By Stacey Dresner
NORTHAMPTON – Last Sept. 21, the new kitchen at Herrell’s Ice Cream in Northampton was filled with the sounds of singing, jokes and laughter as three rabbis worked toward certifying the business’s products as kosher.
From 8 a.m. until late in the afternoon, the rabbis worked to kasher Herrell’s kitchen and all of its equipment under the auspices of Pioneer Kosher (PK), a brand new kosher symbol.
Pioneer Kosher was founded last year by Rabbi Tuvia Helfen of Chabad of Northampton, and Rabbi Shmuel Kravitsky of Chabad of the Four Colleges in Amherst, also known as Chabad Nation. A third member of Pioneer Kosher, Rabbi Bentzion Chanowitz of Chabad of Monticello, N.Y. was brought on for his experience and expertise. Rabbi Helfen of Chabad of Northampton called the formation of Pioneer Kosher “sort of the perfect storm.”
“We were thinking about making a local valley hecksher that would be able to serve the smaller businesses. Many small businesses feel like they are unable to get the large supervisions like OU and OK; they are just priced out. Sometimes small businesses need somebody who is going to take the time to work with them, to help them also to learn about how to go kosher. So we are also trying to educate local businesses about what it means to go kosher and how it may be feasible for them when they never thought it would be.”
To begin development of the new Pioneer Kosher hecksher Rabbis Helfen and Kravitsky met with and were mentored by people in the kashrut business, including someone “higher up” at OK. Soon Rabbi Chanowitz from Monticello came on board.
“He is someone who has been in the business for over 30 years, so he had the expertise to guide us through the formation and all of the questions that come up along the way,” Rabbi Helfen said.
Naming the endeavor “Pioneer Kosher” was a natural.
“You have the Pioneer Valley and you have the pioneering [aspect]. We are a new start-up trying to bring kosher to businesses who thought it was out of reach for them.”
The desire of Herrell’s Ice Cream president Judy Herrell for her establishment to be kosher was what really propelled Pioneer Kosher’s start.
“Judy was really gung ho,” Rabbi Helfen said.
Turned down by other larger supervising agencies in the past, she was excited to find that Rabbis Helfen, Kravitzky and Chanowitz were willing to kasher her establishment.
“Judy had been turned down by other places, I think OU and OK,” Rabbi Helfen explained. “Because she was open on Shabbat there was no way [larger kosher supervising agencies] were going to deal with what it would take to supervise her because they don’t have somebody here. They are at a distance and wouldn’t be able to check.”
In 2012, Herrel’s decided to begin constructing a new kitchen, separate from its storefront. The new “railroad kitchen” which is long and narrow with workspace on each side, is adjacent to the store. The store is open on Shabbat, but the kosher dairy kitchen is not – nothing can be prepared in it on Shabbat.
“We were able to divide her business into two,” Rabbi Helfen said. “Her kitchen is shomer Shabbat and the front end is not shomer Shabbat. It is a Star K model that has been done before that we followed. I can walk over there on Shabbos and see that they are not using the kitchen so there is that ability to check.”
With Pioneer Kosher’s help, Herrell’s Ice Cream products now fall under two categories: Kosher dairy and Kosher DE (dairy free ingredients made on dairy equipment). These categories include ice cream and No-Moo® Dairy Free frozen desserts and No-Moo® Dairy Free and dairy, baked-good products.
“We are so proud to be Pioneer Kosher’s first kosher location. It’s a dream come true for me,” Herrell said.
Besides koshering and supervising the Herrell’s kitchen, Pioneer Kosher also helped them with a very important ingredient for their ice cream.
“Judy was using a black raspberry — a very rare kind of fruit grown only in Northwest. The producers didn’t have [kosher] supervision so she couldn’t use it.”
Through its connections, Pioneer Kosher found an OU facility in Vermont.
“They ship the berries to the OU facility in Vermont now and they work to make the recipe for the black raspberry jam that Judy needed for a very important flavor of ice cream. So it took a little legwork, but worked to make the shidduck – make the match happen” something that a larger, more distant kosher authority might not take the time to do.
Although he had no formal role in the project to kasher Herrell’s Rabbi Kevin Hale of Leeds was invited to the discussion at the end of the koshering, he says, as a self-described representative of the members of the local community who care about kashrut.
“I have been and am an enthusiastic supporter of Herrell’s efforts to become certified as kosher, and of Rabbi Helfen’s efforts to establish a locally based and widely recognized kosher certification,” Rabbi Hale said.
Rabbi Helfen said Pioneer Kosher is in talks to begin working with other small businesses in the area. He said the goal of Pioneer Kosher is to work with small businesses in a way that is sensitive to their needs.
“We are not being flexible with Torah law but since we are a new hecksher we are able to create our policy and able to be innovative. We are committed to problem-solving with each individual business’s needs.”
So while allowing places like Herrell’s to offer kosher treats to those who keep kosher locally, the rabbis at Pioneer Kosher know that helping small companies become kosher-certified is good for their bottom lines.
“Even though there is not a huge demand for kosher in Northampton or the valley per se, there’s a lot of small producers, farming and agriculture around here with the sort of local food movement. It gives them an advantage to be kosher when they want to move into broader markets.”
For more information about Pioneer Kosher, call Rabbi Tuvia Helfen at (908) 447-6953 or visit PioneerKosher.org.
CAP: From left, Rabbi Tuvia Helfen, Rabbi Bentzion Chanowitz, Judy Herrell, Rabbi Shmuel Kravitsky and Rabbi Kevin Hale.