When Rabbi Yisroel Engel of Denver, Colorado hit upon the idea of a hands-on Olive Oil Press workshop in the winter of 1986, he had no idea that it would evolve into a project so successful as to inspire thousands upon thousands of children each year. Hands-on holiday awareness was the current buzzword in Chabad Houses across the country, gaining popularity with new programs like the Matza bakery and Shofar factory. Rabbi Engel had presented both to the Denver community, with tremendous success, and with Chanukah only several months away, he began dreaming up a similar hands-on workshop for the holiday. The result was the Olive Press Demonstration, now presented in Chabad Houses in nearly every state and across the globe, bringing awareness of Chanukah and Judaism to an entirely new level.
The process of extracting oil from the olive, as Rabbi Engel would learn in months of research and experiment before presenting his demonstration, was by no means simple, and generally achieved these days with hydraulic pressure applied to mass amounts of olives. A small demonstration would need a different method. The Rabbi tracked down the Olive Growers Council of America in California, who agreed to supply him with the proper olives for squeezing, and rented a small wine press from a local wine-shop. The result was a thick, greasy purplish liquid- not juice, but not oil, either. So he contacted a local scientific instrumentation company, who were so enthused by his idea that they provided him with a centrifuge- a spinning device used mainly in medical laboratories that extracts the different components from a single liquid and separates them into their own tubes. When Rabbi Engel used the centrifuge for the first time, he removed the two tubes and found that one of them held a thin purple juice and the other-pure golden oil. The Olive Press was in business, premiered to an audience of over 1700 that Chanukah of 1986 in Denver, and thrilling children and adults ever since.
“The beauty of an olive-oil demonstration is that a kid can watch how oil is made and immediately relate that back to everything they’ve learned about the story of Chanukah, placing it in very human context and making all of it that much more real to them,” says Rabbi Engel, who continues to hold the demonstration in Denver each year, to repeated success. There are no figures available indicating how many children participate in the workshop each year, but according to Rabbi Motti Grossbaum of Chabad of Minnesota, the numbers have likely hit well into the hundred thousands. Rabbi Grossbaum has been presenting the Olive Press Workshop to rapt audiences in the Twin Cities for close to 10 years, and claims he can think of no better way to teach kids about the holiday. “Hands-on learning teaches kids in a way that a lecture, even a story, cannot accomplish,” he says. “If a child has been involved in Chanukah to the extent of pressing the olives, watching the oil emerge, and then lighting a menorah with that oil, you have made Chanukah a part of his life; that’s not something he’ll forget easily.”
Two years after his first demonstration, Rabbi Engel presented the Olive Press workshop at the International Conference of Shluchim in New York, where Chabad emissaries from across the globe caught onto the idea and recognized its potential. Equipment was made available through a central office in New York; over the years, flyers and backdrops have become available also. Chabad Houses in virtually every state present it yearly, and it has become a standard program in JCC’s, youth groups, public schools and holiday festivals across the US, Canada, Europe, Israel, and beyond.
For his part, Rabbi Engel continues to improve on the original Olive Press Workshop each year. Now, with the addition of beeswax candle making and a Chanukah craft to the program, Chabad of Denver’s Chanukah Workshop has become a vibrant, vital part of the holiday for hundreds of children in virtually every Jewish institution in the city.