The Pessah industry

For some, the lead-up to the holiday is a time for frenzied cleaning, while for others, it’s also an opportunity to make a living.

matza passover pessah 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
matza passover pessah 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The DDL Company, a car-wash company in Beit Shemesh, is very clear with customers who opt for the Kosher L’Mehadrin Pessah Car Wash and Detailing offer: DDL cannot be held responsible for any hametz found in the car after the cleaning. The mehadrin Pessah special for large cars costs almost twice as much because it’s much more labor-intensive: at least two workers vacuum the inside of the car for half an hour to get every last crumb, instead of a single worker vacuuming for 15 minutes in the case of a standard car wash.
“People know we don’t take responsibility for the hametz,” says Lila Laloum, the secretary for DDL Company. “We do our best, and if there’s a problem they can bring it back. But hametz is their responsibility to find. People know that.”
As Pessah preparations rise to a fever pitch, many entrepreneurs are taking advantage of the many time-consuming details associated with the holiday to offer a variety of unique services.
To understand the ad hoc economy surrounding Pessah preparations, In Jerusalem trolled community Web sites, message boards and automated phone messages across the city, which many businesses use to market their wares in the weeks before the holiday. It’s impossible to estimate the amount of revenue generated, but this cottage-industry economy thrives in the weeks before the Jewish calendar’s most expensive and complicated holiday.
The Pessah economy is made up primarily of yeshiva students working temporarily and small, private business owners. Yeshiva students and their teachers can take advantage of the month-long break for the month of Nisan to make some extra cash. Private business owners don’t stop their normal jobs, but have more flexibility in their work and can put other projects on the back burner while they focus on more lucrative Pessah-related projects.
Shimon Sivers, 29, studies at a Jerusalem yeshiva during the year and strikes out every Pessah as an independent cleaner. He bags NIS 40 an hour for cleaning, focusing mainly on refrigerators, ovens and floors, and usually cleans about 10 apartments before Pessah. He starts three weeks before the holiday, working about three hours a day, and runs himself ragged the week before Pessah working six or even nine hours of straight cleaning.
“It’s a lot of work to do in a limited amount of time, since it all has to be finished by the afternoon before,” Sivers explains. “People only want it the week before, so it’s hard.”
Scheduling all of the appointments is certainly the biggest challenge facing Pessah businesses, because the customers want to get their cleaning done as late as possible before the start of the holiday, whereas the cleaners want to maximize profits by chalking up as many houses as possible.
To avoid the scheduling headache, many students opt to work for one of the many cleaning companies that spring up around Pessah and exclusively employ yeshiva students.
“Yeshiva students are cheaper [than professional cleaners],” says Yisroel Zuckerman, who has run A-Z Pessah Cleaning in Neveh Ya’acov and the greater Beit Shemesh area for five years. “They’re good, frum [religiously observant] boys who know what this is all about. There’s a shortage of cleaning people during Pessah time, and yeshiva students fill that void.”
Zuckerman, who works as a Gemara tutor during the year at a local yeshiva, books about 200 jobs for 30 boys during a normal season, though last year was significantly reduced because of the recession. He charges NIS 40 an hour, and pays his student-workers at least NIS 30.
“I don’t even make that much money from it,” Zuckerman says. “I really did it because everyone says how expensive Pessah is, so I try to charge a little less for the families. And when I was a yeshiva student, I felt insulted, because the guy I was working for was paying very little. I noticed every year he raised his prices but I didn’t get any additional money.”
While Zuckerman rarely cleans anymore himself, overseeing that many jobs so close to the Pessah deadline is “a very harrowing, intense experience,” he says. “It requires a tremendous amount of time to schedule, you have to live by the telephone. People are calling all day long, and while I’m on the phone with one person telling them how everything works, there’ll be two or three beeps.”
Zuckerman provides a Pessah-cleaning boot camp before he sends his boys out to into the field, teaching the mostly Anglo-born students how to mop the floor Israeli-style and clean local ovens, which differ from American models in their construction. Though the yeshiva students have less experience than professional cleaners, most customers prefer them for their Pessah cleaning.
“They know it’s serious business,” explains Zuckerman. “A cleaning lady who’s not frum will say, ‘I cleaned it, what’s the big deal?’... Since the yeshiva students know hametz is a big deal, especially in the kitchen area, they apply themselves well.”
The main tasks are the refrigerator and stove. Properly cleaning these appliances, including dismantling refrigerator shelves and running self-cleaning cycles on the oven in between scrubbings, can take four hours.
Some yeshiva students who have had enough of the cleaning scene move on to pre-Pessah painting instead, as some people want a fresh coat of paint for Pessah. New paint has no halachic basis but lends a sparkling clean atmosphere to the entire apartment that adds to the spirit of the holiday. Yeshiva students charge the same for painting jobs – NIS 35 to NIS 40 an hour per person — though most work independently because the demand is less.
