Today’s news:

City agencies get behind religious bonfires

In Orthodox Jewish sections of Brooklyn, an ancient and potentially dangerous Passover tradition will continue next Wednesday with the “blessing” of city agencies.

Each year on the morning of the day before Passover, observant Jews throw bread into bonfires in a ritual designed to ensure that bread is eradicated from their houses.  Bread and all “chometz,” or fermented grains, are forbidden on Passover in commemoration of the Jews’ exodus from slavery, when they did not have time to wait for their bread to leaven while fleeing their Egyptian captors.

This year, there will be around 40 bonfires set up at select locations in Borough Park and another 20 in Williamsburg.  The bonfires will be barricaded by the Police Department, and volunteers from various religious-based volunteer organizations will communicate by radio with the Fire Department to ensure safety.

In addition, the Department of Sanitation will allocate extra resources to make sure trash that contains bread is picked up and taken away in time for Passover.  After the burning, the Department of Sanitation will clean up after the fires. 

The ceremony begins at 8 a.m., and all bread must be extinguished by 11:41, a.m., in accordance with Jewish law mandating that nary a trace of bread be present a certain number of hours after sunrise.

The Orthodox community in Williamsburg has partnered with the city for the past several Passovers, but Borough Park is only doing so for the second time.  Three years ago, 14 people, mostly children, were injured as a result of the blazes.  This compelled community leadership to take measures to make the ritual safer.

“We’ve seen burns decrease drastically — last year, we didn’t have any burns.  It’s terrible to have families suffer because of this for the holidays,” said Simcha Bernhat, the coordinator and police liaison with the Borough Park Shomrim, the local safety patrol.

In addition to the Shomrim, two other local volunteer groups will assist in both Williamsburg and Borough Park: the Chaveirim, a group of handymen and problem solvers, and the Hetzoloh, the first aid organization.

The night before the bread burning, tradition calls for children of every household to scatter 10 pieces of bread throughout the house.  The head of the house is then dispatched to find the bread, with the logic that he will thoroughly search every corner of the house to discover any stray crumbs.  It is these 10 pieces of bread that go into the bonfire the next day.

Community Board 12 cooperated in ensuring the day would go as safely as possible.

“Although we can’t sanction fires as a city agency, we’re cooperating with this so it can be as safe as possible,” said District Manager Wolf Sender.

The same goes for the Fire Department, who make an exception to condone the setting of fires so long as it is regulated.

“We work with communities where there are religious observances,” said FDNY spokesman Frank Dwyer. “We’re just there to make sure things go smoothly and nobody gets hurt.”

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