Feature Stories

Waterbury women open “shatnez lab”

Keeping garments kosher

By Cindy Mindell ~

Most Jews are aware of the religious ban on mixing meat and milk that are part of the laws of kashrut. There are prohibitions on other kinds of mixing, including seeds and different breeds of animals – which, in modern times, is the purview of genetic engineering.
“Shatnez” is the Jewish prohibition on mixing wool and linen. The law is laid out in Leviticus 19:19 and Deuteronomy 22:25 and 22:9-11. While the etymology of the word is obscure, in modern Hebrew, shatnez has come to mean mixture.
“This prohibition would be categorized as a Chok, a Torah law for which the rationale is not readily apparent,” says Rabbi Elly Krimsky, spiritual leader of Young Israel of Stamford.
Young Israel is one of several area Orthodox synagogues that publicize the services of the “shatnez lab” in Rockland County, N.Y., Rabbi Donny Newman, who teaches at Yeshiva Bais Binyomin in Stamford, runs the Rockland county lab and picks up and delivers garments to be checked from members of the Stamford community.
In the U.S., the practice of checking for shatnez was introduced nearly single-handedly by Holocaust survivor and Austrian garment worker Joseph Rosenberger, when he opened the country’s first shatnez lab in 1941, in Brooklyn. Now there are labs and checkers throughout the country, and several organizations that publicize the practice, including Shatnez Testers of America, and the National Committee of Shatnez Testers and Researchers.
Both men and women can be checkers, Krimsky says. “The main issue is that they are trained properly to be able to identify what they need to seek, which is usually linen, since wool is used very commonly in clothing. If linen is found, you try to remove it. If it can’t be removed, or the garment is full of it, the item of clothing of clothing may need to be discarded.”
Rochel Leah Deutsch is a shatnez inspector at the Waterbury shatnez lab, together with Elisheva Magid.
“It is not unusual for women to be inspectors; however, there are some different rules regarding women,” Deutsch says. “The training process is very intense, involving traveling to Lakewood, N.J. for instruction and checking in front of Rabbi Sayyagh, who trained us. I remember thinking in the beginning that this whole area was too complicated for me, but I told myself, ‘If men can check a coat without ripping it, I can too!’ Certification usually takes about two years. At this point in our training, for every garment we check, we fill out a very detailed report and send it to Rabbi Sayyagh to approve before returning it to the customer. Because of this, we ask for a week before returning a garment to a customer.”
Shatnez is most commonly found in higher-end men’s suit jackets and coats. The fabric content of most women’s clothing is accurately listed on the garment label, but brocade, embroidery, trim, and shoulder pads need to be checked for content.
“You should have the garment checked before you wear it,” says Krimsky. “In some stores in very religious neighborhoods, they only sell suits, dresses, coats, etc. that have already been checked and verified ‘Shatnez-free.’ People tend to buy suits around the High Holidays, so often, that’s when the inspection campaigns take place.”
“Every garment has different areas that must be checked,” says Deutsch. “Also, if a suit is custom-made, it needs to be checked differently than a factory-made suit. Just recently, we had a customer who had a custom-made suit and was promised by the tailor that it would not contain linen. We checked it and guess what? The collar canvas was made out of linen.”
To determine whether a thread is composed of linen, the checker removes it, separates it into fibers, and examines the fibers using a microscope. Shatnez is the thread itself, not necessarily the individual fibers; a thread made up of linen fibers cannot be included in a wool suit, and vice-versa. In the case of a strip of linen used in the collar of a men’s suit jacket, for example, the tester will replace it with a permitted synthetic material. The thread’s the thing, says Rabbi Marc Spivak, a New Jersey-based tester who trained in Lakewood, N.J. Mixed fibers can be used as stuffing or padding in furniture, baseball gloves, and other items.
Deutsch says that she first decided to become an inspector when the original tester was leaving Waterbury. “At this point, I would say I’m beginning to be more comfortable checking on my own,” she says. “I like the work because it helps fulfill a need in my community.”

For more information on the Waterbury Shatnez Lab: www.lifeinwaterbury.com.
For more information on dropping off garments in Stamford, call Rabbi Donny Newman at (845)352-3801.

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