“It’s not so nice to go into a house, I feel like a cleaning worker,” says Shmuel Cohen, a yeshiva student from Jerusalem who has organized five of his friends into a group that offers their cleaning services to businesses. “But when we do this next year, we’re switching to painting. The work is easier.”
CLEANING IS just one of many pre-Pessah enterprises. Another major industry driving the economy is matza production. When Jerusalem residents are running frantically to get everything done before the holiday, it feels almost calm inside the Yehuda Matzos factory in Givat Shaul. The efficient choreography of the workers is timed precisely to accommodate the 18-minute matza-making cycle so that not a single moment or movement is wasted. The factory capacity is 40 tons of matza a day, with 140 workers divided into three shifts, working day and night since Hanukka.
“We work around the clock,” says Michael Kandel, the quality assurance manager at Yehuda Matzos, an industry stalwart since 1921. “We turn on the oven at 10 p.m. after Shabbat and turn it off at noon on Fridays.”
As packages of plastic-wrapped matza are placed by hand in cardboard boxes and sealed, one worker listening to an ancient Walkman belts out a hassidic tune, and a few others join in, while the non-Jewish workers smile, heads bopping to their own ethnic beats. From Hanukka through Pessah, Yehuda Matzos, one of the country’s largest matza factories, provides an extra 100 jobs for Jerusalem factory workers.
The company advertises in local newspapers, but mostly relies on word of mouth, recruiting workers who come back for matza season every year. Many of the temporary workers are older Russian retirees, who supplement their pension with the seasonal work.
Most of the non-retirees are between jobs, though a few, like Shmuel Stark, have been coming back for years. Stark estimates this is his 25th year at the factory as a seasonal worker, give or take a few. It’s hard for him to tear himself away from the machines, he’s so in tune with the rhythm. He only talks in 30-second snatches as he strides from the mixer to the conveyor belt and back. Stark won’t reveal what he does during the rest of the year, but he acknowledges there’s an upside to having a temporary job that he returns to each year.
“I can look forward to finishing,” he says.
In contrast to the highly mechanized operation at the Yehuda Matzos factory are the matza havurot, groups of mostly haredi men who gather to bake their own matza. Because each step of the process must be watched carefully to ensure that not even a speck of dough stays on the machine longer than the allotted 18 minutes, the matza-baking teams employ seasonal workers to increase the number of observers during the two-month “shmura matza season” before Pessah.
Many of the seasonal workers study at kollelim during the rest of the year and earn a substantial portion of their annual income baking matzot with baking teams. After the matza season ends, these workers often move on to jobs in the etrog industry or any of the Four Species required for Succot, continuing to work seasonal jobs in religious industries.
CLEANING AND matza production are by far the largest sectors of the pre-Pessah economy, but many smaller niche businesses have sprung up around the holiday as well. Some offer added convenience for stressed household heads who need an extra hand, while others appeal to more observant families always searching for a more stringent way to hametz-proof their homes.
For most of the year, Chaim Gamliel, an immigrant from Toronto who lives in Beit Shemesh, runs a window tinting business called Made in the Shade. But for the past five years, Gamliel has dedicated the last few days before Pessah to his second trade: professionally installing thin sheet metal to cover counter tops, ovens, and refrigerators. Outfitting the kitchen starts at NIS 400, and the price tag increases with the size of the kitchen. Gamliel insists that his service is “not necessarily a luxury,” although there is no absolute halachic requirement to cover all kitchen surfaces.
“People go out of their way for Pessah,” he says. “It’s a nice thing that people want done in their kitchens, and it makes cleaning for Pessah less of a headache.”
Because installing the foil-like material is the last step in kashering a kitchen for Pessah, Gamliel can only work for two or three days before the holiday. His maximum is 10 customers, because of the time constraints.
Other small business owners, like the DDL car wash company’s mehadrin car washes, adapt their full-time businesses for Pessah services.
PC Integrity, a Jerusalem- and Beit Shemesh-area business owned by Reuven and Sheila Schwartz, says its computer Pessah cleaning special deal is “part shtick and part not.”
“I’ve found hametz inside computers,” says Sheila Schwartz. “Kids put Cheerios in the DVD drive and they fall inside. Once we found a live animal in someone’s desktop [computer].”
In addition to running malware and antivirus systems to make sure the software on the computer is clean, they will physically clean desktop computers by opening them up and blowing the dust out, or using concentrated air streams to clean laptops.
“People tend to run their machines into the ground and they don’t think about cleaning them,” Schwartz explains. “But Pessah is a time when people think about what they can do, and it’s a sort of spring cleaning.”
This is the fifth year PC Integrity has run the Pessah special, and they clean about 13 computers a week during the advertising blitz.
Sometimes good Pessah business ideas turn into full-time ventures. Five years ago, London native Judith Gerzi helped a new neighbor in Ramat Shiloh with his Pessah catering business after he suffered a car accident and needed a partner. She’s offered Pessah catering every year since then.
