The assistant director of dining services for the University of Maryland watched nervously as the blue-white flame of the blowtorch licked the gleaming blade of the power meat slicer.
"I hope we have some equipment left when this is over," Joseph Pesce said amiably to Rabbi Aryeh Spero, who was busy checking the temperature of a nearby vat of boiling water with its unlikely soup of ladles, pots and other kitchenware.
The Canton, Ohio, rabbi has taken temporary command of two of Pesce's kitchens to make sure everything is -- literally -- kosher for a conference of 2,100 Jewish educators who will begin arriving on campus tonight.
Spero's job is to guarantee that both the food and the cookware in which it is prepared and served conform to ancient Jewish laws.
Every piece of equipment, from serving spoon to the room-size rotary oven that has come in contact with such forbidden foods as ham, bacon and clams, had to be kashered, or ritually cleansed.
After rigorous scrubbing, the equipment was aired for 24 hours so that "any nonkosher flavors that might have been absorbed by the metal can evaporate," Spero explained.
Then the purification by heat began: "boiling in hot bubbling water, burning it out with fire, or steaming," Spero said. The guiding principle, he continued, is that the kashering "has to reach a temperature higher" than normal use.
"The only thing I couldn't kasher was the deep fryer, so we've had to adjust the menu," the rabbi said.
Pat Profetto, director of campus guest services for the university, and his staff have been working on plans for the upcoming conference of the Coalition for Alternatives in Jewish Education for more than a year. "I've got two notebooks, each over 400 pages" of specifications and arrangements to accommodate the needs of the week-long gathering, Profetto said.
One of the many special accommodations for the event, he said, was the construction of an erov. On the sabbath, strictly observant Jews may not use a wheeled vehicle or carry items outside of their dwellings, Spero explained. "So we make an enclosure . . . certain lines of demarcation around the area in which we want to walk and carry things."
Without an erov, strictly observant Jewish parents at the conference could not carry or wheel a baby outside their dormitory room.
So the university brought in a professional erov builder from Baltimore to string an overhead wire, tied at intervals with bright yellow cloth to make it more visible, to encircle the residence, dining and meeting areas that the conference will use.
Spero estimated that "well over half" the 2,100 persons expected for the conference "are not so into kosher at home. But when they come to a conference dedicated to Jewish education, they expect it to be kosher."
He added that "in the last 15 years, there's been an insistence in virtually all Jewish conferences on the national level, on an organizational level, that kosher laws should be observed."