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Roving rabbi teaches meaning of making matzo for Passover

Skylar Levey, 3, of Greenlawn, makes matzo during

Skylar Levey, 3, of Greenlawn, makes matzo during an interactive program at Huntington Jewish Center. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

For Rabbi Dovid Weinbaum, one of the key parts of Passover, which starts Friday at sunset, is matzo, the unleavened bread eaten at seder dinners during the eight-day religious festival.

For years Weinbaum has taken his portable Mega Model Matzah Bakery program to synagogues and Jewish schools to teach children about the essential role the flattened bread plays in the festival.

Matzo is “probably one of the most important parts of Passover,” said Weinbaum, who is based at the Chai Center in Dix Hills, an Orthodox synagogue affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement that welcomes Jews of all denominations.

In his 45-minute presentations, Weinbaum, 33, of Dix Hills, dresses up as Moses, a farmer, and a matzo baker at various points, and gets children to make and bake their own matzo from scratch.

Passover commemorates the historic exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt some 3,300 years ago. The festival carries with it messages of faith, freedom, defiance and hope, said Rabbi Steven Moss, of the B’nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale.

Many Jews mark the holidays with festive seder dinners, usually on the first and second nights of the festival, as they recall the Exodus story.

During the meals, children traditionally ask four questions about the Passover ritual, and their parents respond by retelling the Exodus story, reading from a book called the Haggadah.

Special foods are used during the seders, such as bitter herbs that represent the bitterness of bondage. Matzo is used to commemorate the haste with which the Israelites fled Egypt, without the time to let the bread rise.

Matzo is known as “the bread of oppression or the bread of the slaves,” Moss said.

Weinbaum started presenting the Mega Model Matzah Bakery program some 15 years ago in his native England and later in Canada. Now based on Long Island, he has been taking his show on the road here for the last four years.

This Passover season, some 1,000 children have seen the show during a total of 15 presentations. He has a waiting list of schools and synagogues that want him to perform.

“It was a wonderful program,” said Maxine Fisher, the religious school administrator of the Huntington Jewish Center, which recently hosted Weinbaum for an event that drew 90 children and about 40 parents. “They all enjoyed it, even the little ones” as young as 2 years old.

Part of Weinbaum’s philosophy is that children are so inundated and entertained by screens today — television, smartphones, iPads, computers — that simply talking to them about religious topics isn’t enough.

“I believe in today’s generation, you can’t just tell a story anymore,” he said. “You have to bring religion to life for kids. It has to be hands-on and it can’t just be sitting in a classroom telling a story.”

So Weinbaum does his best to bring the story of the Exodus — and matzo — to life. Besides the costumes and props, including rolling pins and an oven, he also uses music and incorporates modern touches such as telling the children they are going to take a “selfie” with Moses for his Snapchat account.

They make matzo, too, mixing the flour and the water for precisely 18 minutes — any longer and it is not kosher for Passover. The time limit is imposed to underscore how the Israelites were forced to flee Egypt rapidly under Moses’ guidance. Also, only a very small amount of water is mixed with the flour, because the Israelites were in the desert.

Moses told the Israelites to bring everything they could as they fled, including their dough. The desert was so hot, it baked the unleavened dough into matzo, Weinbaum explained.

His portable bakery is not officially kosher for Passover, “but it gives the kids a real excitement, a real feel of how exactly a matzo bakery is done,” he said.

Matzo has a number of meanings in Passover besides symbolizing the Israelites’ rapid exit from Egypt, Rabbi Moss said. At the start of the seder, three pieces are held up, and the middle one is broken in two pieces. This represents slavery, because the slave never has a complete loaf of bread to eat, Moss said.

The other two whole pieces of matzo represent the loaves of bread for the Sabbath, which symbolizes freedom.

“This really is the tension that exists throughout the seder ritual — the tension between slavery and freedom,” Moss said. “This is brought together in a very special way with the matzo.”

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