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From High-Tech Biz To Heksher Biz

From High-Tech Biz To Heksher Biz

The biennial national convention of the Orthodox Union last weekend in Woodcliff Lake, N.J., marked a changing of the organization’s leadership as Simcha Katz, retired head of a technology company he founded two decades ago, was installed as OU president. He succeeds Steven Savitsky.
Katz, a resident of Teaneck, N.J., has served as a lay leader of the OU for 25 years, most recently as chair of the Kashrut Commission, where he helped broaden kashrut education to audiences ranging from day school children to rabbis. A graduate of Yeshiva University, he has rabbinical ordination from YU, a master’s in engineering and an MBA from New York University, and an MBA and a doctorate from NYU’s Stern School of Business.
In his retirement, Katz does volunteer work, spends several hours every morning in advanced Jewish learning and is a professor of finance at the CUNY Zicklin Business School. The Jewish Week caught up with him this week.

Q: What is the biggest issue facing the Orthodox community today? Has this changed from when you were growing up?

A: In the United States, the most challenging reality facing our families and affecting in a very negative way their quality of life is yeshiva tuition … a family earning as much as $200,000 (only 3.5 percent of Americans earn more) with four children in yeshiva day schools cannot afford to pay full tuition and must apply for tuition assistance. It is a terrible problem.

The situation has certainly changed since I was growing up. In those days, the question was whether Orthodoxy would survive in America. As was pointed out at our convention by Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter of Yeshiva University, Look Magazine ran a story in 1965, “The Disappearing American Jew,” that declared that Orthodox Judaism was going to disappear. Look Magazine disappeared, not us.

A call was made at the convention to investigate the exorbitant price of kosher meat. But kosher food, day school tuition, synagogue membership, etc., all are expensive. Is it becoming financially impossible to lead an Orthodox life?

Kosher poultry and meat are more expensive because there are inherent additional costs in running a kosher operation. Take chickens for example. In a non-kosher plant, the chickens go on a conveyor belt, and the heads are cut off by a rotary blade. In a kosher plant, they must be slaughtered by the schochet by hand. A kosher plant runs much slower than a non-kosher plant, at about a third of the rate, so you have to amortize the fixed costs over less production, which raises the cost per item to the consumer. In addition, you have significant additional costs of schochtim and mashgichim [kosher supervisors]. Also the distribution system is more expensive because you don’t have the economies of scale of a non-kosher plant.

There is a perception that mainstream Orthodox organizations like the OU have moved to the right in order to placate the haredi part of the Orthodox community. Where do you see the OU’s place in the Orthodox spectrum, and how do you keep it there?

I would never use the word “placate.” We try to be as inclusive as possible, and that includes the haredi community. The Orthodox Union is a big tent with adherence to the halacha and concern for our fellow Jews as guiding principles. Our range encompasses all of Orthodoxy and, under some significant programs, the unaffiliated and non-Orthodox.

With your expertise as chair of the OU’s Kashrut Commission, what unique challenges do your kashrut supervisors face in inspecting the growing number of plants in China, a huge country where Jewish dietary practices are virtually unknown?

There is an absolute need for the OU to certify ingredients manufactured in China. China continues to grow as a leading manufacturer of many products, and the food industry is no exception, particularly in the area of raw materials used by kosher-certified companies around the world. However, the Chinese have a very weak understanding of religion and religious dietary laws. Moreover, their understanding of certification and what is entailed is extremely limited. We, therefore, try to limit certification in China to plants where the probability of violation of these rules is less likely to occur. We employ a staff of rabbinic field representatives, some who live in the Far East and some who travel there periodically, to visit on a periodic unannounced basis with interpreters who help them make the proper evaluations.

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