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november / december 2006:

Matzah communion
We may be months away from Passover, but matzah companies like Streits are finding new sources of income - communion wafers. Praise the lord.

By Menachem Wecker

It is a typical Sunday morning at the Downtown Church of Christ in Searcy, Arkansas. As the services come to a close, the congregants all meander down the main aisle to receive their communion - a sip of grape wine and a tiny wafer. It is an age-old tradition commemorating the blood and body of Christ which has its venerable origins in Jesus' infamous Last Supper.

Without a doubt, it’s a holy and auspicious time for any God-fearing Christian. Yet, and this part will surprise you, it’s also a time a Jew may not feel so out of place. Because, as we found out, many churches across America are using a familiar product to service their wafer needs — Streits matzah.

Yes, we see the in-your-face irony here. A Jewish company is profiting from Jesus. The world has seen stranger things.

According to Dennis Kelly, president of Bible House, Streits has supplied his Arkansas-based Christian bookstore with matzahs for more than 15 years. Bible House, which employs 12 workers and functions as the L.L. Bean of Christian mail-order companies, sells the matzahs to more than 1,000 Protestant churches across the country in places like Dallas and Oklahoma City for use as Eucharist wafers. According to Kelly’s count, Bible House sells approximately 2,000 boxes of matzahs per year, a figure he thinks will increase now that his shop has a functioning website.

On average, the houses of worship that Bible House services (including Churches of Christ, Baptist churches, and Assemblies of God) buy about five boxes at a time, but larger churches will order by the case (24 boxes). That’s a lot of bread of affliction. Kelly estimates that five boxes would amount to a six month’s supply for most churches, where the wafers would be broken into six or seven pieces and scattered onto three or four bread trays.

On the Bible House website, an 11 ounce box of “Communion Bread” — an image shows a box of Streits matzahs, unsalted — sells for $2.99, which is “preferred by most churches” and a “much better value than a Manischewitz 10 ounce box,” according to the site. Bible House also lists a half case (12 boxes) of communion bread at $34.68, and a case priced at $67.20. Bible House advertises that each of the cases “Keeps well in freezer.”

I told Kelly that Jews often joke about matzah’s cardboard qualities which allow it to stay “fresh” forever. Kelly says he only first heard of freezing matzah from a customer who purchased a large order. “Since then I’ve heard from several others that they also freeze it, so I now explain in our advertising that it can be done,” he explains. “Look, you can’t make matzah any worse by freezing it.”

Believe it or not, Alan Adler, the director of operations at Streits and great-grandson of the company’s founder, isn’t new to the Christian market. The 55-year-old Manhattan native, has received numerous calls and e-mails from Bible Belt consumers asking about Streits products. “They are generally looking for bible bread or unleavened bread,” he says. “They don’t understand the difference between Passover and year round matzah and frequently ask about it.”

Although Streits has not made a concerted effort to specifically go after the communion market, Adler’s been discussing such a program. “I have an old message on my voicemail from a Baptist boy in Laurel, Mississippi, looking for our matzah balls ‘to celebrate Passover for my lord and savior Jesus Christ’,” Adler recalls. “He wanted to ‘try the Jewish tradition and the kosher food, but I can’t find it around here in Mississippi’.”

Adler kindly explains to his non-Jewish customers that Passover matzahs are not allowed to bake longer than 18 minutes. The churches, who are more interested in unleavened bread that was eaten in biblical times, tend to purchase the year round kind — which is cheaper. When asked if he knew what his product was being used for, Adler simply replied, “I think they use it in religious services but I am not sure exactly how.”

He should ask Bible House’s Kelly who explains that most of the matzahs are used in communion, while a small quantity is used for — get this — church seders, which “demonstrate what Jewish life was like in bible times.”

