Rabbi Hillel Baron is bringing the matzah bakery experience to kids with his portable Brooklyn Matzah Bakery.
“There are two kinds of matzah: There’s machine-made matzah, and that’s the square kind of matzah, then there’s the handmade shmurah matzah, which is the kind that we are trying to model,” said Baron, the director of Chabad Lubavitch of Howard County and a resident of Columbia.
Baron used to provide his matzah bakery experience from a fixed location in Columbia, but because of the pandemic, he has been transporting his matzah oven by vehicle for outdoor classes at different schools.
At those classes, Baron teaches students how to make matzah by hand. This includes mixing the dough, flattening it with a rolling pin, placing the dough in the oven and taking the matzah out to eat after just a few minutes. The finished product is “nice and crunchy, and looking like the real thing,” he said.
Decades ago, when he was a rabbinic student volunteer at a Chabad in Rockville, Baron had helped to start a matzah baking program, which was itself inspired by a similar program started by a Chabad rabbi in Chicago.
Thirty-five years ago, Baron started his own matzah baking program in Columbia.
As word of Baron’s program began to spread, schools from as far north as Baltimore proper started taking their children down for the experience, Baron said. And he hasn’t only been visited by Jewish preschool and elementary school children. Over the years, his program has seen children from Christian preschools as well as college students and residents of nursing homes.
As the pandemic began shutting down normal life last year, Baron began getting calls pleading with him to find a way for children to still partake in his matzah baking experience. Eventually, he located an oven that could fit in a trailer, which he would haul from place to place via his Ford Explorer.
The experience, Baron said, is thoroughly interactive. Participating children engage in pouring the flour and water, holding the mixing bowl, squeezing the dough and rolling it with a rolling pin.
“It’s a really hands-on experience,” Baron said. “When you eat chicken, you don’t know what it takes to bring that chicken even to the refrigerator case. And this, they know and see from scratch.”
Baron’s lessons also explain the religious requirements of finishing the matzah in less than 18 minutes to prevent its rising, he said.
Baron sanitizes his equipment before each group presentation, he said, adding that face masks and hand sanitizer are used relative “to the level that they do in that particular school,” he said.
“It’s the most enjoyable part of my job,” Baron said. “This is what I like to do. What I have to do the rest of the year, a rabbi has to sit behind the desk, a rabbi has to make phone calls, a rabbi has to take care of office work. This is the most enjoyable part of my career, or my job as a rabbi. To interact with the children, give them a good time.”