The small group sitting around a fifth-floor apartment in the retirement community chatted and laughed as they shared long-ago Passover memories.
Sitting among them was Rabbi Alter Korf, a young father of eight, whose mission this day was to deliver matzah — a centerpiece of the Passover Seder — to each of the elderly Jewish men and women gathered in the Freedom Square complex.
As Korf spoke about the shmurah matzah he had brought — a large handmade, flat, round version of the unleavened bread eaten during the eight-day Passover holiday — his listeners interjected their thoughts and questions.
For Dan Marshlack, 84, who was born in Israel, it was an interesting session.
"As a matter of fact, I learned some new stuff," he said later, adding that he had not been brought up in a religious family and was familiar only with machine-made matzah.
Korf, who runs the Chabad Jewish Center of Greater St. Petersburg with his wife, Chaya, explained that the wheat for shmurah matzah is carefully supervised from the time of harvest. The strict observation continues through baking — shmurah means "watched" — to make sure it does not rise and so adheres to the prohibition against leavened products during Passover.
"Shmurah matzah is made just like the Jews did in Egypt, made by hand, and particular care is given to ensure that it is made to the highest standard," Korf said. "Therefore, for at least the Seder night, we try our best to have shmurah matzah."
Korf's center offers the Passover specialty at $20 a pound, but also gives it away. This year, the Chabad center distributed 700 packages. A few days ago, Korf made a delivery to St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.
"Every person is important, and we want every person to have at least one authentic handmade shmurah matzah for the Seder, especially for some who may have a harder time getting to a Seder," Korf said. "We want them to know that somebody is thinking of them."
Korf's deliveries stem from a global outreach effort launched decades ago by the late Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the seventh leader of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, a sect of the Hasidic (pious) branch of Orthodox Judaism headquartered in Brooklyn's Crown Heights section.
Passover, which begins at sundown today, commemorates the Israelites' escape from slavery in Egypt. Preparation includes thorough cleaning to remove leavened products and shopping for foods that are "kosher for Passover." The Seder, supposed to begin after sundown, will start much earlier at Freedom Square. The ritual meal features symbolic foods such as matzah and a retelling of the Passover story from the Haggadah, or service text. Matzah is a reminder of the bread the Israelites ate when they fled Egypt and there was no time for the dough to rise.
Almost two weeks before the holiday, Korf delivered sealed plastic bags of shmurah matzah to those gathered in Edith Kaplan's Freedom Square apartment.
"I have never used them. I buy matzah at Publix or wherever," said Kaplan, 87, who used to work at the World Trade Center as a stock broker and grew up in a traditional Jewish home.
She recalled rigorous preparations for Passover.
"My parents would clean our home. We would change our dishes. The barrels were taken down from the attic with all the Passover stuff in them," she said. "It's a humongous job."
Phyllis Birnbaum, 85, was born in Brooklyn and lived in New Jersey before moving to Florida in 1972.
"It brought back a lot of memories," she said, noting that they always had shmurah matzah. "It was just nice to talk about it."
This Passover, according to Korf, more than 1 million pounds of shmurah matzah will be sold in North America. Korf buys most of his from Israel and Ukraine. The European factory had been closed under communist rule, but was reopened by Chabad emissaries, he said. Now it's shipping shmurah matzah all over the world.
"It's a beautiful example of a modern-day redemption, if you will, a turning of darkness to light," he said.
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.