For Immediate Release
Thiya Matzo Factory Opens in Minsk
The Jews of Belarus Reach Out to Help Themselves
All too often the image the rest of the world has of the Jews of East Europe is of a community with its hands permanently stretched, palms up, towards the West. In yet another astounding step down the road to cultural self-sufficiency the Jews of Belarus, and their organization the Union of Religious Jewish Congregations of the Republic of Belarus, are showing the world that they have the ability to help themselves.
In the face of a matzo shortage that threatened this years Pesach the Jews of Belarus and their Union have opened their own matzo factory, named the Thiya Matzo Factory. Thiya is Hebrew for revival.
"When we discovered, late last year, that the traditional sources who fund the purchase of matzo for our community would be unavailable this Passover we didnt know what to do," said Yuri Dorn, President of the Union. "Our first impulse was to find other donors to pay for 15 tons of matzo but given the severe medical and material needs of the community it didnt seem right to try and raise the needed $18,000 just for this. It was clear that we had to do something for ourselves."
Franklin J. Swartz, Executive Director of the East European Jewish Heritage Project, commented, "This is a fiercely independent and resourceful community that always looks for innovative solutions using the remarkable resources of human potential that we have amongst the Jews of Belarus. It doesnt surprise me that the Chief Rabbi, Sender Uritsky, and Yuri chose to make their own matzo for the community."
After discussions with the Chief Rabbi and Yuri Dorn, Frank Swartz contacted the members of the JewishGen Belarus Special Interest Group run by Dave Fox, now Commissioner for Bnai Briths Belarus Relief Project. "Internet access is slow and expensive in Belarus but we felt we needed a modern technique to answer a traditional problem," says Mr. Swartz, "and we got one." Within a day of the initial inquiry the Union was contacted by Professor Allen Saxe in Charlotte North Carolina and Rabbi David Kline in Louisiana. "They both suggested that we make matzos in our homes. Rabbi Kline supplied recipes and Allen undertook a massive amount of research and gave us direction and helped broaden our approach."
In the end it was decided that it was more practical and sustainable to put production on an industrial basis. "That way," points out Rabbi Uritsky, supervisor of the Thiya Matzo Factory, "it could become a long term community activity. Something of which to be proud."
But it wasnt easy. "First," according to Rabbi Uritsky, "there was practically no knowledge of the technology here. The equipment had to be custom made based on old drawings and a machine which had last seen service in the early 1970s." What was produced is a crank operated machine capable of turning out about twenty-five kilos (55lbs) of matzo per hour. "It will take two twelve hours shifts a day, with twelve people on each shift, to turn out the eight tons of matzo we need this year." Production is to start on the 16 March.
The machinery was only part of the problem. Commercially produced flour is not suitable for Passover matzo because it is soaked in water during milling. Yuri Dorn and Rabbi Uritsky made special arrangements with the government to have a collective farm grind the flour in the prescribed fashion.
New electric ovens had to be procured and a building in the Unions compound set aside especially in order to insure that kashrut requirements are met.
The Thiya matzo making team is led by 54 year old Semyon Mirkin who, throughout the 1970s, a time of Soviet repression, made matzos at home for himself and his friends. "I am very pleased that we are reviving this tradition," says Semyon. "half of our team is young Jews. They are part of the new generation that is the future of Belarussian Jewry." Frank Swartz also points out, as far as anyone knows, this is the first time kosher matzo has been produced in Belarus since the Holocaust.
Of course another advantage is that the Revival Matzo Factory provides employment. "This year we are rushed and will only be able to produce 8 tons of matzo in time for Passover," commented Rabbi Uritsky. "This is about enough for our community but next year we intend to produce 18 tons or more and to supply communities in West Russia and the Baltic States." Yuri Dorn also invisions diversifying into other kinds of kosher flatbeds for year round production.
Supporters of the project include Aish HaTorah, Rabbi Mandel of the Albert Reichmann Foundation of Canada and the Joint Distribution Committee Jerusalem all firm backers of Jewish Self-Sufficiency in Belarus.
Thiya Matzo: A revival of spirit and self-respect as well as an age old tradition
Franklin J. Swartz
East European Jewish Heritage Project (Regd UK)
Jewish Revival Charitable Mission (Regd Republic of Belarus)
13b Dauman Street
Tel/fax +375 17 234 5612/234 3360