The turn of world events that have unfolded since late December 2019 reportedly began in the commercial center of Central China’s Hubei province of Wuhan. Most of us here in the United States take kosher food for granted. Little do we know that much of the origins of our food’s raw ingredients originate at manufacturing plants from cities including Wuhan. The Queens Jewish Link had the opportunity to discuss the chronology of the events that unfurled in China, and the glimmers of hope that emerged, along with ideas of hashgachah pratis (divine intervention), with Rabbi Mordechai Grunberg, the Orthodox Union’s longtime rabbinic field representative in China. Rabbi Grunberg spent 12 years post high school in both Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim’s Forest Hills and Israel branches, earning semicha in 1981 and launching his career as a Rabbinic Coordinator in the OU under Rabbi Menachem Genack, the head of OU Kashruth, the same year. Rabbi Grunberg, known to friends simply as Motty, is no stranger to the Queens community, having sent his first three sons to Yeshiva Tiferes Moshe (YTM) and four daughters to the Bais Yaakov Academy of Queens before making aliyah to Eretz Yisrael in 1994. His daughter Tziporah married Yoni May, son of Rabbi Yaakov May (Menahel of YTM), further strengthening their family’s connection to our area. 

Like much else in our world, food technology has taken dazzling leaps forward, but the ever-present need of human touch has long been a pivotal tool behind kosher food production. With over 500 OU-certified Chinese plants, Rabbi Mordechai Grunberg’s hands have been full for over 25 years, taking about 15 overseas trips yearly, spending almost 200 days a year abroad. This translates to Rabbi Grunberg knowing the ins and outs of Chinese society, spending one Shabbos at home and then 11 days apart from his family. For their part, the Chinese plant workers have long recognized rabbinic certification as an integral part of daily life and one they take pride incorporating. Rabbi Grunberg explained that mastering the art of forming exemplary workings relationships with the Chinese took much time but, in the end, allowed for the cultivation of a serious adherence to kosher standards.

Before we delve deeper, we must take a crash course in overall Chinese culture and its New Year, which fell this past January 25. Roughly 20 percent of the world celebrates this 15-day national holiday, more commonly known as the Spring Festival, based on the lunar calendar, where all migrant workers return home to spend time with family. For the most part, the mashgichim from all the major kashrus organizations return home, as a huge amount of factory workers are on a prolonged vacation.

It should be noted that there are thousands of factories throughout the mainland of China where mostly ingredients and sub-ingredients, food chemicals, stabilizing agents, additives, and occasionally finished food products are manufactured and sent throughout the European Union, Israel, the United States, and beyond for kosher consumers. These end-products may include the chemical compounds and raw materials found in pharmaceuticals, including both prescriptions and over-the-counter medicines.

Rabbi Grunberg detailed, “About nine out of ten factory workers are migrant workers separated from their families for most of the year. The personnel live on the factory’s premises and have all needs – from meals and sleeping accommodations to sports and extracurricular activities – arranged. Daily travel for most of these workers would not be feasible. In preparation for the Chinese New Year, most foreign businessmen departed China by January 10. Kashrus agents make it their business to do a final inspection before this mass exodus, when all production ceases. This year, the final inspections were completed well before widespread hysteria ensued as the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19, engulfed the region.

In the US, New York has been viewed as the epicenter of the deadly virus; in China, the Wuhan area took this designation. Some weeks ago, the Tri-State Area was put on a stay-at-home order; in Wuhan, the government took the drastic step to padlock and hermetically seal infected residents inside their quarters, all to halt the spread of contagion. The Chinese intelligence can learn much of a person’s ongoing activity through advanced technology on patrolling officers and camera systems. A simple systematic approach of red, yellow, and green was developed by the Chinese intelligence to ascertain who might be a carrier of the dreaded sickness. Red indicates a severe issue that requires being padlocked, yellow connotes an individual’s temperature must be taken often with a prescribed thermometer and updated on a government phone application, while green would signify a person is in the clear. Someone with a green status can be moved to yellow if the application indicates that the person was near another person under yellow status. This practice kept tight charge over the virus’ spread.

The approximate population of China hovers around 1.5 billion; from the beginning of a typical December to the end of February, nearly the same number of trips were taken domestically and internationally by train or plane. It can be said that half a million individuals traveled internationally, potentially, and, more importantly, unknowingly transferred the illness. Dr. Li Wenliang of the Wuhan Central Hospital and his seven colleagues were coarsely reprimanded by the Communist Party of China for taking to social media on December 30, specifically the WeChat platform (most comparable to our WhatsApp communication tool), to inform his friends of the pneumonia-like effects of the virus. It was later determined that the doctor’s forecast was not a disturbance to public order, and a solemn apology was issued to his family, posthumously, as Dr. Li Wenliang succumbed to COVID-19. Once the scale of the pandemic was revealed, its governing authorities took extremely aggressive action, forcing Wuhan into a complete shutdown.

The Chinese New Year vacation period had been extended, first for one week and then another, until an all-clear was given for workers to return from quarantine into a safe environment. As April dawns, the Orthodox Union’s 500 factories are slowly beginning to reopen, signaling a new beginning. Rabbi Grunberg, who resides in Har Nof, Yerushalayim, along with his devoted wife Rivke, explains that he has been taking advantage of the WeChat messaging service in a new way: “A livestream video chat method is being used to ensure that production of vital ingredients can continue as the virus ravages other parts of the world.” Necessary documentation often written in the Chinese language is sent to the OU’s Beijing office for review. There, three Chinese-speaking aides help to ease communications, allowing factories to operate in full production mode. When Rabbi Grunberg first began his work in China for the OU, such ideas were not reality.

With China mostly in the clear, a successful flight spearheaded by White House senior advisor Jared Kushner and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) coronavirus supply chain lead Rear Admiral John Polowczyk landed from Shanghai in John F. Kennedy International Airport with supplies urgently needed in area medical facilities. Some 1.7 million surgical masks, 12 million gloves, 130,000 N95 masks, 50,000 gowns, 130,000 hand sanitizer units and 36,000 thermometers were delivered with plans to bring over another such 20 air transports in the coming days. Billionaire casino magnet, philanthropist and major supporter of President Trump, Sheldon Adelson has arranged for about 2 million face masks he produced in China, 250,000 of which will be applied to The President’s coordinated effort, to be donated to help the efforts for protective gear in area hospitals, according to Jewish Insider.

“At President Trump’s direction, we formed an unprecedented public-private partnership to ensure massive amounts of masks; gear and other PPE will be brought to the US immediately to better equip our healthcare workers on the frontlines and better serve the American people,” said Kushner.

When asked what measures we can take when venturing outdoors for essential needs, Rabbi Grunberg has a one-word reply: “masks.” In China, the disease was shown to plateau from the use of masks. This is not to say that quarantining, hand-sanitizing, and gloves are of any less importance, but a facial cover must not be overlooked as the transmission of coronavirus can occur significantly via droplets released from the mouth. Wearing a mask also stops one from touching his or her face prior to washing; the virus can easily be transmitted by oneself. Preventive measures are all vital, but Rabbi Grunberg points out, “We must remember that Hashem chose China, the origin of many of our daily foods, as the foundation for the pandemic. First, let’s take a moment to do a personal introspection and use precaution alongside t’filah as a wellspring to control the ailment.” Rabbi Grunberg stresses, “To flatten the curve, stay home. Period. There should be no excuses to go outdoors other than for essential foods and medicine that cannot be delivered.”

  By Shabsie Saphirstein