Cooking runs in her family – her father started Southcrest Catering in London – but Gerzi’s lack of formal training didn’t prevent her from turning a successful Pessah catering idea into a full-time business called Gourmet Catering.
“For Pessah, people are so stressed and so focused on cleaning that when they suddenly come up to the cooking part, they say, ‘Oh no! I don’t have enough time!’” she explains.
Before Pessah, Gerzi plans to bake 40 to 45 cakes in addition to her dessert specialty, meringue baskets with a hollow for ice cream or mousse. This will be a light year, focusing on desserts, since Gerzi gave birth recently. During a busy year, when she pulls in around NIS 15,000 for main courses and desserts, she bakes until 4 a.m. during the days before the Seder.
PESSAH GENERATES so many small, temporary businesses because the activity surrounding the holiday is so specific and intense, according to Hebrew University economics professor David Genesove.
“It’s an activity very specialized to that time of year, an activity that does not have a lot of benefit for creating a company,” he says. “If they’re only working for a few days a year, no one’s going to go through the trouble of incorporating.
“It’s certainly the case in any culture, surrounding any holiday there’s likely to be a temporary increase in the number of small, one-person businesses,” he adds.
He’s “not at all surprised” by the large number of businesses or the narrow scope of their business plan.
“People who celebrate Pessah have these particular needs that create and bring out these businesses,” says Genesove.
But because many of these businesses offer luxury services they are heavily influenced by economic trends. All Pessah business owners reported that last year was at least one-third less lucrative than previous years, as families looked for ways to save money during this notoriously expensive holiday.
Many of these Pessah-related businesses are especially prevalent in communities with high percentages of Anglo immigrants. Beit Shemesh, a veritable hub of Pessah businesses, boasts at least 15 cleaning crews and 30 individual cleaners on its English-language listserv. Jerusalem’s popular Janglo site has 20 individual cleaners.
“Americans like convenience more than Israelis. That’s the way we’re brought up,” says Yaakov Radonsky, a full-time broker who created the 10 Plagues Kit for children, which is sold in bookstores as a fun complement to the Seder. “The businesses are there to make things easier, because the adjustment from America or England is difficult... people come up with all sorts of ideas to try to lighten the load and try to make it a bit easier for people.”
There’s also a tendency to think that more money spent on cleaning means a more kosher Pessah.
“There may be no halachic basis for having separate dairy and meat refrigerators, but people who have sufficient income might do that because it gives them a feeling of greater religiousness,” Genesove explains. “Religiousness is something you purchase like anything else.”
Yisroel Zuckerman, owner of the cleaning company, takes a different tack: he believes Pessah businesses are popular among immigrants because they don’t have a family support network to lean on for help.
“A lot of our business is for younger couples, where it’s just them and their small kids, and they need help because they’re new,” he says. “Older families have teenage kids to do the cleaning. [Veteran Israelis] can take a sibling or two from their parents to give them a hand.”
Pessah is an expensive holiday, and many families feel the strain on their wallets doesn’t end with the Seder and other basic preparations. Pessah-related business owners agree it’s the most costly holiday, with Succot rating a distant second. This financial toll is evident in haredi neighborhoods, where brightly decorated vans roll slowly through the streets with a bullhorn, offering free vegetables, matza, meat or other Pessah foods to try to offset the costs surrounding the holiday. Kimcha D’pis’ha, which operates around Geula, is just one of more than 15 operations that connect between business owners with surpluses and neighborhoods where residents struggle to pay for the holiday.
The clothes, shoes, cleaning supplies, dishes, pots, food, and “everything to get into the holiday spirit,” add up to at least NIS 3,000 for Hagit Sadeh, a young mother of two from Jerusalem. And that’s without help from any of the Pessah businesses. She does all the cleaning herself.
“It’s expensive, but praise God, someone who is a believer will have faith that God sends what you need,” she says.
Other families have trouble putting a figure on their Pessah bill, but everyone estimates in the thousands of shekels, generally falling between NIS 3,000 and NIS 5,000 per family.
The spirit of the holiday is often lost in the financial stress and cleaning-induced stress, but it doesn’t have to be that way, business owners explain.
“You don’t need to clean out the toilet for Pessah, and you don’t need to clean out the closet,” says Zuckerman. As a man who runs a cleaning business, his words of advice seem especially honest. “You’re not going to find hametz in random places, unless you have small children. OK, so last year I saw my son putting a pretzel stick into a keyhole. But people think teeny crumbs under the couch are an issue, and halachically it’s not an issue.”
He acknowledges that hametz in the kitchen is a completely different matter, because “hametz messes up food to the nth degree.”
That concern spans the vast majority of Pessah-related businesses, fromcleaners to caterers to professional aluminum-foil installers. ButZuckerman has words of advice for those overwhelmed by the Pessahpreparations: take advantage of businesses that make your lives easier,relax and enjoy the season.
“People drive themselves nuts,” he says. “And its a shame because they don’t need to.”