Matzah Comeback


In a miracle more akin to Chanukah than Passover, the Borough Park shmurah matzah factory that apparently was destroyed by fire last week has found enough remaining flour untouched by firefightersí water, and enough of a safe physical structure, to resume baking less than two weeks before the seder.

This weekís expected reopening of the Chareidim Shmura Matzah Bakery at 4312 New Utrecht Ave. will prevent a shortage of handmade shmurah matzah that could have inflated prices beyond the current $14 a pound. Most Orthodox Jews in that Borough Park neighborhood only use the carefully supervised shmurah matzah, usually round shaped, rather than the square machine-made matzah that sells for around $3 a pound.Ezra Friedlander, a community activist and a former adviser to the cityís Kosher Coalition price-monitoring group, told The Jewish Week that the fire ìwonít affect prices.ìNo oneís going to exploit it,î he said. ìShmurah matzah will be as expensive as it always is. No one will be raising prices. The community wonít allow it.î

Nevertheless, City Councilman Noach Dear, who said he annually purchased some 30 pounds of shmurah matzah here, pointed out that there are only about seven such factories in the city, so the loss of even one could seriously affect the supply.

Some estimated that the destroyed bakery supplied nearly 30,000 pounds of shmurah matzah. It was not known how much matzah had been destroyed or how much had already been purchased by customers.Fire officials said the blaze, which started last Wednesday morning at about 8:30, presumably was started by a blocked oven flue. It took three hours and 150 firefighters, six of whom were injured, to subdue the fire, which also destroyed an adjacent warehouse and a Pentecostal church. The warehouse had been purchased recently by the Shema Koleinu school for children with autism and related disabilities.Not everyone affected by the fire will rebound as quickly as the bakery. The school, which currently has 17 children, is presently housed in the Borough Park YMHA but with a lease that expires in June.

Our whole building was gutted,î said Joshua Weinstein, executive officer of Shema Koleinu. ìWeíre left with just the outside brick. Inside, the roof, everything fell in.ìWe had planned to add a third floor. We were going to start renovations. Now we have to start from scratch. It can cost us nearly $3 million. Now weíre looking for a temporary location.

The bakeryís owner, Pessy Weber, a woman in her early 40s, watched from the sidewalk as the fire damaged her two-story business. She declined to speak to reporters.

Dear told The Jewish Week it was Weberís second tragedy in just weeks: Her husband, Shlomo, who founded the matzah factory, died two months ago from liver cancer. After his death she had been determined to keep the factory going, with shifts almost around the clock until last weekís fire

Dear described Weber as ìan extraordinary woman.

When her husband was dying of liver cancer, a few months ago she came up to my office for help when the insurance for his medicine was being cut off,î he recalled. ìAnd while she was caring for her husband she was running the business. Six weeks ago her husband dies, and now the fire.ìIf you could have seen her place after the fire youíd never believe in a million years that sheíll be reopening, but thatís her unbelievable strength ó that and the benevolence of the community.îImmediately after the fire, Dear said, city officials, architects and engineers met to assess the situation. Only one of the two stories can be made functional. Dear said the mayorís office told him, ìwhatever we have to do to help her, weíll help her.í We got the buildings commissioner and all the other agencies to cooperate with her. Whatever permits she needs, sheíll be taken care of. People are standing by to advance her any money if it becomes necessary.

Probably the most helpful thing anyone can do at this point is that if youíve been a customer, donít walk away. Iím not walking away.îPerhaps as miraculous as anything, said Dear, was ìall the wheat was stored there, and the Fire Department poured a lot of water in. The flour could have been ruined and then she would have been totally finished. For some reason, a miracle took place. The area where the wheat was stored was not touched. It was covered and found intact.

Dear said the workers in these factories are ìusually immigrants, particularly Russian women, because no one wants to do this. Itís very tedious work.ìAnd itís very intense work because you have to make every batch of matzah with great diligence within 18 minutes,î the time frame specified by Jewish law. ìIíve seen it done in eight to 10 minutes.