Chametz Burning Provides Space for Community Ritual

An estimated 4,000 people took part in the annual chametz burning, a pre-Passover ritual in which the community burns and donates leavened food. (Photo by David Stuck)

For Elly Lasson, the annual burning of chametz, or leavened food that cannot be consumed during Passover, is a family affair that goes back decades.

Lasson 52, arrived at Pimlico Race Course on the morning of April 10 with his father, Moshe, to toss every bread crumb he owned into one of the two dozen incinerating garbage barrels.

Elly Lasson, who parted with a piece of bread, has taken part in the city’s annual chametz burning every year since its humble beginnings at the Glen Avenue Fire Station in 1982.

And though he admits the event has evolved over the years, its identity remains largely the same.

“I think what this has always represented is that there is a single occasion that all of the Orthodox and Jewish community can come together once a year that has a ritual nature,” Lasson said. “It makes all of the subtle distractions disappear, and you can connect with old friends you may only see a few times per year, which is pretty nice.”

The spirit of community was evident, with the Lassons joining more than an estimated 4,000-plus people in the festivities.

As the number of participants has grown in recent years, necessitating a change in venue to accommodate the hordes of families, so too have the costs of putting on such a spectacle.

But for the first time, the event this year was made free to the public. Baltimore City Councilman Issac “Yitzy” Schleifer (D-District 5) said he worked diligently with the Department of Public Works several months in advance to secure the dumpsters — one of the event’s biggest expenses — through a free program it offers for spring cleanups.

“We weren’t asking for special treatment or to do anything differently from what already exists,” Schleifer said. “One day, I can see where we’ll need a stadium to accommodate all the Jews who live in Baltimore, so having free programs like this are key for accommodation purposes.”

In recent years, families were asked to chip in $5 to help offset the $15,000 cost for the dumpsters and presence of the police and fire departments, among other amenities. Schleifer said Frank Storch, founder of The Chesed Fund, would cover any shortfalls the donations didn’t meet.

(Photo by David Stuck)

Usually, people burn or throw away their leavened food at the annual event, but for the past several years, they have also been urged to donate it.

This year, Schleifer said he specifically requested the food drive support Neighborhoods United, an umbrella group for several communities, after nonprofit groups Park Heights Renaissance and Comprehensive Housing Assistance Inc. (CHAI) teamed up in previous years.

“I thought it was important that the food drive be done for our neighbors,” Schleifer said. “I also thought it would be special to have people who would be giving away their nonperishable items to give them to people in need in their community.”

George Mitchell, 62, president of Neighborhoods United, echoed those sentiments, saying his organization was taking donations to help fill a need in the Park Heights area while cutting down on waste.

“We really want to help people who just need it,” Mitchell said. “This is a good communications effort for the neighborhood.”

Mitchell said a U-Haul truck containing an estimated 500 pounds of food and water was filled by the end of the event. The contents were expected to be delivered to a local food pantry as part of Neighborhoods United’s biweekly food drive.

Many people who were at Pimlico said they both donated and burned their chametz and liked the idea of being able to do a little bit of both.

Moshe Lasson, 76, said he has fond memories of burning chametz from his childhood that he still carries with him to this day.

“I’ve been doing this since I was a kid,” Lasson said. “It’s always been nice to be able to be together with the people you care about most for things like this.”

After burning their chametz, the Lassons stood side by side and recited a prayer from the haggadah acknowledging that their known leavened products were no longer in their possession.

(Photo by David Stuck)

Moshe Lasson, who tossed bagels and challah into the fire, said burning chametz provides divine as well as practical implications for those who observe the tradition. Parting ways with the food, he added, is a symbolic for removing any undesirable quality or trait.

“It means we’re starting a fresh year, a new year,” he said. “It’s the new spring semester and spirit, so to speak. We’re all getting together and getting the opportunity to have a completely new start.”

Rabbi Jeffrey Orkin, 52, who burned a challah roll and pretzels, has made the walk to the race track from his home on Strathmore Avenue since relocating to the area in 2001.

Orkin, spiritual leader at Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital, said he circles the day of the chametz burning at the start of every Jewish New Year. He said it’s the one day he knows his 40-minute walk to and from work is sure to provide the most “excitement” and “colorful moments.”

“I think Baltimore should be commended that it has taken the steps to organize this event in a way that people come out and really feel that we are all united,” Orkin said. “There is just a lot of bright light, and it’s hard not to notice from even afar.”

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