The prohibition against eating leavened bread containing wheat, barley, oats, spelt and rye at Passover is well known. Some Ashkenazic authorities also prohibit the consumption of rice, millet, corn and legumes during the holiday, and most Jews make a point of cleaning their homes and cars, removing any crumbs that may have accumulated prior to Pesach.
What they don’t get rid of, they sell to a non-Jew for the duration of the holiday. Rabbis typically serve as the go-betweens, and in Baltimore, Rabbi Jeremy Benyowitz is one of several in the area who facilitate the sale. For the past four or five years, the rabbi has relied upon the assistance of Michael Hilliard, a former major in the Baltimore Police Department and now community services director for the Harbel Community Organization, a nonprofit in Northeast Baltimore.
Benyowitz’s mother, Naomi Benyowitz, is executive director of Harbel. Close colleagues, Hilliard and Benya-witz “put together one of the largest citizen’s patrols on the East Coast. It was based on the Northwest Baltimore Citizens Patrol,” said Hilliard.
“One day, Jeremy approached his mother looking for a trustworthy gentile who could buy the chametz,” said Hilliard. “Naomi suggested me.”
Before meeting Benyowitz, Hilliard knew a little bit about Passover but nothing about this particular custom. Yet, he was happy to help.
“I have been a devout Christian all of my life,” said Hilliard. “This is an opportunity to help others of great faith celebrate one of the most important holidays of the year. I feel it’s a worthwhile endeavor. I’m also interested in meeting people of other cultures. It gives me a chance to meet some special people.”
Hilliard described the annual transaction.
“I go to his apartment and he has stacks of documents. They are contracts that people have signed giving him the right to sell the chametz. “I don’t actually pay, but the whole idea is that it’s mine. I could go to someone’s house and take it if I wanted.”
The chametz that has been collected is not kept in Hilliard’s home. Instead it is stored in a locked cabinets in the homes of the sellers, but Hilliard holds the keys. After Passover, the rabbi comes back to Hilliard, who then offers to sell it back to him.
“I might say to him, ‘Oh, it has been a real burden, Rabbi,’” Hilliard said. “‘I haven’t been able to sell it. Could you buy it back?’”
In the past, Hilliard has “purchased” goats and sheep because they are fed fermented grain. He has even held the keys to a liquor store.
“I find it to be a unique and personally rewarding experience,” he said “If you’re a person of faith, you get it. If you’re not, you might not.”