Most of the year, Rabbi Eli Strasberg, director of the Chabad Jewish Center of Delaware County, looks like your typical Lubavitcher: black hat, black coat, long beard, tzitzit out.
But during the weeks leading up to Passover, Strasberg, 29, also outfits himself in a crisp white apron and puffy chef's hat.
That's because the Philadelphia native and father of three runs matzah-making demonstrations — or "model matzah bakeries" — for Jewish children all over the region.
During these presentations — which Strasberg gives in Hebrew schools, Chabad centers and even at local shopping malls — the rabbi uses portable equipment like a small cereal mill and "brick" oven to assist him in producing fresh sheets of unleavened bread.
But the rabbi's demonstrations represent more than just culinary wizardry; they're also a vehicle for teaching young Jews about the holiday.
Last week at the Lubavitch Center in Northeast Philadelphia, for example, Strasberg recounted the exodus from Egypt as he ground wheat, sifted flour and kneaded dough.
Preschoolers squealed with delight as the rabbi quizzed them on Passover trivia ("Was there a ShopRite in the middle of the desert?" he jested) and explained that matzah must be made hastily — echoing those who fled Egypt — since dough begins to rise after 18 minutes.
'The Matzah Man'
Strasberg, who introduced himself as "the matzah man," said that he's a huge proponent of this kind of interactive education, and he's been putting it into practice for three years now.
In fact, in addition to matzah-making, the rabbi offers child-friendly workshops at Rosh Hashanah (dubbed "a shofar factory") and Chanukah (when he uses an olive-oil press to make authentic oil to burn in the chanukiahs). He also teaches how to make braided candles for use in the Havdalah service.
"When you make it exciting and you make it hands-on, I know for a fact it leaves an impression. This really shapes the kids interests in Judaism for the future," he insisted.
Strasberg, a native of Northeast Philadelphia, said that he remembers attending such local workshops when he was growing up.
After graduating from Politz Hebrew Academy, he studied at yeshivot in New York and England.
He said that he was inspired to become a rabbi by the example of late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
"The way the rebbe felt about reaching out — I saw a role model in that," said Strasberg. "There are so many different types of [practicing] Jews out there. We'll do anything and everything to reach people on their level."
Strasberg's family is involved in the process as well: Rivkie, the rabbi's wife, runs a women's circle, while their two older sons — they have three: Yankele, 4; Menachem, 3; and Meir, 1 — often serve as assistants during the matzah-making shows.
The rabbi said the need for such programming is especially great in Delaware County, where he said that "there are plenty of Jews, but not much sense of a community."
The county has its fair share of synagogues, but geographically, families remain separated by the various suburbs.
Strasberg said that while he doesn't expect the mainly Reform and Conservative Jews there to suddenly become Orthodox, he can provide knowledge, serving as a resource to help "create excitement around Judaism."
"Being Jewish isn't just about eating brisket and getting Bar Mitzvahed," he explained. "It's something that brings meaning and purpose to people's lives."