Orthodox Hasidic Jews from Brooklyn find specialty wheat in eastern Oregon fits kosher requirements – OregonLive

Posted By on September 28, 2021

ENTERPRISE Why is this wheat different from all other wheat?

Because it can be made into matzah, the thin, crisp unleavened bread, traditionally eaten by Jewish people during the Passover seder when a child will ask the first of four traditional questions from the Haggadah, Why is this night different than all other nights? The answer is that it was the night the God had the angel of death pass over the homes of the ancient Israelites while they were still in bondage in Egypt.

Since at least 2008, Orthodox Hasidic Jews from Brooklyn, New York, have traveled to Wallowa County to inspect and purchase wheat and this year, spelt from Cornerstone Farms Joint Venture, one of the largest grain producers in the county operated by Tim and Audry Melville and their sons, Kevin and Kurt.

Samuel Porgesz, the manager of a kosher bakery in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, said the Hasidim have meticulous requirements to make sure the wheat they use is absolutely kosher for Passover under Jewish dietary laws.

The kosher law is that whenever we start the harvest, it has to be under rabbinical supervision, Porgesz said. Before we start the harvest, we make sure all the combines and all this equipment are clean of any previous grains. We want to make sure its not contaminated with any other grains. The second its harvested, its always going to be under rabbinical supervision.

Hes not a rabbi, but he knows what the rabbis will be looking for and makes sure conditions are ripe for their approval.

I know the rules of whats supposed to be done, he said. The rabbis inspect the grain before its harvested to make sure theres no sprouts and splits.

On Sunday, Sept. 12, two Hasidic rabbis and their driver showed up at the Melvilles farm just outside of Enterprise. Porgesz had been working with the Melvilles all morning using air pressure hoses and vacuums to clean any grain from a previous harvest from the farm equipment.

Samuel flew out yesterday and they had some grain stored in one of our granaries that we cut earlier this fall and he helped us clean everything this morning, Tim Melville said Sept 13. The rabbis just showed up and thats the way it always works.

The previous day, Porgesz and the Melvilles loaded wheat harvested about three weeks earlier into 2,100-pound sacks. They were to be loaded onto a truck 22 sacks and driven to a mill in upstate New York to be turned into flour for the matzah.

Every bag will be sealed and then we seal the truck, Porgesz said. We will check all the seals once it gets to our mill.

Rabbi Joseph G., left, and Brooklyn, New York, bakery Manager Samuel Porgesz examine samples of wheat Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, in a field at Cornerstone Farms near Enterprise. The rabbi was looking for any sign of germination activity that would prevent it from being kosher enough to make matzah at Porgeszs bakery. (Bill Bradshaw/Wallowa County Chieftain)

A bit of a rush

The Hasidim were in a bit of a rush this year. The harvest cycle put a bit of a crunch on them to get done in time for their high holidays. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, was Sept. 6-8, starting their lunar year 5782. Then came Yom Kippur the Day of Atonement just a week later, sundown Sept. 15 to sundown Sept. 16. Less than a week later is Sukkot, when Jews commemorate the ancient Israelites living in tents in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. Its also known as the Feast of Tabernacles or the Feast of Booths for the tents Jews put up in their homes to commemorate how they lived in the desert.

We bake all winter long; we start right after the holidays right after Sukkot and we bake for about six months all the way to the Passover holiday, which will be April 15-23, Porgesz said. Afterwards, we start coming out to all the fields in New Jersey and the East Coast first Virginia, Maryland and Delaware and upstate New York.

Danny Freedman, who drives for the rabbis, said it often can be difficult to comply with the weather and, at the same time, properly mark the holidays.We have to go with mother nature, he said. The holidays (and kosher laws) we cant break.

