Until last week, Teddy Hector thought Matzahs came from a box. At five years old, he could hardly be expected to know better, says his mother, Sue. But last week, Teddy came home from school covered in flour and positively glowing with the knowledge that “matzahs are made!” and more—he had made one himself.
Teddy, along with 1000 other children, gained a new perspective last week on the ancient and sacred ritual of baking matzah at the Model Matzah Factory presented by Chabad of Vancouver, B.C. An active participant in the entire process, from mixing the dough to rolling it out, making the holes and then placing it in the oven, ever conscious of the eighteen minute maximum required for halakhically non-leavened bread, Teddy was enthralled.
But matzah isn’t the only thing he learned, Sue says. “Participating in the matzah baking brought the holiday to Teddy. The workshop included so much about Pesach and its laws and customs—he came home home with a lot of knowledge.”
Rabbi Yechiel Baitelman, program director at Lubavitch B.C. who ran the matzah demonstration, says he can hardly think of a better way for kids to learn. “When a child actually participates in the holiday to the extent of making his own matzah for it, the holiday becomes that much more of a rich experience for them.”
Perhaps it was an effort to give kids that depth of experience that led Rabbi Anschelle Perl of Mineola, NY to introduce what was likely the world’s first model matzah bakery to Long Island’s Jewish kids in the weeks preceding Pesach of 1980. He says the idea came at the right time, in the right place and with the right people.
Mr. Mel Weitz was one of those people. Owner of the Food Town supermarket chain, Weitz hit upon the idea, in the late 70’s, to open a completely kosher for Passover store “stocked high with absolutely everything you would need for Passover” in the back of one of his supermarkets in Long Island. He made it a community project, he recalls, selling everything at cost price and investing tremendous capital that paid off mostly in terms of community benefit. It was a huge success. People streamed to the store from across the Tri State area, so the following year, Weitz moved the Passover store to much larger premises, an 85,000 sq foot warehouse in Westbury, Long Island. That was when Perl, then a recently arrived Chabad representative and a friend of Weitz’s, hit upon the idea: A Model Matzah Bakery Workshop in the store that would entertain kids while their parents shopped and teach them about the holiday at the same time. Settling in a corner of the warehouse, with flour and materials generously provided by Weitz, Perl began his first demonstration.
That was twenty three years ago, and Perl has been running the model Matzah Bakery every year since, to audiences as packed and enthusiastic as they were that first year. “Ten thousand Jewish kids came through the Matzah bakery the first year we did it,” Perl marvels, “and they haven’t stopped coming.” He estimates that roughly a quarter million kids have come through over the years, and the Matzah bakery has become “a long-standing tradition in Long Island Jewish life.”
It didn’t stop there. The Matzah factory’s success in 1980 spawned a string of Model Matzah Bakeries that began opening up across the country and beyond. Though the exact figures are hard to come by, Rabbi Moshe Pinson of the Shluchim Office estimates that over 150,000 children will participate this year, as they do yearly, in Matzah bakeries that have become almost as numerous as the Chabad centers that present them.
“Kids learn what they live,” says Rabbi Mendel Azimov of Chabad of Paris. “The best way for a kid to learn about the holiday is simply to take an active part in the experience.” In Orly, a suburb of Paris, over 5,000 children from Paris and the surrounding suburbs participated in the Matzah Bakery this year, an experience that, despite running on its 12th season this year, continues to attract children from across the Jewish spectrum who come back each year to participate again.
“The Model Matzah Bakery ranks among our most successful outreach programs,” says Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin of California, where Chabad celebrated 18 years of Model Matzah Bakeries this season. Cunin estimates that, in 18 years, 100,000 children have participated in Chabad Matzah bakeries in California alone.
From Beijing, where 80 kids participated in a Matzah Factory demonstration, to Switzerland, where over 1000 joined in, to Toronto, where the numbers came near the 4000 mark, and in cities and towns across the globe, kids of all ages have once again been inspired with the message of Passover this season.
“What a kid can learn in a 45-minute Matzah Factory demonstration, takes weeks of classroom time,” says Rabbi Anschelle Perl, who says he hears that comment constantly from parents and teachers. And the lessons go even beyond Pesach, he says. “If we can get so many kids so excited about doing a mitzvah,” he says, “We’ll be doing a lot for a strong Jewish future.”