In the early 1970’s, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Herman Wouk met privately with the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, during which Wouk shared his view that American Jews couldn’t be forced to do anything they didn’t want to do. The Rebbe’s response was profound: You can’t tell American Jews to do anything, but you can teach them to do everything.

It is upon this principle that Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries use a practical, hands-on approach to education, whether in teaching someone how to don the Jewish prayer boxes known as tefillin or helping people prepare for an upcoming holiday. In the case of Passover, which begins this year on April 18, emissaries and volunteers have for more than three decades, gotten arms deep in flour and water just to teach children how to make the unleavened bread known as matzah.

“Back in 1973, I’d heard about Rabbi Abraham Shemtov in Philadelphia, who took a group of students into a local bakery to help roll the dough for their own matzah,” recalls Rabbi Gershon Grossbaum, who in addition to working with all segments of his S. Paul, Minn., Jewish community, runs a service inspecting Jewish ritual baths. “I thought, ‘This is just an amazing concept,’ so I decided to take the idea and run with it.”

The following year, Grossbaum secured a large auditorium at the Minneapolis Jewish Community Center and built a makeshift matzah factory with all of the necessary accoutrements: a huge table; rolling pins; bakers hats and aprons; special Passover flour imported from New York City; and an electrically-heated oven that he constructed himself out of sheet metal and steel and a brick-looking façade. For three weeks leading up to Passover that year, Jewish students from all over the area – from preschoolers to teenagers – arrived in droves, eager to learn how to bake matzah from scratch.

As they soon came to discover, time is of the essence when making matzah, and strict attention must be paid to every detail, from grinding down the wheat to mixing the flour to the right consistency. To prevent the dough from rising, the flour is guarded from the moment that it’s harvested up until the time it comes into contact with water. The time span between undisturbed contact with water to baking cannot exceed 18 minutes.

The children Grossbaum gathered inside the Minneapolis JCC saw the process through from start to finish.

“It was massive,” remembers the rabbi. “2,000 students came through that season.”

Like that, the model matzah bakery was born.

“What was wonderful about the project was that it was very much a hands-on educational module,” says Grossbaum. “While the kids were busy rolling out their matzah, they were very receptive to hearing about the story of Passover. With each class that came in, we interacted with them intellectually according to their level of knowledge. We’d ask questions and sing songs. For the younger classes we’d joke that if they sang louder, the matzah would rise faster. It was more than just an arts and crafts project – it was a growing experience.”

Rabbi Gershon Grossbaum acquaints Minneapolis children with handmade matzah in 1977. (Photo: Minneapolis Star/Steve Schluter)
Rabbi Gershon Grossbaum acquaints Minneapolis children with handmade matzah in 1977. (Photo: Minneapolis Star/Steve Schluter)

Rosie Mann, today a 20 year-old college freshman from the Minneapolis area, took part in several of Grossbaum’s model matzah bakeries when she was a small child.

“As a four year-old, I thought it was so cool that somebody was letting us cook our own food,” Mann recalls of the experience. “In kindergarten and preschool the teachers usually just tell you the stories, but it was nice this time to be able to actively participate. I’m not sure if as a young child I appreciated it, but I remember it was fun and that it was cool that we were being treated like adults, learning how to make our own matzah. It seemed kind of special.”

Grossman’s groundbreaking concept quickly took wing, and soon model matzah bakeries were popping up in cities all across the United States. Today, Grossbaum estimates there are between 500-800 model matzah bakeries throughout the world.

“Several thousand people come through the program annually,” says Rabbi Baruch Shlomo Cunin, director of West Coast Chabad Lubavitch, of the model matzah bakery held at Chabad of Westwood in Los Angeles.

During the two-and-a-half weeks leading up to the Passover holiday, Cunin and his staff erect an interactive exhibit where children not only learn how to make matzah, but dive back in time to ancient Egypt. With local yeshiva students in the roles of all the main characters, participants are taken on a live re-enactment journey where they meet Moses and Pharaoh, and experience the Exodus from Egypt and the splitting of the Sea of Reeds.

Over the years, the model matzah bakery has also given rise to additional innovative programming ideas, including Chanukah workshops where children participate in pressing their own olives to make oil for kindling menorahs during the eight-day festival of lights.

“When you involve children in the education process it not only makes for a Kodak moment,” opines Grossbaum, “but a learning moment.”

Rabbi Yisroel Rosenblum, director of the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Center of Livingston, N.J., has spent the past 10 years toting a traveling matzah bakery to Jewish schools throughout the MetroWest region of the state, keeping a 200-pound oven in the back of a van he cheekily dubs the “mobile matzah wagon.”

“Whenever I’m in a grocery store there’ll be a kid walking down the aisle pointing to me and calling out, ‘Hey, there’s the matzah man!” Rosenblum laughs. “So over the course of the year the kids remember and it makes a lasting impression on them.”

For Grossbaum, who’s watched his idea grow from a local grassroots experiment in 1974 to an international Passover phenomenon, what children take away from the model matzah bakery experience extends far beyond a box of unleavened bread.

“What we have seen every time, especially in the children, is that when they have a positive interfacing with the Torah and its commandments, it brings about very beneficial personal growth,” proffers the rabbi. “The goal now is to make sure that there are many matzah bakeries in the years to come.”