Matzah, Matzah Man

For the past 28 years, starting just after Purim and continuing until one week before Passover, Rabbi Hillel Baron, director of the Chabad Lubavitch Center in Columbia, has been educating and entertaining between 50 and 150 children per day at his Model Matzah Factory. During his reign as “Matzah Man,” an estimated 40,000 children have kneaded, rolled and poked holes into their very own round of unleavened bread and finished off the event by tasting it fresh out of the oven.

“You are engaging all of the senses of the child,” said Baron. “We have many ways that things become imprinted or recorded in our minds. … [When making matzah] the touch, the taste, the smell, sight, hearing it — the mark is indelible, you can’t erase it even with time.”

Preschoolers from the Ben and Esther Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC and first-graders from Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim-Talmudical Academy of Baltimore visited the Model Matzah Factory last week. As they sat on the floor, wriggling and chattering with anticipation, Baron took his seat in front of them, wearing an apron and floppy chef’s hat patterned with unmistakable matzah ridges.

The decibel level settled, and Baron welcomed the children, then took great care to explain that the matzah made at the center was not to be taken as kosher for Passover matzah. But the story and process unfolded for the children just the same.

To begin, special “assistant matzah baker hats” were handed out, and all eyes were on Baron as he warned that once the dough begins to rise it becomes chametz, not fit for Passover consumption. He asked the group: “Then how much time do we have to make the matzah?”

“Eighteen minutes!” answered the first-graders in excited unison.

To emphasize the concept of shmurah, or “guarded” matzah, Baron explained that from the moment Passover-designated wheat is cut it is watched over by rabbis. If water touches the wheat while it is in the ground, that isn’t a problem; it just continues to grow. But if the grain becomes wet after being cut, even if it is rained on, the water could make the seeds swell and rise, altering the grain and deeming it not kosher for Passover.

Using plenty of props, Baron showed how seeds are ground and flour is made and explained that in a matzah factory, flour is brought to a special room that contains only flour. There is another room that contains only water. When baking commences — he demonstrated in real time — water is carefully added to the flour outside of each room so as not to accidentally contaminate any remaining flour. The children, who had been listening intently to this point, visibly needed to expend some energy.

Baron played his crowd perfectly. He began to mix the dough vigorously by hand but implored the children that he mixes better when listening to his favorite song — which, he hinted, begins with the word “dayenu.” He barely finished the sentence, and the room erupted with a thunderous round of the Passover classic. Baron mixed faster and faster, floppy hat bouncing and dough flying as the singing continued. Finally it was time for the assistants to step in.

The children lined up at long tables covered in white cloths and flour. Teachers and parents handed out pre-rolled matzah dough balls, and the next few minutes were filled with a flurry of pounding hands, spinning rolling pins, flat dough rounds hole-punched within an inch of their lives and adults racing from table to table where assistance was needed. As the urgency to complete within 18 minutes rose, so did the decibel level.

Quickly students formed a line and with matzah dough draped over hands, walked to the kitchen where Baron had secured an industrial-size oven. One by one the rounds were loaded onto the racks to the delighted squeal of students. A scorching 800 degrees and about 60 seconds later, out came the piping-hot matzah.

The children recited the Hamotzi blessing and finally tasted their efforts. The decibel level rose again, this time with crunching and chewing.

“I think the best part is that it brings Passover to life for the children,” said Ilene Meister, director of early childhood development at the Owings Mills JCC. “The appreciation of what our ancestors went through is also something they realize.”

Meister, who has seen two generations of children travel to the Model Matzah Factory, said as a bus was pulling away recently — carrying the next group of kids down to Columbia — there was a mother who was so excited because her kids were about to experience the same matzah factory she went to visit as a child.

Baron said he began coming to the Columbia area about 30 years ago with friends from rabbinical school.

“We’d get ourselves some ‘Shabbos to go,’ hop in a Plymouth Valiant Slant Six and drive down.”

The Model Matzah Factory began at an “unknown Chabad location,” and it was so popular, other centers began replicating the event around the nation. When Baron settled in Columbia as director of Chabad, he made it a point to set up matzah baking as part of his activities.

In almost three decades, he hasn’t run out of flour or water and the oven has always worked — even the smoke alarm stopped going off once the proper ventilation for the oven was placed, said Baron, laughing.

The rabbi doesn’t feel the need to retire any time soon. He said it still warms his heart when he is out somewhere during Passover and he hears a small child say to his or her parent, “Look, there’s the Matzah Man!” He could give up the duty to a younger rabbi or rabbinical student, but he believes it is an important way to make connection with the community and allow young people to develop a relationship with a rabbi.

“The Lubavitcher Rebbe said that a person should never retire,” said Baron. A career that has forced retirement is one thing, “but when it comes to doing mitzvot, and study of Torah or helping others study Torah, then you keep on doing what you can.”

Chabad Lubavitch Center of Howard County
770 Howes Lane in Columbia

Open house, Sunday April 6
3 p.m. to 5 p.m. (includes Matzah Factory)

Chametz burning on Monday, April 14 at 11:30 a.m.

Community Seder on Monday, April 14 at 8 p.m.

All are welcome at no charge; contributions are appreciated but not required.

Reserve a spot by contacting 410-740-2424 or visiting lubavitchhowardcounty.org

mgerr@jewishtimes.com

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