With the olive harvest two weeks late and Chanukah arriving two weeks early, rabbis across the country have been praying that they’ll get enough of the ripe fruit in time for holiday classes. As they do every year, they want to visit area schools and synagogues to show just how Jewish craftsmen made the oil used at the first Festival of Lights.

Rabbi Yisroel Rosenblum, a program director at Chabad-Lubavitch of Livingston, N.J., has been running a travelling olive press demonstration for 11 years: nine in North Jersey, and two in Chicago. He estimates that each year, almost 2,000 children scattered among upwards of 55 Jewish schools in the Metro-West area of the state learn about religious freedom, spiritual light, and the meaning of Chanukah through the program. An additional 60 to 70 workshops in the three weeks before the holiday – this year, it begins the night of Dec. 1 – bring the message to adults and other residents.

Now, Rosenblum has to squeeze it all into a time span of less than two weeks.

“This is the first time we’ve ever had a problem,” he relates, adding that he intended to get his olives “by hook or by crook.”

Rosenblum is planning to scope out local farmers’ markets if what he ordered from suppliers didn’t arrive in time. Others are simply hoping for the best.

According to Adin Hester of the Olive Growers Council of California, the tardy harvest resulted from uncooperative weather. The bloom set late and the farmers couldn’t begin shaking the olives from their branches until October. Producers may have to continue harvesting through Thanksgiving, just days before the start of the holiday, but may not have the workers on hand to help do the picking once the weather gets cold.

Additionally, while the crop is the largest in three years, many farmers are complaining that the olives are smaller than usual.

Pressing On Through Late Harvest

But while the rabbis are worrying that what olives they do get may not contain enough oil in them, they’re pressing on.

According to Rosenblum, the reaction of kids to his demonstration is priceless.

“I have different kids each time, so each time the reactions are different, and the enthusiasm is great,” he says. “That’s what’s contagious and keeps me going.”

Mirroring similar demonstrations run by hundreds of Chabad Houses across the United States, Rosenblum uses a sturdy little wooden wine press about three feet tall and about a foot in diameter. He lines it with cheesecloth, while the children pit the olives. It takes a small basket full of about three or four pounds per class.

“The more the better,” he relates.

The pressed olives yield about one cup of fluid that goes into a centrifuge to separate the juice from the oil, and the class ends up with one third of a cup of pure extra virgin olive oil. Then, each child gets a wad of cotton wool and learns how to make the wicks for a Chanukah menorah.

All in all, the demonstration lasts about an hour, with most of the time used to review the Chanukah story, the proper blessings for lighting a menorah, and the traditional holiday songs.

In nearby Paramus, Rabbi Moshe Grossbaum annually takes the demonstration to 2,500 children, about half the Jewish children in Bergen County.

“I love to watch these kids’ undergo a transformation when they see what I do,” he says. “They all know the story of the oil, but their attitude is that it has nothing to do with them because the menorahs they light use candles. But when they see the oil come out of the centrifuge and then light, the whole process becomes real, and so does the miracle of the light.”

In some ways, he explains, this year’s difficulties further highlight the holiday’s meaning.

“Chanukah creates light in the world,” he states. “It doesn’t get easier, but we have to keep plugging away.”

Both rabbis received initial shipments of olives on Nov. 12 and 15, not nearly enough for the minimum of 250 to 300 pounds that they need, but it’s a good start.

Rabbi Shlomo Uminer, director of the Chabad Jewish Center of Martin and S. Lucie County in South Florida, fills a Chanukah menorah with freshly-prepared olive oil.
Rabbi Shlomo Uminer, director of the Chabad Jewish Center of Martin and S. Lucie County in South Florida, fills a Chanukah menorah with freshly-prepared olive oil.

Some of their initial schools are breathing a collective sigh of relief.

At Yavneh Academy in Paramus, assistant principal Rabbi Steven Penn says that his first graders always look forward to the arrival of the olive press.

“They are surprised to learn how much effort, and how many olives are needed to create one drop of pure olive oil,” he reveals. “They experience firsthand how important it was to find pure olive oil for the menorah in the Holy Temple.”

In Livingston, Rabbi Nachum Wachtel at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy says that the demonstrations allow children to “relive the events of long ago.”

Such are the reactions among the children at the Hebrew school at Temple Beth Emeth in Teaneck. As Rosenblum preps the press, they get their hands dirty squeezing the pits out of olives, getting the juice in the eyes of an observing adult. Smiles are all around.

“I love stories about miracles,” says one student, “and even if we can’t prove they are real, in our hearts we know they are true!”

“Rabbi Grossbaum loves to tell his stories, and we love to squish olives and help him make the oil for Chanukah,” says another. “It’s much more fun than trying to copy stuff from a blackboard!”

In Visalia, Calif., Hester says that 15 years ago, there wasn’t much of a religious-based demand for his state’s olives. How that’s changed.

“The first year, I sent 20 pounds of olives. The second year, I sent 40 pounds,” he explains. “And now we’re sending out close to two tons of olives each year at cost, all around the globe. We’ve sent them to rabbis in Puerto Rico, Canada, Bosnia, Asia, England, and once, almost, to Israel, where they ran out.”