Naomi Baine still remembers her brush with human trafficking. She was about 9 years old, traveling alone to Israel for the first time, with a layover at London’s Heathrow Airport. She found a special room designed for kids, where a single attendant was watching.
Suddenly, a strange man entered the room. He claimed to be picking up his niece and gestured toward Baine. The man didn’t bear any obvious resemblance to her, but he spoke confidently, and the attendant seemed to believe him.
“The only reason that that didn’t work out for him as he intended,” remembers Baine, “was that I was with it enough to say, ‘I have a connecting flight to Israel. I’m not supposed to go home with anyone in England.’ The [attendant] immediately put two and two together and called security, and the man ran off.”
Baine is now 36 years old and a speech-language pathologist. She lives in a cozy ranch house in Pawtucket with her husband, Rabbi Barry Dolinger, also 36, and their two young children. But even all these years later, the threat of being trafficked lingers in her memory. If she hadn’t spoken up, her life might have turned out very differently.
So Baine and Dolinger decided to do something about it: together, they are the founders of Mitzvah Matzos, a “spiritual startup” that is in its fourth year of making and selling matzah.
The organization has been successful, and the matzah supply generally sells out. But you could easily purchase some of this homemade soft matzah for your Passover celebration – and perhaps you have – without paying much attention to its vital mission: to benefit organizations that combat human trafficking.
“We were looking for a way to contribute to children of the future,” says Baine. “Reading about what the correlate to [historic] slavery is, there are tons of children and young adults who are facing modern slavery. So we thought, what better way to provide for people of the future than to help people who don’t have their independence?”
Passover is a natural time to ponder this issue; there are clear thematic ties between modern human trafficking and the enslavement of the Israelites described in Exodus.
But for Rabbi Dolinger and Baine, there were also more personal reasons for baking matzah. Baine’s forefathers established Horowitz Margareten in the 1880s, the first industrial matzah enterprise in the U.S., predating even Kosher giant Manischewitz. The company is no longer a family business, but Baine and her relatives take great pride in their legacy.
Meanwhile, Dolinger, who is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Sholom, in Providence, has long been interested in the matzah tradition.
In rabbinical school, he learned that there are distinct blessings for bread versus crackers, and that the cracker-like matzah receives the blessing for bread. He later discovered why: matzo is bread.
“Matzah, until very recently, was much thicker,” says Dolinger. “It was 3 inches thick for Ashkenazi matzah, and Sephardic matzah sometimes was up to 9 inches thick. Matzah was an unleavened bread, as opposed to a cracker.”
Dolinger says that Mitzvah Matzos was designed to retrace those culinary roots, which he thinks were ripped up by corporate interests and mass production.
Mitzvah Matzos has a corps of volunteers in the kitchen, and retired physician Dr. David Kaplan is the chief baker. The nonprofit partners with about a dozen local organizations for a variety of purposes, from education about human trafficking to financing and sustainable-packaging solutions. Customers can even purchase its flour, branded Flour to Empower, to make their own matzah at home.
The operation has grown, too, despite the pandemic. Baine and Dolinger first tested their community-baking concept in friends’ homes in 2017. Now they are based in the kitchen at Temple Beth-El, in Providence, which they cleanse with boiling water and blowtorches to make Kosher.
Last year, they received 800 orders for matzah; this year, they expect 1,500. And, this year, Dolinger expects to surpass $50,000 in total revenue since Mitzvah Matzos was founded.
Most profits benefit the Nomi Network, a nonprofit based in Brooklyn, New York, that “ends slavery through economic empowerment.”
Forty million is commonly cited as the current number of people around the world who are victims of human trafficking.
“It’s in every state,” says Dolinger. “It’s part of an economic ecosystem. Really, human trafficking exists in industries, and our entire consumer society would collapse but for human trafficking. So, it’s not really an us-and-them. There are bad actors, but we all benefit. It’s a systemic issue.”
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, 143 cases of human trafficking were identified as “high probability” in Rhode Island between 2007 and 2020, with an additional 170 labeled “moderate probability.”
These figures are shaky because of privacy issues and the challenges of proving fraud or coercion. But the existence of human trafficking in Rhode Island is beyond doubt, and much goes unreported. To help address this, Mitzvah Matzos also benefits St. Mary’s Home for Children, in Providence.
Still, the experience of baking and blessing matzah in a kitchen can feel distant from the lived experience of human bondage. That all changed for Dolinger when he was approached by a member of the community.
“Someone came to me and said, ‘You might not know it, but the person I’m living with, it’s not really by choice. I’m being trafficked,’ ” recalls Dolinger. The person went on to describe forced sexual activity and pornographic videotaping, he said.
“That was the first time we met someone who was actively being trafficked. We’ve read a lot about it in books and articles and seminars. We knew about it. And then you see it, and it’s a real person who’s crying. You see how terrifying this is,” he said.
In response, Dolinger and Baine raised money for an academic scholarship, which provided the individual with vocational training. Now, they report, the person has successfully started a new life and is doing well.
“This person was determined to get on their own two feet, but they had nothing,” remembers Dolinger. “This person was tremendous. Most survivors are. They’re heroes.”
To learn more about Mitzvah Matzos go to mitzvahmatzos.org. Most customers who buy matzah from the Mitzvah Matzos website pick up their orders at the Alliance’s Dwares Jewish Community Center, in Providence. But there are also buying clubs scattered across the East Coast, allowing households from Connecticut to New York, and Georgia, to purchase Mitzvah Matzos.
Go to jewishrhody.org to see Baine and Dolinger talk about Mitzvah Matzos and to see the bakers in action.
ROBERT ISENBERG (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the multimedia producer for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and a writer for Jewish Rhode Island.