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Former Boxing Champion Yuri Foreman Gives Kosher Certification to Donut Store

Posted on: December 9th, 2021 by Kosher Michigan

Fom the JTA

Yuri Foreman’s professional peak as a boxer arguably came 11 years ago, when he faced off against Miguel Cotto in a marquee boxing match at Yankee Stadium.

The match, dubbed the “Stadium Slugfest,” was a super welterweight title fight that had been promoted on huge posters at subway stops around the city. Foreman was a world champion who had won his belt the year prior. Cotto was one of the best boxers in the world, and won the fight by technical knockout in the ninth round.

For most boxers, it would have been a tough break. Luckily, Foreman had a backup plan: He was also studying to be an Orthodox rabbi. He was ordained in 2014 but kept training, fighting and teaching self-defense classes. Now, a decade later, he’s putting his ordination to use — with a twist.

Like many rabbis, he’s using his expertise to provide kosher certification to eateries. Unlike most rabbis, however, he’s only going to certify vegan restaurants.

Oh, and he’s also mounting a boxing comeback at age 41.

Yuri Foreman Kosher Certification

 

“People know quite a bit of the ‘sweet science,’ which is boxing because we’ve been punching each other for thousands of years,” Foreman told the New York Jewish Week when asked why he started a vegan kosher agency. “We know way more about the sweet science than the science of food…. It’s horrific, what people do to themselves. Even though we say Jewish law says ‘don’t harm animals,’ we’re harming ourselves every single day.”

Foreman’s journey to veganism was gradual — but now he’s a true believer. He likened it to his experience of becoming Orthodox after growing up in a secular family that immigrated from the Soviet Union. One transformation flowed from the other: learning to keep kosher, he said, taught him to be more selective in what he ate. That led first to vegetarianism and then veganism.

His conversion to veganism was due at least in part to the influence of his wife, Shoshana Foreman, a physician’s assistant who became vegan well over a decade ago while working at a health food store. Her secret, she said, is to ask someone what their favorite childhood dish is, and then make a vegan version of it. For Yuri, whom she married in 2018, she made vegan pelmeni, Russian meat dumplings.

In May of this year, the Foremans established VBR Kosher — which stands for “Vegan Boxing Rabbi” — as a limited liability corporation. Since then, the couple has certified one establishment: Dun-Well Doughnuts in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. The small shop now bears a certificate in the window with Foreman’s signature, certifying that Dun-Well’s offerings are “strictly vegan, kosher and pareve.” Foreman hung the sign after checking the shop’s kitchen at the end of November, ensuring that all of the ingredients — hence all of the food being sold — met the standards of Jewish dietary law.

This week, Foreman helped Dun-Well co-founder Daniel Dunbar hang mezuzahs on its doorposts.

Around noon on a mild fall day, Foreman and Dunbar affixed the small case bearing a scroll to the doorpost of the red-brick building and recited the appropriate blessing word by word. It now hangs somewhat above a bumper sticker reading “LOSERS WEAR FUR TRIM.”

“I like making a product that’s accessible to everybody,” said Dunbar, who is of Jewish descent and identifies as secular. “We get asked a lot, ‘Are any of your donuts vegan?’ and when we tell them they’re all vegan, they’re very excited. Now I get to do that with people that are seeking kosher options and it’s really nice to be able to say, ‘Yes, you can have anything in this shop.’”

Dun-Well may be the first vegan establishment certified kosher by the Foremans, but they hope it won’t be their last. After all, vegan dining is on the rise in New York City; according to Eater, a string of restaurateurs are opting to go vegetarian or vegan both to save money and shrink their carbon footprint.

The couple hopes to supplement the kosher certification with online content — videos, posts, a podcast — about keeping kosher and being vegan.

“Our goal is to put this content out there for people to see, and to teach by example,” Shoshana Foreman said.

Being vegan is, perhaps unsurprisingly, not popular among the couple’s Jewish friends in their Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights. Shoshana Foreman said friends were adjusting to their diet, though from time to time they need to decline invitations to meals on Shabbat.

“The short answer is, we stopped being invited,” Foreman joked.

