rabbi and a mashgiach for the OU, Chicago has been his home since second grade. “I was working in Buffalo, and my wife and I decided to return to Chicago for the chinuch of our children. Administrator positions in the major kashrus agencies almost never open up—I can count on one hand how many positions like mine there are. Yet, with G-d’s help, just when I needed it, the cRc administrator job opened in Chicago, and Rivkie and I have been very blessed to be able to raise our family here.”

Rabbi Fishbane may consider himself a Chicagoan, but he spends many days of the year on a plane going somewhere else. Whether it’s visiting a cRc-certified plant to meet with the CEO, or spending a few days with a mashgiach to be sure they are up to par, or consulting with the vaad in a smaller community that is struggling with kashrus concerns, Rabbi Fishbane goes through his days with this attitude guiding him: “For me, being involved with the cRc and AKO is not about making another cookie kosher.It’s about helping people.” •