Although Passover, an eight-day celebration that begins Sunday, is one of the most important Jewish holidays of the year, it is no va- cation for the inspectors at Star-K Kosher Certification Co.
They rise early and work late, and the Pikesville company's phones ring nonstop with questions from businesses and families trying to observe the holiday that marks the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt.
"I don't think the public has the full extent of knowledge for the amount of effort that it takes Star-K to kosherize products in order to make them available to the public," says Rabbi Mayer Kurcfeld, kosher administrator for Star-K. "It's a non-ending quest. You're constantly having to make sure that everything is running correctly."
Located at 122 Slade Ave., Star-K is an international certifying agency that guarantees that food products and ingredients meet kosher requirements. It began in 1947 as a small, local agency and has grown into an international company that certifies between 35 and 40 local businesses and approximately 1,300 businesses and products worldwide. Today, Star-K is one of the nation's largest kosher supervising agencies.
Kurcfeld, who at one time was Maryland's only kosher food inspector, works with eight other rabbis at Star-K's local headquarters. His responsibilities include monitoring restaurants, bakeries, supermarkets and butchers in Baltimore County and the metropolitan area, as well as some areas of Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Kurcfeld's visits, like a health inspector's, are unannounced. Depending on the complexity of a particular store or factory, some establishments get visited once a week, some every two, while others demand less frequent visits.
"I do a tremendous amount of traveling. I have a 2002 car that already has almost 78,000 miles on it," says Kurcfeld, whose days usually begin at 5:30 a.m., but sometimes as early as 1:30 a.m. "Just yesterday I was up in western Pennsylvania. I got up at 1:30 a.m., left at 2 o'clock and arrived back at 4 in the afternoon."
His inspections leading up to the weeks of Passover intensify as kosher laws change for this period. "It's a very labor-intensive process for me. There's no other week out of my life that takes so much effort and time," he says.
"The rules are different for Passover than they are all year-round," says Rabbi Avrom Pollak, president of Star-K.
"Passover creates an unbelievable domino effect. Everything you use in your home and business throughout the year is suddenly not kosher," says Kurcfeld.
Normal kosher laws, known as the laws of kashrut, indicate what foods observant Jews can eat, what foods can be eaten together and how they should be prepared. Kosher-for-Passover laws are much more strict. During Passover, Jews are prohibited from ingesting or owning any leavened products, such as oats, wheat, barley, spelt and rye, or their derivatives.
"All the food that you eat throughout the rest of the year is not acceptable on Passover. You have to eat specially prepared food," says Kurcfeld.
Many Jews who do not observe kosher laws throughout the year do so on Passover.
"The various foods we eat during Passover are symbolic of Exodus -- the bittersweet herbs, the four cups of wine, the matzo," says Pollak.
Star-K employees become direct sources for anxious consumers from around the world. Secretaries have detailed, three-ring, labeled binders that they refer to when people call in with questions about food, cosmetics, medicine, appliances, baking times or kosher cleansing during Passover.
Star-K's rabbis specialize in specific fields of expertise, such as meat and poultry, appliances, dairy, medication and nutritional supplements, and calls are often referred to them directly.
Each of Star-K's certified establishments also has a mashgiach, or kosher supervisor, whom Kurcfeld places and trains. Mashgiachim are not always rabbis, but they are always Orthodox Jews.
Mashgiachim have to be present for stores to open for business. "Their job is to guard the kosher," says Kurcfeld. "The mashgiachim inspect all the raw materials coming into the facility... everything from the meats, chicken and fish, down to the condiments and oil -- anything that is used in the entire facility, even the utensils -- to ensure that they meet Star-K's kosher standards."
Their expertise is constantly being tested by new technology and increasing numbers of kosher products on the market. Major brands like Coke, Pepsi, Tropicana, Domino and Breyers make kosher products. Some even make kosher-for-Passover products.
"Look how far the companies go for one week in [Jewish people's] lives," says Kurcfeld.
All the companies that produce kosher-for-Passover products must begin production weeks in advance so that consumers have it available to them at least two months before Passover.
But many shops -- including restaurants, bakeries and eateries -- that are otherwise kosher-certified throughout the year have to shut down during Passover because they are not Passover-certified, and therefore not allowed to sell any products or food items that are not kosher-for-Passover.
To be certified for Passover, a business must sell all leavened products, purchase unleavened products in advance, re-create recipes -- if a restaurant or bakery, for example -- and be reinspected and recertified. This is a costly and time-consuming process that does not benefit many businesses.
"So if you own a pizza store, you're closed," says Kurcfeld matter-of-factly. "Almost everybody is closed that week. The only ones that are open are supermarkets because they have kosher-for-Passover products."
Hershel Boehm, president and owner of Seven Mile Market in Pikesville -- the city's largest all-kosher grocery -- begins preparing for the holiday up to four months in advance.
"Passover preparation begins as early as December or January, and by February we're in full gear. We usually start cleaning off the shelves about four weeks before Passover and making the store ready for the holiday," he says.
During Passover week, many aisles and departments are closed down, covered with tarp, and the products that previously topped the shelves are removed and sold to gentiles.
"It is an awesome task sometimes," Kurcfeld says. "Yet, as difficult as it is sometimes, like for Passover, it is a privilege when you achieve your goal of having offered people what they want, which is product that meets the highest level of pride."