- The Washington Times - Friday, March 30, 2007

JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Except for a poster of grains from around the world, the office of Yaakov Horowitz at Manischewitz looks like a typical rabbi’s study.

Heavy books with Hebrew script are stacked on the shelves, portraits of other rabbis adorn the walls, and Mr. Horowitz displays a shofar, or ram’s horn, that he blows on his company’s production floor before the Jewish High Holy Days.

As chief rabbi at the kosher food company Manischewitz, the world leader in matzo production, Mr. Horowitz is the matzo maven. Grain used to produce matzo is a big part of his life.

“It’s not just the most important kosher food,” said the 51-year-old rabbi. “It is also the most important Jewish food and the last link to Jewish heritage. I feel the responsibility very profoundly.”

He oversees the company’s annual production of 75.6 million sheets of matzo, the unleavened bread eaten by Jews around the world during the eight-day Passover holiday and the centerpiece of the seder.

The first seder, or Passover dinner, begins Monday night as Jews commemorate the account in Exodus of their ancestors’ liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt. They eat matzo on Passover to remember the hasty departure, which didn’t leave enough time for bread to rise.

The fourth-generation Hasidic rabbi has traveled around the world to consult about matzo production at factories in Mexico, Moscow, Kiev, Britain and Israel and is now embarking on a new task: Designing the first new matzo ovens for Manischewitz in nearly 70 years.

The company is moving operations to Newark, leaving behind its historic ovens in Jersey City, where mass-produced matzo was revolutionized.

Manischewitz’s parent company, R.A.B. Food Group of Secaucus, N.J., recently acquired other kosher food companies and is consolidating production of both wet food such as soup and gefilte fish and dry goods such as cake mixes, crackers and matzo.

The new $10 million oven will improve the company’s matzo production because daily cleaning during the Passover season can be done in less than a quarter of the time, Mr. Horowitz said.

When the company makes its once-a-year conversion to Passover goods, it will take less than a week instead of a month, said Jeremy Fingerman, president and chief executive officer of the privately held R.A.B., which acquired the Manischewitz brand in 1998.

Matzo is still the most important product Manischewitz produces, said Mr. Horowitz, who dons a yarmulke, hair net and another net to shield his bushy salt-and-pepper beard when he is on a factory floor.

Rabbi Dov Behr Manischewitz founded his company in Cincinnati in 1888 to produce matzo. By 1914, the company registered more than 50 patents for matzo baking and, six years later, it had created a machine that could produce matzo on a massive scale — 1.25 million sheets per day.

In 1939, the company moved its matzo operations to Jersey City, which closed its plant this month.

The introduction of a machine is still debatable among some Orthodox Jews, said Mr. Horowitz, whose e-mail user name is “matzohmail.” Matzos were historically made by hand and sold by synagogues as a source of income from the 1700s until the latter part of the 19th century.

“Since the 1850s, people involved in machine matzo have been forever trying to improve on the design, to be able to break it down better to clean it more efficiently and quicker,” Mr. Horowitz said.

According to the Jewish laws of kashrut, matzo must be baked in 18 minutes or less, with ovens at intense heat, between 650 degrees and 800 degrees. Matzo cannot mix with leavened products.

“Matzo production is a little bit like maritime law,” the rabbi said. “It’s an independent specialty. It’s a different part of the kosher law book.”

During the season for Passover products, between seven and 11 mashgiachim, or kosher supervisors, work for the rabbi to inspect the matzo products. One is stationed in Pennsylvania for six months to oversee the Passover production of the flour as it is grown, milled and trucked to New Jersey in 40,000-pound tankers. Between five and eight tankers will deliver the flour for 20 straight weeks.

“Matzoh is always watched, from the time of grinding,” said Mr. Horowitz, who speaks English, Hebrew and Yiddish. “Again this is ancient law.”

Mr. Horowitz previously worked with other accounts, companies such as the J.M. Smucker Co. and Nestle USA, to supervise and coordinate their kosher food programs for the Orthodox Union, as he now does full time for Manischewitz. The nonprofit organization inspects 6,000 plants in 80 countries around the globe and certifies their products as kosher.

But overseeing production at Manischewitz is a special job because its matzo is eaten by so many people, said Rabbi Menachem Genack, rabbinic administrator and chief executive officer of the Orthodox Union’s world kosher division.

“Passover itself in terms of Jewish ritual is the holiday most observed,” he said. “Even people who don’t eat kosher necessarily all year or are somewhat unaffiliated, they come back at Passover.”

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