Teaneck—“If I won’t eat it, if we won’t serve it to our family, then we don’t certify it,” said Chana Senter, the “first lady” of KOF-K Kosher. This is the guiding principle behind the KOF-K certification agency, based right here in Teaneck.
“We certify that something is done with ‘erlichkeit;’ our hechsher is not just about the food,” she said. Senter recounted venues where they used to certify the food, but eventually had to rescind their hechsher because they were not comfortable with other parts of the program, whether it was mixed dancing, concerts or other activities. As Mrs. Senter stated, if she would not feel comfortable bringing her family to this activity, therefore it could not be an environment with the KOF-K approval.
The story of the growth of the KOF-K is also the story of its founder and CEO, Rabbi Dr. Zecharia Senter. Rabbi Senter grew up in a time where reading the ingredients was a straightforward way to determine an item’s kashrus status. Always meticulous about checking ingredients, he earned the moniker “Kid Ingredients” by some of his most frequently visited store owners.
A quick glance at Rabbi Senter’s credentials indicate a doctorate, and while the natural assumption is that the degree is food related — chemistry or a similar subject that would crossover into the field of kashrus — his doctorate is actually in mathematics. As unlikely as a mathematics degree would seem for a kashrus certifying administrator, it is that very background that “made the shidduch with the kashrus world,” said Rabbi Senter.
Earlier in his career, Rabbi Senter was a professor of mathematics at several college institutions, including Yeshiva College, the men’s undergraduate division of Yeshiva University, but continued exploring the world of kashrus. At the time, the Student Organization of Yeshiva (SOY) looked to publish a book about kashrus. Knowing Rabbi Senter’s interest, and understanding both the technical aspects as well as the halachic (Rabbi Senter studied at RIETS and received smicha from the Rav), SOY approached Rabbi Senter. At one of the companies Rabbi Senter was visited, he was informed that this company was interested in bringing their product, previously only available industrially, to supermarkets and therefore wanted to receive kosher certification. They asked Rabbi Senter to certify it for them, since he was already knowledgeable about their product.
As the kosher consumer knows, “a plain K is valueless. Anyone can slap a plain K on his own product,” said Mrs. Senter. Rabbi Senter needed to create his own unique symbol for certifying food. After some scrapped ideas, Mrs. Senter suggested using the “kof” of the word “kosher” but replace the dot in the letter with a K. Although there were concerns of a KOF-K being “overly simple,” or even “too Jewish” it was received with enthusiasm and the Senters found that people appreciated the straightforward symbol. Thus, the KOF-K symbol, and the people behind it, had their start.
In order to maintain the standards of integrity consumers expect from kashrus agencies, the KOF-K asks a beis din to decide complex halachic shailas for them. “The decision of the beis din is binding. No arguments or attempts to change things,” explained Mrs. Senter.
As with any business, it is important to ensure the quality and integrity of the people working within the company. Kashrus is not different, and it is a precise environment, with little room for error. In order to maintain the high standards of the people working for them, the KOF-K often trains their employees from the start, allowing them to move up through the company as they excel at each level.
In addition to the actual certification of food products, the staff at the KOF-K serves as business consultants, offering their professional opinions to clients, based on the knowledge of the kosher consumer. This allows them to make more informed decisions. For instance, they have advised certain producers that with a few minor changes, their product could be pareve and open up more possibilities in the kosher world. Sometimes the producer will decide to follow the recommendation and become pareve. Other times, the producer decided that it was not worth changing the ingredients and eliminating dairy, a judgement call only they can make.
The KOF-K aims to provide what Rabbi Senter refers to as, “outstanding and quick service.” Rabbi Senter recalled words that his father told him in the early years of the KOF-K. “No one will be impressed with the quality of your work if you cannot do it in a quick and timely fashion.” Rabbi Senter has found these words to guide him throughout the years, and they have never been truer than in today’s fast-paced world of instant communication.
Additionally, the KOF-K looks to expand their business based on where a need exists. In recent years, they have opened an office in China, under the leadership of Rabbi Michoel Brukman. In continuing to keep up with the trends in the world of kosher food, many items are now produced in China primarily for export. The cost of labor and materials are so much less than the United States, that even with shipping, producers pay a fraction of the price for materials from China.
The KOF-K staff also has experts in many fields with whom they consult should a question arise. For example, one member of their staff is an expert in industrial flavorings. When the need should arise for them to gain an understanding in chemistry, they have a chemist with whom to consult. And as mentioned before, they have a beis din to help them in complex halachic areas.
Today, with offices across the world, and with their strong interest in consulting with a wide range of experts in various fields to stay current with the trends in technology and food production, the KOF-K has transformed a family business fifty years ago to an internationally recognized symbol of kashrus.
by Jenny Gans