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Local Fire Department and Synagogues Pairing Up for Passover Tradition

For safety and community connections, the North Shore Fire Department is hosting an official chametz burning – the removal by fire of all leavened bread – in honor of Passover.

It's not a pairing you see every day: a fire department mostly filled with Christian men pairing with Jewish synagogues for a religious ceremony.

But for Passover, it's all about learning about each other and keeping the community connected. And it's more widespread than just the North Shore. 

The will host an official bi'ur chametz, or burning of leavened bread, in honor of Passover from 10 to 11:45 a.m. April 6 at NSFD Station 2 in Glendale, 5901 N. Milwaukee River Pkwy.

"The goal of the Fire Department is to be in touch with who we're serving, and if we don't understand who we're serving, I don't think we're doing our job 100 percent," Capt. John Maydak said. 

Rabbi Wes Kalmar of Congregation Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah in Glendale approached the Fire Department about a coordinated effort for chametz burning because his home congregation in Baltimore used to do this.

A physical cleaning transcending into a spiritual cleansing

According to Kalmar, the chametz burning transcends a mere physical burning of bread – it symbolizes a spiritual scouring of the soul.

In the Jewish faith, one cannot eat or have any leavened bread within their home for the eight days of Passover. So observant Jews substitute matzo, an unleavened, cracker-like flatbread.

Any leavened bread found in the home is traditionally burned, Kalmar said. So after an extensive hunt for any remaining bread is completed – with a few pieces sometimes left behind for children to find – families will have a small fire and burn what's remaining.

But Kalmar explained that the hunt for the bread, and the actual chametz burning, is more than simply respecting and upholding a tradition, it's a representation of an inner cleansing as well.

"Through scouring the home looking for the leavened bread, you're also really looking inside at your soul, and you're trying to get rid of the leavened part of your soul – meaning the haughtiness – to burn up the stuff that's extra," Kalmar said. 

Locally, the following are participants:

  • Anshai Lebowitz
  • Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah
  • Congregation Beth Jehudah
  • Congregation Beth Israel
  • Congregation Emanu-el Waukesha
  • Coalition for Jewish Learning
  • Lake Park Synagogue
  • Congregation emanu-el B’ne Jeshurun
  • Ohr HaTorah
  • Peltz Center For Jewish life
  • The Shul East
  • Temple Menorah

The North Shore isn't the only place Passover bread burning is happening. Across the country, many communities are pairing with their fire departments for a safer, but more community-driven experience, including the New York Fire Department and in New Jersey, where this will be the fifth year for a community burn.

A community connection

While for the fire departments this is a way to eliminate the possibility of dozens of fires and potential emergencies, hosting one joint burn is also a chance to bring everyone together.

"So, where you're looking at maybe hundreds of people throughout the area having small fires, we can contain with one and monitor it," Maydak said. "It's a great opportunity, and we're excited to do it because it brings everybody together and makes people feel like the Fire Department is there to provide something for them other than when the emergency arises."

And for Kalmar, it's that same opportunity for connectivity that drove him to approach the Fire Department. He said everyone has connections within their community whether through places like the or through congregations, but they are still individual pockets.

"There is a general connectedness, but an event like this, where everybody can come and participate and bring everyone together, I see as a very positive thing," Kalmar said.

Dave Koven March 31, 2012 at 05:35 PM
With no disrespect intended, why not donate the leavened bread to the poor?
Rabbi Wes Kalmar April 05, 2012 at 03:50 AM
It's a good question Dave. The truth is that at this time of year, there is a strong Jewish custom to donate large amounts of money (called Maot Chittin - 'money for wheat') to the poor so that they can afford the extra cost of the Passover holiday. There are also food donation sites throughout the congregations and institutions of the Jewish community at this time of year so a ton of food does get donated. But for whatever reason - the Bible commands us to destroy it on this day - so while most of the bread is gotten rid of by finishing it, selling it, giving it away, etc. there is still a commandment to destroy some - so most people leave over a small, somewhat symbolic amount to destroy to fulfill this particular command. We never really 'know' what the reason is for a Divine imperative but perhaps we are supposed to destroy some to drive home the fact that it is very very important to not own any whatsoever.

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