King of kosher

Groceries find they have to capitulate to Rabbi Shawel or risk kosher limbo

Rabbi David Shawel is not an imposing figure. Standing only five feet and four inches, he talks fast and rarely stands or sits in one place for long. But lately it is Shawel who has had powerful grocery chains hopping.

Shawel is The Man--that's The Macher in Yiddish--in Dallas when it comes to certifying that food has been prepared under strict adherence to the kosher dietary laws. The orthodox rabbi is the chief administrator and inspector for Vaad Hakashrus, a Dallas organization of families who keep kosher kitchens.

In his seven years leading Vaad, Shawel has helped transform the organization from a club for a few Jewish families looking for kosher meat into a 400-member, nonprofit consumer institution--the only one of its kind in north Texas. In the past few years, Shawel has begun charging large, corporate grocery-store chains more than $100 a month for consultations about kosher dietary laws. Kosher, considering Dallas' nearly 40,000-strong Jewish community, is big business.

Not surprisingly, the rabbi, who wields so much power, has burnt a few bagels--so to speak--along the way.

"Felix, could you come over here," barks Shawel, as he strolls confidently through the baking kitchen at Minyard Food Store grocery on the corner of Forest Lane and Preston Road. The Minyard store is the most recent addition to the rabbi's growing roster of establishments that have hired him as a consultant on kosher food. The rabbi is seeking the worker's attention because he has found, during this early morning, unscheduled spot check, a violation of the kosher laws.

But even the rabbi admits it's a small infraction: a worker has loaded onto the same cart trays that are to be used only for dairy meals and ones are designated pareve--the Hebrew term for food products that can be consumed with either milk or meat meals because they contain neither. In addition to forbidding the consumption of pork (or other animals without cloven hooves), shell-fish and other specific foods, kosher laws bar observant Jews from mixing milk with meat and poultry. In order to ensure that dairy and meat products don't ever commingle, a kosher kitchen must have separate sinks, plates, cookware, and flatware--one marked for meat, one for milk, and another for pareve preparations.

At Minyard's new bakery, where the corporate chain's owners installed a custom-designed five-part sink to separate properly the washing of milk and meat dishes, Shawel wants the dairy and pareve baking trays also segregated when they are stacked on carts.

"Do you have any idea how this got here," Shawel asks the bakery worker about the misplaced trays. "Do you know who I should speak to about this?"

The worker moves the offending trays and tells the rabbi he will talk to his supervisor about the oversight. Satisfied, Shawel moves on to another concern. The bakers have failed to label donuts as dairy products. Without the proper identification, Shawel explains, a kosher-buying customer could unknowingly use the baked goods with a meat meal. The workers tell the rabbi that the dairy label must have inadvertently been clipped off. Shawel doesn't leave until he sees the workers affix a dairy label to each of the donut boxes.

Some 15 establishments--restaurants, hotel, grocery stores, and bakeries--have hired the Vaad and Shawel to certify their kosher preparations of food. Shawel's fees vary according to the size of the establishment, Shawel says. But each store gets the right to use labels with the Vaad Hakashrus symbol of approval--a small K inside a larger D (K for kosher and D for Dallas)--a marking that all the kosher cognoscenti can easily recognize.

Beyond the fee, the downside for the businesses is that they must submit to regular and rigorous visits from Shawel. He stops by the two grocery stores on his list, Minyard's and the Tom Thumb Food & Pharmacy establishment across the street, nearly every day. At those two large stores, which offer a wide variety of kosher products, his list of chores is lengthy, the rabbi says. He must stamp the smoked beef pastrami and other deli meats with a special kosher mark, check to see that workers are wearing double gloves, and make sure no treif, Yiddish for nonkosher food, has somehow slipped into a refrigerator designated for kosher meats.

At other concerns, like Highland Park Bakery, where no meat products are used in the preparation, Shawel visits less frequently, often less than once a week. A lemon juice factory north of Dallas merits a spot check just once a year. "What can you do wrong with just lemons?" the rabbi asks.

Shawel, who was raised in Newport News, Virginia, got his training and credentials for his specialized profession at the Talmudic University of Florida in Miami Beach. As a rabbinical student, he chose the relatively uncommon path among orthodox Jews in the United States these days of also acquiring certification as a shochet, Hebrew for an expert qualified to oversee that animals are slaughtered according to the kosher practices. He also earned his stripes as a mohel, a rabbi trained to perform circumcisions on infant boys at the post-birth Jewish ceremony known as a bris.

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