At VBR Kosher, the Foremans are working with Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, an Orthodox rabbi who works at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, an LGBTQ synagogue in Manhattan. Moskowitz has decades of experience in kosher supervision and provided certification to Dun-Well several years ago before the certificate lapsed.

Because Dun-Well’s products contain no meat or dairy, kosher supervision is easier there than at many restaurants. But there are still things to look out for, like whether the food colorings and other ingredients are certified kosher. Dunbar said he had to switch out his soy milk to maintain the certification.

Moskowitz and the Foremans understand that some observant Jews may not recognize or trust their independent authority, as opposed to the imprimatur of a large and well-known kosher certifier like the Orthodox Union. But they’re confident that it will make a difference to some people.

“For people who feel that they know the people here involved and they trust them, then each person should do things that make them feel comfortable,” said Moskowitz. “I don’t feel kosher supervision is there to be persuasive. It’s meant to be transparent and educational and give people the opportunity to make informed decisions.”

Avrom Pollak, president of Star-K, a large kosher agency based in Baltimore, said that because the kosher certification can be so complex, a lot of kosher eaters may be hesitant to trust a new certification.

“A lot of the kosher consumers are very discerning,” he said. “They want to know who stands behind that certification and they want to know if a problem does arise, are they going to deal with it in an honest and forthright manner?”

For now, Foreman considers VBR Kosher something of a passion project and isn’t charging for the service. In any case, it’s not his main gig. These days, he wakes up at 5 o’clock every morning to run eight miles or lifts weights. He trains at a boxing gym in Sunset Park. He said he wants to get back in the ring because he feels good and doesn’t want to regret passing up an opportunity. And at a time when antisemitism is rising in New York, he added, he wants to show that Jews can be tough.

“I don’t want to be years ahead [and] be disappointed that I stopped doing this because a lot of people told me I’m old,” he said. “And partially, being a Jew, we need an image of Jews being descendants of freaking warriors, kings, priests. But we are definitely not a weak people.”

Foreman’s dual career does present a bit of a contradiction. How does he reconcile the violence of boxing with the rabbinic teachings that drew him to a peaceable vegan diet?

Shoshana Foreman  — who is also her husband’s boxing manager — pointed out that, in boxing, both fighters have consented to the potential bloodshed, which isn’t the case with animals at a slaughterhouse.

Plus, Foreman said that he’s an old hand at separating his work in the ring from his life outside of it. “I’m wearing two personalities,” he said. “In boxing, I have to be a different person. I cannot be a husband in the ring, right? Or a father in the ring. Otherwise, I’m gonna get beat up completely. So I have to be that person who is about to punch someone in the face.”

Can Vegan Pork be Kosher?

Posted on: October 4th, 2021 by Kosher Michigan

Judaism often thrives on new technologies. That doesn’t mean Impossible Pork should be kosher.

(JTA) — The Orthodox Union won’t certify Impossible Pork as kosher, representing a break from the way that decisions about certifying kosher food are normally made. But as someone who studies Judaism’s long relationship with technology, I would argue that it is undoubtedly the right move.

Since the OU first started certifying products a century ago, kosher supervision has always remained doggedly focused on objective fact-finding: Food is kosher because of what’s in it and how it’s made (and, occasionally, who makes it) and that’s basically it. To get this information, modern kosher supervision agencies have built out fantastically complex global operations that keep track of complicated and constantly shifting supply chains. These systems are often incurious about almost everything not directly related to the food processing itself, including whether factory working conditions are acceptable, whether the ingredients are sustainably sourced, or whether the certified product will kill you (though politics sometimes leaks in anyway).

So it was unusual when the OU — the largest certifier of kosher products in the world — denied certification to Impossible Pork, a next-gen meat substitute, despite the fact that every ingredient in the product is kosher. The OU explained that it could not certify a product that described itself as pork.

Despite protestations to the contrary from hungry Jews and my own deep culinary curiosity, I believe that the OU made the right call. Though it seems that the decision was narrowly decided, the move to withhold kosher certification may in fact turn out to be one of the most important Jewish legal decisions of the 21st century. This may seem like a hyperbolic way of talking about soy protein slurry, but I really think it isn’t. The OU’s move is a first, tentative step towards a stance on technological innovation that desperately needs to become more common.

