Fourth in a series of articles on the 40th anniversary of the worldwide kosher campaign launched by the Rebbe in 1975.

With his flowing gray beard and carefully chosen words, Rabbi Uri Gelman seems like a typical rabbi. But instead of a Talmud or other Torah book, he is most often seen plying a blow torch, oversized pots and hot rocks.

As the founder of Kosher Way Canada—a not-for-profit charitable organization dedicated to assisting those new to kosher dietary observance—Rabbi Gelman has koshered thousands of private and commercial kitchens throughout the Greater Toronto area. He shares what it’s like to go about his work.

Q: Can you explain exactly what you do?

A: We respond to calls from people referred to us by Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries and other rabbis who need guidance and practical help in koshering their homes.

The first step is to gauge where they are holding in the process of going kosher. For people who have never had a kosher kitchen before, we first help them divide the kitchen into two sections, so they may practice separating milk and meat for a few days or weeks. Then, once the entire family is comfortable with the arrangement, we go in and kosher the home.

The basic principle is that the food residue and flavor is expunged in the same way it originally arrived. So for a cooking pot, the unkosher is boiled out. Something that was used with dry heat must be koshered by applied dry heat.

Aside being purged from unkosher residue, the utensils also need to be immersed in a mikvah. That is not something I generally do anymore, but I am able to refer people to some very reliable individuals or I tell them how they can do it themselves.

Q: What kind of people do you typically find going kosher?

A: Many people choose to go kosher before or after a specific life change. On one end of the spectrum, you have a single person who decides to have a Jewish home. He or she is doing it now to be in position to meet and build a home with a likeminded individual.

The basic principle is that the food residue and flavor is expunged in the same way it originally arrived. So for a cooking pot, the unkosher is boiled out. Something that was used with dry heat must be koshered by applied dry heat.
The basic principle is that the food residue and flavor is expunged in the same way it originally arrived. So for a cooking pot, the unkosher is boiled out. Something that was used with dry heat must be koshered by applied dry heat.

Then there are married couples who are having children and want to raise their families in fully Jewish households. Another common time to go kosher is when families are preparing to send their kids to a Jewish school.

I recently koshered a kitchen for a woman who just returned from a trip to the Ohel in Queens, N.Y. (the resting place of the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—and his father-in-law, the Previous Rebbe—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory). Before she went in, the rabbi leading the group she was with encouraged every person to add in mitzvah observance. This was her mitzvah.

Then, of course, we get calls from people who have been keeping kosher for their entire lives and are now moving to a new home or want some help getting ready for Passover.

Q: How long does it generally take to kosher a home kitchen?

A: A full kitchen can take as many as three hours. If there are many utensils or more complex appliances, it can take longer. I try to keep it to one session to make things as simple as possible for people.

Q: What tools do you use?

A: For the most part, I use the same things Jews use all over the world. I have a wide pot that sits on two burners and uses maximum heat. I also have a blow torch that I use to kosher certain utensils that cannot be placed in self-cleaning ovens. I use thick rubber gloves, tongs, an iron and other accessories that you can get any store, like Walmart. And, of course, I have rocks that I heat up and use to apply boiling water to countertops. When people see the rocks heating up on their stove burners, they sometimes tell me that the sight is familiar; they remember it from watching their grandparents koshering their kitchens for Passover.

These are some of the same tools that anyone has, but I just have it all organized and down to a system.

"A full kitchen can take as many as three hours. If there are many utensils or more complex appliances, it can take longer. I try to keep it to one session to make things as simple as possible."
"A full kitchen can take as many as three hours. If there are many utensils or more complex appliances, it can take longer. I try to keep it to one session to make things as simple as possible."

Q: How has technology changed the koshering process?

A: There are new things that come up all the time. For example, one question that I am still looking to solve is induction cooking, whereby magnetics are used to create heat in the pot. There is no heat on the stove top per se, so I am not sure how the stove top is to be koshered. There are questions that crop up all the time, and in the future, there may be more questions.

Q: What happens if you ruin something?

A: People are very understanding. Before I begin, I make it clear that things can break, and people respect that. I joke that I charge a dollar for every glass I break. You know, glass breaks from quickly changing temperature. If part of the glass is hot and the other part is cold, it can crack, so we need to be careful.

Q: Is china kosherable?

A: Earthenware is a problem since the Torah views it as something from which flavor cannot be fully extracted. It’s beyond the scope of this interview, but there are certain solutions available with varying degrees of risk of breakage, which we are very upfront about.

Q: How did you get involved in this line of service?

I was born in Russia but raised in New York. I became inspired to re-engage in Judaism and completed my rabbinical studies at the Central Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Brooklyn in 1993.

I came to Toronto to work with the Russian-Jewish community. Rabbi Mendel Shubov was then koshering kitchens for people and looking for someone to take it over. Over the past six years, we opened a website, streamlined the process and grew into our current organizational structure.

Gelman gives classes that makes kashering a kitchen entertaining and interesting, even for kids.
Gelman gives classes that makes kashering a kitchen entertaining and interesting, even for kids.

Q: How far have you traveled to kosher kitchens?

A: We’ve done summer camps that are two hours out of Toronto, but for the most part, there are more than enough kitchens that need koshering right here.

Q: Any final thoughts to share?

A: The commitment to go kosher is possibly the biggest Jewish commitment a person can make, right up there with keeping Shabbat. It’s awe-inspiring to see people gladly opening up their lives and embracing kosher. It’s an honor to be a part of that process.

A hands-on demonstration for future home-makers in Canada.
A hands-on demonstration for future home-makers in Canada.

Other articles in the series:

First Kosher Kitchen an Entranceway to a More Spiritual Life

Keeping Kosher at the Last Stop Before the South Pole

Q&A: 40 Years Later, Leaders Savor the Details of Kosher Campaign’s History

How One Purple Book Revolutionized Kosher Cooking