Kevin Melville, of Cornerstone Farms near Enterprise, left, and Samuel Porgesz, a kosher bakery manager from Brooklyn, New York, examine recently harvested spelt Monday, Sept. 13, 2021. (Bill Bradshaw/Wallowa County Chieftain)

Rabbinic inspection

Porgesz may know what theyre looking for, but its the rabbis who must make the decision on whether the grain is kosher.We have to finish up today because we have a holiday, Freedman said. Yom Kippur is Wednesday but we have to be home before. Not only because of the traveling, its because we dont eat on Yom Kippur. ... We fast from sunset to the following day at nightfall. We do prayers for most of the day.

The rabbi in charge of determining the kosher status of the grain, who preferred to go by Rabbi Joseph G., was the youngest of the three, just in his late 30s. However, hes the son of the grand rabbi and has been studying under his father since childhood.

He has years of experience in this, Rabbi Joseph said, as did his grandfather. He has experience from before World War II in Hungary and Poland, where the large Jewish communities were virtually wiped out in the Holocaust.

Hes still learning now in some stuff, Rabbi Joseph said. Im still learning; theres always time to learn.The main thing (I like) is that it doesnt rain so often in the summer months in the West, he said. Theres the quality, and the (lack of) shrinkage. Our flour quality measures the quality of the wheat. If there was rain during a stage of the wheat, the kernel inside might get core damage. Even if its not sprouted yet, if there was some germination activity when some molecules and starches start to mature and it damages the quality of flour. For the rabbinical, we try to make sure its not past a certain stage (of development) when its ready so its not a problem for us. Usually when there is rain, we see some mechanical, physical or structural damage unto the structure of the wheat and the rabbi will determine if its acceptable or not.

Even a little rainfall can begin the process of the natural yeast leaven starting its activity.We cant determine each kernel, but the rabbis are trained to look at kernels and see if itll be acceptable, he said. I was here three weeks ago and compare the sample that was taken to the lab and see if there was any damage from the rain.

A rainfall of only an hour or so seemed to have doomed one wheat field the Hasidim opted out of.

Tim Melville, of Enterprises Cornerstone Farms, drives a combine harvesting spelt Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, as Rabbi David rides along to ensure nothing that isnt kosher gets caught up in the harvest. (Bill Bradshaw/Wallowa County Chieftain)

Other grains, too

Although they didnt take as much wheat as theyd have liked, the Hasidim did purchase spelt from the Melvilles for the first time. It was also the first time theyd grown the wheat-like crop.

Tim Melville said he wasnt hesitant about giving spelt a first-time try for his Jewish friends.Weve never even seen spelt before, he said with a laugh.

According to healthline.com, spelt declined in popularity in the 19th century, but the ancient grain is making a comeback in popularity as its being considered more healthy than modern grains.Porgesz said spelt is believed to be easier to digest.

We also do a separate line of oat matzah, he said. Its gluten-free; its totally different. We make sure everything is clean and people will see that.

Kevin Melville said the Hasidim dont mix spelt with wheat.

They keep (spelt) completely separate and make matzah, he said. They do some with oats for people who are gluten intolerant. Some people consider spelt an ancient grain.

Likes Wallowa County

Porgesz said that in addition to the grain hes able to obtain, the Melvilles and the county make him keep wanting to come back.

Theyre absolutely magnificent. Cant say anything bad about them, he said of the Melvilles. Whatever we want, they do. Whatever the rabbis want, we go the extra mile to make sure its what they want. Thats why we come all the way from Brooklyn; its very expensive. Thats one of the reasons. Of course, the other reason is it usually doesnt rain out here during the harvest time.

The countryside also impresses him.

I woke up this morning and looked out and saw those mountains, he said. It makes me want to come back every time. The Wallowa Mountains, the lake, sometimes I take a cabin at the lower end of the lake near the tramway.And he finds things here you cant find in Brooklyn.

I have a house but not that kind of grass. (The yard is) only about 10-by-10 feet. Thats all weve got in Brooklyn, he said. Basically, thats why we come is for the high quality and the cooperation.

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Orthodox Hasidic Jews from Brooklyn find specialty wheat in eastern Oregon fits kosher requirements - OregonLive

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