As an Ottawa mashgiach, Jenny Roberge shares and educates at every opportunity.
Mashgiach is Hebrew for “supervisor,” a person who inspects and supervises kosher status, and also plays a social role, explaining kosher rules to the Jewish and non-Jewish community. Roberge is currently Ottawa’s first female mashgiach.
Born Jenny Berger in New York City, the eldest of eight children, she has lived in Israel and travelled the world with her husband Jean, spending more than 35 years in the diplomatic service of Canada.
They were posted to New York, Costa Rica, the Philippines, London, and China, forcing her to keep kosher under very challenging circumstances.
“I taught myself a lot about the different products and how to determine if they were kosher. It became second nature.”
Being posted to India was “a real challenge for kashrut. This was 1997; there wasn’t a lot of exposure to kosher products,” she said.
“I realized a lot of Israelis were coming to India, and, in order to raise money to help a domestic helper with cancer, I opened up a co-op to learn to make pickles, bagels, jam and marinated vegetables so they could increase their profile and get better pay.”
The co-op provided money for the helper’s healthcare and meanwhile Roberge was digging deeper into kashrut.
At subsequent postings in London and then Hong Kong, she became further versed in kashrut and kashrut issues, and continued to learn.
In 2008, Jenny and Jean moved back to Ottawa and their home in the Glebe, and began to attend Congregation Beth Shalom.
It was right at the time that Beth Shalom’s then-spiritual leader, Rabbi Scott Rosenberg, who was also relatively new in the city, wanted to open up the Beth Shalom kitchen.
“The Ottawa Vaad HaKashrut told Rabbi Rosenberg he could do that if he could find a shomer Shabbat couple to oversee the kitchen. And that’s how I became transformed into a mashgiach,” said Roberge.
Her mashgiach duties at Beth Shalom include supervising all catering and food preparation that takes place there.
“We’re very lucky in Ottawa that we have a rabbi like Rabbi Levy Teitlebaum who is sensitive and supportive of everyone,” she said of the director of the Ottawa Vaad HaKashrut.
Roberge also speaks passionately about the role of kashrut in healthy eating and said that, in China, the government turned to kashrut authorities for help in monitoring food after a tainted food scandal erupted there.
“Many factories in China and India employ a masgiach for aspects of maintaining cleanliness,” she added.
“People think hechshers are about money,” she said [a hechsher is a symbol indicating a product has been certified as kosher by a recognized authority], “but kashrut actually works hand in hand with the organic food [movement]. We try to keep it as organic as possible. When it’s kosher, you know it’s been broken down to be compatible for the health of the individual.”
There is even a new hechsher for organically grown meat.
“Desire for kashrut is growing every year, and people are becoming much more aware of its value. Because it is growing, it’s a healthy sign.”
Roberge added it was for these types of health-oriented reasons that many non-Jews look for the hechsher, certifying products are kosher.
She said this movement to healthier eating via kashrut also enhances Jewish identity.
“People ask questions about Judaism when they hear we are kosher,” said Roberge.
In addition to her mashgiach duties, Roberge is one of the main organizers of Limmud Ottawa, the day-long festival of Jewish learning and culture whose 2014 edition took place November 2 at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre.
She is proud that what started as “a simple shul event” at Congregation Beth Shalom has grown in four years into a community-wide festival encompassing workshops and lectures, performances and art exhibits.
Limmud is “a work in progress,” said Roberge. “I hope the community not only appreciated it, but will also want to become a part of the Limmud learning community, which celebrates every aspect of Jewish life. There was a broad spectrum of our community there, and our speakers also attended other sessions and became students as well. Everybody has something to share.”