With focused eyes and wide smiles, a sea of preschoolers in white baker’s hats worked slowly, carefully kneading and flattening the dough that would soon emerge from a brick oven as that classic Passover food: matzah.
These little amateur cooks were part of the model matzah bakery at Chabad’s West Coast headquarters in Westwood, which over a two-week period drew about 6,700 children, most ranging in age from 3 to 7.
The 28th annual event, which took place March 3-17 at the Chabad on Gayley Avenue, gave inquisitive Jewish and non-Jewish children a chance to experience the biblical Exodus firsthand. They went from learning about the hardships of slavery to unleashing a torrent of plagues on the Egyptians to crossing the sea — and even enjoying their own hand-made, piping-hot matzah on the other side.
At the first of five stations, dozens of young participants, along with their teachers and some parents, learned about what the Hebrews suffered through: arduous work, little rest and molding mortar for the bricks. What is normally a large social hall was divided into stations, each with tarps designed according to a specific theme of the period of the Exodus.
One station resembled the Egyptian desert, with images of sand and pyramids adorning the tarps. Another featured Moses, Pharaoh and an Egyptian magician — all played by yeshiva students.
After witnessing eight plagues, including, to their wide-eyed amazement, water poured into Pharaoh’s goblet turning into blood (or some other mysterious red substance), the children’s Egyptian masters suddenly stopped moving. They had been struck blind by the ninth plague, darkness.
“We are frozen,” Pharaoh said, appearing to panic.
“If you allow the Jewish people to go free,” Moses responded, then God will restore light.
“Maybe,” Pharaoh said. “But first take the plague away.”
“OK, I trust you,” Moses said as he “removed” the darkness with a movement of his staff.
“He’s kidding!” yelled one child, not buying Pharaoh’s promise.
“Ha, ha, ha!” exclaimed Pharaoh. “I’m not letting anyone get away.”
The kids appeared disheartened, exhaling loudly. But after the 10th plague killed every firstborn male in Egypt, Pharaoh crumbled, allowing the children to leave Egypt to the tune of “Under the Sea,” from “The Little Mermaid.”
That brought them to an area where a man who went by the name “Farmer Joe” — the bakery’s wheat and flour expert — taught the basics of grinding wheat stalks into flour, the first step of the delicate and precise matzah-baking process. He softened up the crowd with a bit of comedy, introducing his stuffed ram.
“He’s an interesting ram. He doesn’t eat at all,” Farmer Joe said. “He always says he’s stuffed.”
As children crowded around several wooden tables, they separated kernels from the wheat stalks, grinding them down to flour. They then moved to the mixing station, where they watched some of their classmates enter two booths connected by a wooden plank, one booth for water and one for flour. The children in the respective booths enthusiastically dumped their flour and water into a stainless steel bowl, creating dough.
According to Jewish law, once water touches flour, there is a period of 18 minutes that may pass until the dough leavens, turning into chametz, which cannot be consumed during the holiday. In professional matzah bakeries across the world, this process is intense and hectic, as workers must ensure, down to the second, that all matzah packaged for distribution is baked within 18 minutes of the water and flour mixing.
Because the bakery in Westwood was just a model one, the matzah baked there was not technically kosher for Passover, but the kids understood that time was of the essence, hurrying from the mixing station to the bakery itself.
Little hands flattened the dough on large tables, then made holes in it using spiked rollers. They placed their creations in a brick oven, waiting eagerly for a taste. As the small, handmade, roundish pieces of matzah emerged minutes later, the kids gathered around, staring excitedly at the crunchy unleavened bread that was placed into their outstretched baker’s caps.
As they left the building with their teachers and parents, munching on their snack, and singing a catchy tune about matzah, Rabbi Aron Teleshevsky, organizer of the bakery, reflected on the annual program.
“I love this,” Teleshevsky said. “It’s not ‘in-your-face’ Judaism; it’s a fun opportunity to celebrate Passover.”
Teleshevsky estimates that about 90 percent of the children who pass through the bakery in any given year are not from Orthodox day schools. Many, he said, are from public schools, or even a Christian school, and are simply interested in the holiday.
Rabbi Chaim Cunin, CEO of Chabad of California, thinks that model matzah bakeries — which are held worldwide — help children connect on a deeper, more personal level during the Passover holiday.
“They’ll be sitting at their own seder table, eating matzah around the table, telling the story. All of a sudden they have a point of reference to make sense of it all and to relive it,” Cunin said.