Teaneck’s Rabbi Zecharia (Harvey) Senter, z”l, CEO and founder of Kof-K Kashrut Supervision Services, passed away on the last day of Pesach at the age of 84. Rabbi Senter received his semicha from RIETS and was a close talmid of the Rav. He earned a doctorate in mathematics from Yeshiva University, taught math at YU and Fairleigh Dickinson University, where he was a tenured professor. He served as the rabbi of Congregation Beth Abraham in its early years.
Rabbi Senter was known to be strict, yet relatable, his brother-in-law Rabbi Yehuda Rosenbaum shared: “He was very exact about everything...emes was black and white.”
Rabbi Rosenbaum, who works for the Kof-K, told The Jewish Link that Rabbi Senter’s beginnings were filled with “non-traditional educational experiences.” He was born in 1937 in East New York, Brooklyn, and was raised in Oceanside, Long Island. He attended public school in his early years and was inspired to pursue Torah learning around sixth grade. He was placed with second graders—as that was his level of knowledge—but soon surpassed them, eventually going on to learn at Yeshiva University High School for Boys, Yeshiva College, YU’s Belfer Graduate School for Science, studying mathematics, and then in Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s shiur at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS).
Son Rabbi Danny Senter, who runs the Kof-K organization with his brother Rabbi Ari Senter, spoke to The Jewish Link from the shiva house and told the unusual story of how his father received his semicha at YU. Rabbi Senter was enrolled in Yeshiva University on a fellowship that included a full scholarship and stipend. He could not enroll in any other program while enjoying the benefits of the fellowship, but Rabbi Senter wanted to attend the Rav’s shiur. He finally got up the courage to ask the Rav if he could audit his shiur. The Rav agreed with three conditions: daily attendance, preparation and review, and taking all the tests. Rabbi Senter fulfilled all these requirements, and when the Chag HaSemicha was approaching, a mentor of his suggested Rabbi Senter ask the Rav if he could get semicha—since after all he had passed all the tests! The Rav agreed and retroactively registered Rabbi Senter in the semicha program, allowing him to earn his degree. Rabbi Danny said, “Had the Rav not insisted on those criteria, we would not be where we are today.”
Rabbi Senter married Chana Rosenbaum and they settled in North Bergen, where he was the rabbi of a small shul. He always had an interest in kashrut and served as the adviser for the Student Organization of Yeshiva’s (SOY) Guide to Kashrut. His involvement with the local Rolling Pin bakery gave him his start in kashrut. The family later moved to Teaneck, where he became the rav of Congregation Beth Abraham until his concentrated efforts at the Kof-K kept him from having the time to devote to the growing Beth Abraham community.
Rabbi Danny recounted his father’s big break on the national kashrut scene with Howard Johnson’s ice cream. Rabbi Senter was friendly with one of the Howard Johnson executives and was brought in to discuss kashrut with the board. By the end of the meeting, the executives asked him to lead the effort of certifying all 15 of their plants nationwide. Rabbi Senter thought fast and told him he needed a week to create a proposal but that his company, Kosher Supervision Services—made up on the spot—was up to the task. That week, Rabbi Senter went to the printer and had stationery printed with his new company’s name—and the Kof-K was born.
Rabbi Rosenbaum stressed the magnitude of the responsibility that Rabbi Senter felt with the Kof-K. “The Kof-K symbol meant that Rabbi Senter was behind it. He felt the responsibility for it...and we take it very seriously. Everything we do is 100% k’halacha, just as Rabbi Senter taught us.” As the company grew, it was decided that a beit din would answer any halachic questions that arose, and Rabbi Senter was emphatic that its ruling be followed.
Rabbi Rosenbaum noted: “The company has grown tremendously under his leadership from a small company based in Bergen County in the 1960s to a worldwide kashrus company, certifying basic ingredients that go into every product. So even when other companies certify products, they are relying on the Kof-K hashgacha...and that is a testament to the integrity of the Kof-K certification that Rabbi Senter created and insisted on.”
“He hired only the best people and made sure that they were paid a proper wage; that was important to him,” he continued. “He took care of the people who worked for him.”
Rabbi Senter brought unique contributions to kashrut that were later adopted by other organizations. He was an educated man, a big sports fan, beloved and with a winning personality that enabled him to build lasting relationships with so many. “He had a reputation for being honest and relatable. He had the ability to explain things that were hard to understand. He took complex systems of kashrus and simplified them in a way that could be managed by laymen, which was at that time revolutionary,” shared Rabbi Rosenbaum. Rabbi Danny added, “He was forever a teacher, wherever he went. Whether he was in a classroom or setting someone up in kosher.”
Many well-known rabbis like Rabbi Menachem Genack and Rabbi Chaim Yisroel Belsky, zt”l, started at the Kof-K before going on to work for the OU’s kashrut division. Rabbi Senter maintained strong ties with these and many other rabbis with whom he worked, a true testament to the derech eretz that imbued their relationships.
On motzei chag, Congregation Beth Abraham’s Rabbi Neuburger sent out the following message to shul members: “Rav Senter was the rav of our shul during its early years and his psakim and directions are with us to this day. A well-respected talmid chacham, an ardent talmid of the Rav, and an early expert in the field of industrial kashrus, Rav Senter was revered and admired for his unyielding commitment to halacha and his uncompromising stance to principle.”
In addition to his enormous contribution to the Jewish community, Rabbi Senter leaves behind a remarkable family. His wife Chana, and their children Rabbis Danny, Ari and Chaim Tzvi, along with their daughter Yehudis Zidele and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren carry on his legacy of Torah, chesed and chinuch.
Though not fully well, Rabbi Senter was able to spend Pesach together with his family. He gave his children and grandchildren brachot on Friday night and was surrounded by their love and care in the hours before his petirah on the last day of chag.
By Michal Rosenberg