The idea of a church seder is actually not that far-fetched. The tradition in some churches also stems from Jesus’ Last Supper. “Many understand that meal to have been a Passover seder,” explains Philip Cunningham, executive director of the Boston College Center for Christian-Jewish Learning in Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Cunningham says that he thinks only a few churches have imitation seders that involve communion. “The vast majority of communion services are understood to be the ‘new Passover’ of Jesus or Jesus’ Passover. Perhaps some bible-based, non-sacramental churches have seders based on modern haggadot in which they include their rare celebrations of communion, but that would be a tiny minority of all Christian communion services.” Cunningham adds that some Catholics are interested in educational seders, but the bishops urge them to experience these seders with Jewish friends or synagogue congregations as “model” seders or as ways to foster Christian-Jewish relations. “They are not substitutes for Christian liturgy.”

But any church buying matzahs from Bible House will read “Not for Passover use” on the side of the box, which leads some churches to worry that the caveat means “Not for Lord’s Supper use.” Because of the warning, Kelly is sure “some of my ultra-conservative brethren” won’t use the matzahs. Others refuse to use the matzah because it has oil in it. “Somehow it has been drilled into their heads that ‘unleavened’ means just flour and water.”

Instead of arguing, Kelly points them to passages in Leviticus and Numbers for the recipe, which does include oil.

Although it is the favorite of Bible House, Streits is hardly the only matzah-communion gig in town. Kelly originally bought matzahs from Manischewitz, but he says Streits has “a little more in the box and it costs less.” Bible House also sells unleavened bread baked specifically for the Lord’s Supper by a number of companies, including one with the unlikely name of S&M Communion Bread.

“We have always treated Manischewitz like a step child,” Kelly says. “We only used them when we couldn’t get the product from Streits.” This lack of availability of Streits products tends to arise around the high volume times of Easter and Passover, when Streits suspends production of the non-kosher matzahs in order to concentrate on kosher ones.

Kelly says that neither Streits nor Manischewitz pursues retailers like himself, instead preferring to use distributors. But Bible House orders such large amounts — about $2000 at a time — that Streits seems happy to have them as an account.

Deborah Ross, who works in the consumer affairs department of R.A.B. Food Group which distributes Manischewitz, confirmed that Manischewitz sells matzahs to churches (she wouldn’t say which ones), but she said that people who buy matzah for churches generally purchase only small amounts.

Some matzah factories, like Jerusalem-based Yehuda Matzahs which has been selling unleavened bread since 1921, do not sell to churches at all.

Matzahs are not the only ritual products that Jews have managed to export to their Christian brethren. Bible House, for example, has also fielded requests for shofars. Kelly thinks the interest in shofars derives mostly from Francine Rivers’ recent novel about a young minister who tries to save a small church in central California. The name of the book? And the Shofar Blew.

Kelly remembers at one of the trade shows of the Christian Book Association — the organization for the retail market which services nearly 2,300 member Christian stores — someone in a Jewish-Christian exhibit kept blowing a shofar for the entire four-day event. “You could hear it everywhere in the two football field size convention floor,” Kelly recalls.

“I think shofar use would be most likely among free-standing evangelical congregations,” Cunningham says. “Such use would happen rarely if ever in high-liturgical churches which follow rubrics that would discourage the practice.”

Despite the irony that medieval Christians accused Jews of baking Christian babies into their matzahs, churches now buy matzahs from Jewish bakers without much hesitation. “In fact,” Kelly adds, “I would guess that Christianity has the least anti-Semitism of any segment of our society.”

To Kelly, there is a “kindred spirit” between Christians and Jews, “mainly because of the biblical history.”

Although in New Testament times there seemed to be a “mini war” between Christians and Jews, Kelly now sees the friendship between the United States and Israel as proof that the two faiths have reconciled their differences. “I don’t know of any brother who has any negative feelings about using matzahs for the Lord’s Supper. I also don’t know of any brother who wasn’t on the side of Israel in the war in Lebanon.”

Regardless of Mideast politics, churches like the Downtown Church of Christ in Searcy feel just fine mixing their matzah with their faith.

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