Drive-Thru Chametz
Southfield City Councilman, Ari Mandelbaum places chametz on a tray. (Photo: Capt. Melissa Medici)

Burning the chametz that remains the morning before Passover begins is often done in backyards or at organized community bonfires.

When ‘virtual’ wouldn’t do, and the typical way around it wasn’t the safest choice, a precisely designed modification for a Passover custom created a unique solution.

Through a cooperative Jewish communal and city effort, Southfield’s traditional pre-holiday burning of chametz (leaven) became a socially distanced, fire department-supervised way to heed the practice while still following all the rules.

Burning the chametz that remains the morning before Passover begins is often done in backyards or at organized community bonfires.

For the past four years, Southfield City Councilman Ari Mandelbaum has arranged for it to take place communally, under the supervision of members of the local fire department.

As this past Passover approached, and safety guidelines against congregating in large groups were put in place, changes to the custom were made worldwide.

In some areas that meant reverting back to private homes. In Israel, the chief rabbis suggested chametz be thrown in the garbage and covered with bleach to render it inedible.

In Southfield, it became a challenge that would revamp the annual undertaking, creating a way to keep both community members and firefighters safe.

Working with Southfield Fire Chief Johnny Menifee, members of the Fire Inspectors unit, who were not on the frontline, were brought in.

The initial plan was to spread out burn-barrels in the large parking lot behind the Southfield Ice Arena, and limit the amount of people around each barrel, separated by a 6-foot distance.

As the date got closer, the plan was updated to offer drivers from throughout the metro community a way to caravan to the burn sites, stay in their cars and deposit chametz through their windows.

“About one-and-a-half to two weeks prior to Pesach, as COVID-19 cases in Michigan were rising, we came up with the idea to have a drive-thru touchless chametz burning,” Mandelbaum said.

Mike Albo, the Southfield Fire Marshall, arranged for burn-barrels to be set up in a roped-off area in Civic Center Park, with members of the Southfield Fire Department onsite for four hours to supervise.

Drive-Thru Chametz
A caravan of cars line up for chametz burning. (Photo: Capt. Melissa Medici)

Vehicles in line were first stopped at a checkpoint set up to assure chametz was in a paper bag or loose in their hands, and not in air-polluting plastic or foil.

“Once they passed, they were allowed into the next lane that had a table in middle with the metal trays where the driver placed their bread,” Mandelbaum said. Stationed firefighters dumped bread from the tray into one of the burn-barrels, with drivers driving to the other side of the roped area to watch their bread burn and say the Kol Chamira blessing that accompanies it, while the next driver entered the open lane.

Drive-Thru Chametz
Chametz checkpoint (Photo: Capt. Melissa Medici)

“Watching this process was unusual,” Mandelbaum said. “At some points, there was a 20-30 minute wait — 30-40 cars deep — as they were only allowing one car in the ‘burn lane’ at a time. People were patient and courteous. They knew that we only wanted the safety of everyone and were trying to be as ‘socially distant’ as possible. Many thanked the firefighters as they placed their bread on the tray.”

He said, in previous years, “Many tended to stick around and socialize with friends and family.” This year he said the socializing was reduced to hand waves from car to car. “The atmosphere was more somber. No one hung around to see who may be there that they can catch up with. It was just business. Some wore gloves and/or masks. Everyone remained in their cars.”

Other components connected to previous years’ chametz-burnings were suspended, like one that allowed Southfield residents to participate in the hazardous waste collection and paper shredding program at a time other than the usual Shabbat date.

Drive-Thru Chametz
A firefighter supervises burning of chametz. (Photo: Capt. Melissa Medici)

The city of Southfield also arranges for an extra curbside garbage and recycling pick-up the day Passover begins to allow for extra holiday cleaning refuse.

Mandelbaum is appreciative of Albo and his team who he said allowed “the Jewish community to continue their customs in a safe and efficient manner.”

“He also stated that, ‘A fire fighter’s job is to help keep the community safe and advocate for the community. Anytime we can combine public service to assist with a religious practice, that is the ultimate benefit and value.”

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