Higher authorities: Women join the ranks of kosher supervisors in Bay Area

Seeing a woman in a kitchen usually doesn’t raise eyebrows, but when Marilyn Shecter is showing someone how she checks raw brisket or sifts through bunches of broccoli to be sure they are free of bugs, a customer is likely to do a double take.

“A bearded man with tzitzit and a kippah is usually what people have in mind,” says Shecter, 58, the newly hired mashgiach, or kosher supervisor, at Amba Grill in Oakland.

A native of Queens, N.Y., Shecter has worked in several Bay Area kosher establishments in her four years as a mashgicha, including the defunct Kitchen Table in Mountain View, Stanford’s kosher dining hall and the Jerusalem Grill & Bar in Campbell.

When Amba switched over from dairy to meat just after Passover this year, the restaurant needed a full-time mashgiach in order to receive kosher certification. Unlike dairy restaurants that need only intermittent spot checks, a kosher restaurant that serves meat is required to have a supervisor on-site whenever the restaurant is open for business.

Shecter jumped at the opportunity and now shares the position at Amba with a male colleague. The shifts are upwards of 10 hours at a time, and breaks are often taken on-site because a kosher supervisor needs to be around should any questions arise.

“The restaurant [staff] can’t do anything until the mashgiach is there,” Shecter says, catching her breath as she rushes out from the kitchen on a busy Sunday afternoon. “The mashgiach must verify that none of the meat has been tampered with since the last supervisor was there.” Shecter must be at the restaurant to unlock the meat refrigerator in the morning before any food is prepared, and she can’t leave at night until the meat is locked away.

Mashgicha Marilyn Shecter works in the kitchen at Amba Grill in Oakland, which recently switched over from dairy to meat. photos/cathleen maclearie

A mashgiach, says Rabbi Ben-Tzion Welton, CEO of Vaad Hakashrus of Northern California — the Berkeley-based kosher certifying agency also known as Sunrise Kosher — serves as the “eyes and ears of the rabbi who is on the kosher certificate.”

Checking hechshers (kosher labels) on all food, making sure all vegetables are clear of bugs (which would render them not kosher) and ensuring that all dietary laws are being followed are the duties of a mashgiach.

Or, in Shecter’s case, the duties of a mashgicha, the lesser used feminine version of the word.

“Traditionally, it is a man’s job,” says Rabbi Zvi Goldberg, a kashrut administrator at Star K in Baltimore, one of the “big four” kosher certifying agencies in the U.S. He explains that kosher supervision is still a field dominated by men, though women are slowly penetrating the job market.

Shecter is one of three women working as kosher supervisors in the Bay Area. Nationwide, Goldberg estimates that only 40 to 50 women work as professional mashgiachs, versus the hundreds of men who perform the job.

“Every woman is the mashgiach of her own kitchen,” Welton says, “but professionally that’s a different story.”

There is no halachah, or Jewish law, barring women from acting as a kosher supervisor outside the home. But historically, the majority of Orthodox communities left the job to men, creating a minhag, or community tradition. And in the Orthodox world, tradition often takes on the force of law.

There is one place, Welton says, where you won’t see any female kosher supervisors: factories and slaughterhouses, which happen to be the places where the majority of mashgiachs are employed. “The only issue is modesty,” he claims. “In an all-male environment, women and men don’t feel comfortable together.”

Technically there is no formal certification needed to be a kosher supervisor. The only requirement is that the candidates must be Jewish and observant, meaning they keep kosher and keep the Sabbath. Many learn the ropes on the job. But because the field has become increasingly professionalized over the years, more mashgiachs are going through training courses at kosher agencies.

Goldberg points to the growth of the kosher marketplace, which has increased the need for mashgiachs across the country, especially outside of major metropolitan areas. With more kosher products on the market comes more supervision, and women are stepping in to fill those spots, particularly in places where there are not enough Orthodox men.

“The time has come,” Goldberg proclaimed. “We’ve used women as mashgichot for decades and we’ve found them to be better than men sometimes. They know their way around the kitchen and they follow the rules.”

With a rising demand to train women, Star K became the first kosher agency to offer a mashgichot training course, which it has run half a dozen times since 2009. It includes trips to commercial kitchens and training in the laws and logistics of commercial kashrut.

Kate Tucker is the new mashgicha at the Jerusalem Grill & Bar in Campbell — with just two weeks on the job. A San Jose native, she moved back to the Bay Area last year after studying at a seminary in Jerusalem.

Born to a Jewish mother and Catholic father, Tucker went to synagogue only once growing up; she started becoming observant after attending a Chabad Passover seder three years ago in college.

She says she “fell into” becoming a mashgicha last year, when Rabbi Alex Shandrovsky launched the kosher catering business L’Chaim Sushi. She was working for his family at the time.

With a degree in social work from Sacramento State University, Tucker, 24, says she never thought about making a career of kosher supervision, but it’s something she is now considering. “I really enjoy it and I’m learning a lot,” she says.

In addition to training on the job at L’Chaim, Tucker completed online coursework, talks to Welton regularly and isn’t afraid to speak up whenever questions arise.

“There are a lot of customs,” she says.  “You’ve got two Jews and three opinions, and that’s especially true in food.”