Impossible Pork Char Siu Buns were presented at a consumer technology conference in Las Vegas in January 2020.

To understand why, we need to understand the effect of new technologies on legal regimes. Law needs to be specific to be effective, and so well-constructed law is often carefully tailored to the nitty-gritty details of specific objects, systems and ways of behaving. When a new technology comes along and replaces the old — even if the new tech does exactly the same thing as the old — it can make the old law irrelevant unless lawmakers intervene with an update. Interventions are especially important when the old technology has been around for a long time and law has grown intertwined with it. Regulating cryptocurrency, for example, is crucial precisely because so many financial regulations assume that transactions take place exclusively through state-issued currency that is mostly stored in banks.

But if the job of lawmakers is to create continuities between old and new tech, many modern tech firms, with their “move fast and break things” culture, often seem hellbent on tearing them apart. The makers of new technology like to call things “unprecedented” because it generates hype, but disconnecting new technologies from old ones is also a good way of shielding themselves from ethical and legal responsibility for how those technologies behave.

This new tech dynamic plays out in Jewish law, too. How should the rule forbidding leather shoes on Yom Kippur — because they were considered an indulgence — apply in an era of comfortable synthetic shoes? Must one wear tzitzit (ritual fringes) at all when modern shirts don’t have the four corners that triggered the Biblical requirement of tzitzit? On a larger scale, the Shabbat elevator, the Kosher Lamp, as well as a host of technologies developed by Israel’s Tzomet Institute, all employ new technologies to circumvent existing rules while keeping within the letter, if not the spirit, of the law.

Sometimes Jews have allowed these rules to be eroded because the stakes didn’t feel high enough, but when a new technology threatens to undermine Jewish tradition, the rabbis have tended to respond appropriately.

The best example of this is the ban on turning electricity on or off on Shabbat. For millennia, the experience of Shabbat was shaped by the Biblical prohibition on lighting fires; with the advent of electricity at the turn of the last century, that ban threatened to become irrelevant. Orthodox rabbis responded by coalescing around the argument that electricity is fire, or was covered by some other well-established prohibition. That electricity is not actually fire didn’t matter; the argument carried because it was understood by leadership and laity alike that electricity was coming to replace fire, to do everything fire could do and more. Today, the restrictions on electricity are a cornerstone of the Shabbat experience, so fundamental that it is hard for many observant Jews to imagine Shabbat without it.

Is Impossible Pork the 21st century version of electricity? There’s a good case to be made that it is. The rise of plant-based meat substitutes has been spurred by ethical and environmental concerns around meat production. Their success depends on their being so delicious that they escape from the boutique realm of eco-conscious consumers and take on the same cultural role as meat. That Burger King offers an Impossible Whopper signals that this is already happening, as does the fact that major meat producers have invested heavily in the growth of plant-based alternatives to their own products.

These developments should be celebrated—but rather than diminishing meat’s special cultural meaning, its substitutes have only served to burnish it.

Meat has a special significance in Judaism, too. God is a big fan of animal sacrifices, and many holidays still involve the ritual or cultural use of meat — and inasmuch as meat matters, it matters that the meat isn’t pork. It’s irrelevant that the Ancient Israelite origins of the ban are obscure; it’s enough that modern observant Jews (and Muslims) still treat the ban on pig products as a cultural touchstone. We should be glad that technology has created a meaningful difference between veggie beef and veggie pork — but if the distinction is there, the ban on the pork must be, too.

The OU’s ruling does not yet amount to a full-fledged policy that all fake meat should be treated like real meat; a kosher restaurant can still serve plant-based “cheeseburgers” without fear that its license will be revoked. But even if it was not intended to be profound, the OU’s decision is an example of how all regulators, both religious and governmental, can fight back against the cultural unmooring that the present onslaught of new technology continues to cause. In this unprecedented age, creating continuity between the past and the present serves to ground society in the wisdom and norms of its own past.

is the scholar in residence and director of new media at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and the owner of Print-o-Craft Press. He holds a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania.

 

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