Orthodox in an unorthodox role

Alizah Hochstead fills an unlikely position as a ‘mashgiha.’

VISITING THE Efrat Burgers Bar 521 (photo credit: AMY SPIRO)
VISITING THE Efrat Burgers Bar 521
(photo credit: AMY SPIRO)
People are often surprised to meet Alizah Hochstead. It is not because she gets around in a metallic pink car. Nor is it because the 65-year-old Chabad woman is never far from her iPad, cellphone or bright-red laptop – “it’s the color of malchut,” or royalty, she says.
Mostly it’s because Hochstead arrives at restaurants, factories and supermarkets as a mashgiha, or ritual kashrut supervisor, a role many are surprised to see filled by a woman.
“I once walked into a place and someone said, ‘where’s your beard?’” recalls Hochstead.
But this job is nothing new for the mother of five and grandmother of 16. In fact, she’s been working in kashrut since she was a toddler.
“I was probably three or four years old when my mother schlepped me to a farm to watch her while she milked a cow so we’d have halav Yisrael milk,” says Hochstead, referring to a special level of kashrut in which milking a cow for dairy products must be overseen by a Jewish person.
Since that first stint as a child in Cleveland, Ohio, Hochstead has worked on and off in kashrut for most of her life. At 16 she was often asked to go to a local bakery to separate halla, the ritual custom of removing a portion of bread dough and burning it after saying a special blessing.
Today, Hochstead is employed by the Religious Council of Efrat, where she has lived for over a decade, and is the official supervisor of 12 different supermarkets, restaurants and caterers.
“Our job is to protect the consumer,” says Hochstead as she examines packages of cookies on the shelves of an Efrat minimarket. “We want to make sure they’re getting what they think they’re getting.”
There are no official figures here or in the United States about the number of women actively working as mashgihot. The Orthodox Union and the Star-K, two of the largest kosher certifying agencies in the US, held their first-ever training sessions for women in 2009. In January 2011, Hochstead organized a women’s kashrut conference in Efrat, which she says attracted more than 40 mashgihot “from as far north as Nov [in the Golan Heights] and as far south as Eilat.”
Hochstead’s day starts at 4:30 a.m., when she gets ready before studying daf yomi, the daily page of Talmud, along with the radio at 5 a.m. After that she spends hours reading the latest updates from worldwide kashrut agencies before heading out to begin the day’s site visits.
There are a lot of imports sold in Israeli supermarkets, particularly in Anglo areas, and she needs to keep up with announcements of any forged hashgahot (certifications).
Many members of the community call Hochstead throughout the day with questions about various products.
“A lot [of the information] I know in my head, I’m like a walking filing cabinet,” she says. “I can’t remember phone numbers but I remember how many pounds of meat were delivered to Burgers Bar yesterday.” Hochstead stops by each location she is responsible for (except for catering companies, unless there is an event) at least once a day, sometimes multiple times depending on when different shipments arrive.
“I don’t work full-time but I basically work full-time,” she says. “I work 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. It’s a long day, but very broken up, very flexible.” After a day of rounds, Hochstead might be called out by the local baker at 10 p.m. to supervise while she fills a cake order.
When she’s not busy as a mashgiha, Hochstead teaches kashrut courses to women, organizes the English-language education programming for the local Chabad and is also a water aerobics instructor.
The Cleveland native first lived in Israel from 1967 to 1980, during which time she served in the Nahal unit of the IDF. After returning to the US, she worked in various jobs, including as a teacher and kashrut supervisor.
She worked for the Religious Council of Plainfield, New Jersey, and also for the national KOF-K kosher certifying agency.
Hochstead believes “there is a place in kashrut for both men and women.” But she warns against anyone going into the field to prove a point. “You have to be doing this as a servant of God and the community,” she says, “which doesn’t leave any space for your own ego.”
Though she has encountered many people throughout her career who are surprised about her profession, “there is much more openness in Israel than the US to women [working as mashgihot],” she says. “Nobody makes a big deal about it here. Anyone here who has commented about it usually was born outside of Israel.”