One of the many discrepancies she points to is in how one checks for bugs in greens such as scallions and cabbage. “Some just wash, and others cut down the middle to check for bugs first,” Tucker says. Shecter agrees that being fastidious about checking for bugs is an important part of the job, although she says she rarely finds them.

Kate Tucker, the new mashgicha at the Jerusalem Grill & Bar in Campbell, wears more than one hat on the job. photos/joyce goldschmid

Sifting through each leaf of a green in a water-filled white bowl so that she can easily detect dark bugs, Shecter explains you must be certain the vegetable is bug-free. She checks the water after removing the vegetable, and if she does find a bug, she repeats the process until the water and vegetables come out clean.

“We are big into being anti-bug,” she says. “It’s a big no-no despite bugs being a great source of protein.”

Wendy “Chana” Bellon is the mashgicha in the meat department at Mollie Stone’s Market in Palo Alto, and she considers it an honor to hold such a position.

“To me, I see it as a true service to God,” says the 58-year-old native Floridian who grew up in a nonreligious home and now belongs to Congregation Emek Beracha, an Orthodox shul in Palo Alto.

Well accustomed to the ins and outs of a kitchen, the professional chef turned mashgicha says that after 21⁄2 years, she has gotten used to what she says is still a “man’s world” — the meat department at a supermarket.

“At first it was difficult because I was the only woman,” she says. “The men in this particular department do things that make me blush — the things they say and their mannerisms are not the type of things where women would join in.”

At Mollies Stone’s, large slabs of kosher meat arrive on a truck and are quickly moved to a special section in the industrial-size refrigerators, separate from the traif.

Bellon inspects the packaging to make sure the boxes are not crushed and that the kosher seals are intact before the meat is parceled into various cuts.

After verifying that the meat has the proper hechsher, she checks the kosher chopping blades and oversees the work of the non-Jewish butcher, a requirement in kosher establishments.

“I watch how he cuts things. I package the meat and put my seal from the Vaad so it is ready for processing,” she says. “But there are times that I want to pull my hair out.”

Explaining that knives and kosher washing equipment could sometimes get mixed up with nonkosher equipment if it weren’t for her eagle eye, she adds, “Women tend to be more sensitive and detail-oriented to the kind of things that men can overlook.”

In contrast to her two female colleagues in the Bay Area, Shecter, the mashgicha at Amba, grew up in a Jewish home, what she calls “East Coast Conservative.”

Referring to herself as a “wandering Jew” because she attends both Emek Beracha and Am Echad, an Orthodox shul in San Jose, Shecter got into the field when one of her rabbis asked for her help with kosher oversight at a bar mitzvah.

“I told him, ‘As long as you are confident that I know what you need me to know, I’m happy to help,’ ” she says. “From that, it grew.”

Though the job can be tiring, the work of a mashgiach is a crucial element in upholding kosher standards. Shecter feels fortunate to be entrusted with that responsibility,  so observant Jews who come into the restaurant know that the food being served is kosher.

Wearing an ankle-length skirt, athletic shoes and a long-sleeve shirt to work, she calls herself a “working mashgicha,” which means that she helps out wherever they need her in the restaurant — from clearing tables to cutting vegetables to helping customers.

The all-day shifts and nature of the job can be physically demanding, “but it’s better to be busy and the time goes by faster,” she says while rushing a falafel plate to a table.

While some of the duties required of a mashgiach may seem routine, Goldberg points out the position is extremely important and those performing the work should be treated with dignity.

At Star K, “we don’t allow mashgichim to do any demeaning jobs,” Goldberg says.  That means “no cleaning up in the restaurant, because that is not a position [people] would look up to.”

In addition to work in the kitchen, Shecter says part of her job is to build rapport with customers. She sees that as a way to educate people who are not familiar with the laws of kashrut.

“It may just be coffee with milk, but it’s milk that could spill on the meat,” she says, explaining that nonkosher food and dairy products must be kept outside of kosher establishments. For that reason, people are not allowed to bring any outside food or beverages to their table at Amba.

When Shecter confronts a kosher problem she’s unsure about, she “pulls out the phone and opens the app,” she says. The Chicago Rabbinical Council has an easy-to-use application that mashgiachs can employ on their smartphones without having to call a rabbi. For instance, it gives step-by-step directions on how to clean leeks or fennel root.

“There are two important things I’ve learned as a mashgiach,” she says. “I know what I don’t know, and when you’re talking about kosher, 99 percent sure is zero percent sure — there’s no wiggle room.” 

She’s also learned that just because the job is important and labor-intensive doesn’t mean it pays well. Welton says the average wage is between $15-$25 per hour. Mashgiachs work primarily as independent contractors approved by organizations like the Vaad and sent to establishments that the agency certifies.

“It doesn’t pay well,” says Bellon, adding that she has not received a raise in more than five years. “It’s a good thing my husband works.”

However underappreciated and dirty the job may be, the women in the Bay Area say they feel blessed to be doing the work and contributing to the community.

“I like being able to do something in the Jewish world,” Shecter says, “and being part of a team of people who make kosher dining available.”


on the cover

photo/courtesy of vaad hakashrus

Wendy “Chana” Bellon, mashgicha at Mollie Stone’s Market in Palo Alto