Park pans Passover bread-tossing — a tradition Jews say doesn’t exist

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Photo by Stefano Giovannini

Prospect Park officials are urging Jews to stop throwing bread into the green space’s massive lake as a Passover rite, but religious Brooklynites insist that’s not even part of their holiday tradition.

The Prospect Park Alliance sent out a press release earlier this month warning Jews that waterfowl suffer when the observant use the park’s 60-acre lake as a place to toss chametz — leavened breads that cannot be consumed or kept in the house during the eight-day holiday.

“For many years people have brought chametz to Prospect Park to throw into the lake to feed the waterfowl,” the release reads. “While this is done with the best of intentions, feeding the waterfowl can be very harmful to them.”

But Jewish community leaders across the borough say they have never heard of anyone disposing chametz into a body of water — instead they say that on March 25, the morning of the first Passover seder, Jews will take part in a thousand-year-old tradition by symbolically and communally burning their leftover chametz outside either their homes or synagogues.

“For Passover nobody drops the chametz into the lake. That is totally untrue,” said Gary Schlesinger, the executive director of the Williamsburg-based United Jewish Community Advocacy Relations and Enrichment organization, who added that he takes offense to the Prospect Park Alliance’s singling out of the Jewish community as a whole.

“The press release doesn’t say it’s just a couple of people,” said Schlesinger who has called upon the Alliance to retract the “appalling” release.

Schlesinger and other Jewish leaders suspect that the Prospect Park Alliance is mistaking Passover with the Jewish ritual of tashlich — a custom in which Jews gather by bodies of water to toss bread crusts in a symbolic cleansing ceremony.

But tashlich is generally performed on the first day of Rosh Hashanah before Yom Kippur in the early fall — roughly six months from now.

“They don’t have their facts straight,” said Chanina Sperlin, the executive vice chairman of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council. “They should learn the customs of the Jewish community. Nobody is throwing any bread of food or any such items into the water before Passover.”

Prospect Park Alliance spokesman Paul Nelson said that he is certain his organization did not mix up the holidays — and that bread-tossing is a real concern for park birds.

“We know about the religious ceremony right before Yom Kippur. That’s not the issue,” said Nelson. “We have observed for years people bringing bread to the park right before Passover. It’s not one neighborhood or one branch of Judaism. It’s not an organized process or one group. That’s why we’re trying to get the word out to as many different places as possible.”

Nelson said that the Alliance has installed eight additional Dumpsters in the park in hopes visitors will choose to trash their chametz instead of throwing it into the lake.

But Columbia University Jewish history professor Elisheva Carlebach says anyone using Dumpsters or burying chametz at sea is not following religious law, which requires fermented grain products be consumed, given away, or burnt.

“It’s completely possible that such a thing happened and that there may be some individuals who are on their own dumping stuff in the lake, which they shouldn’t, but it has got nothing to do with the Jewish tradition and nothing to do with the Jewish community,” she said. “That is not the proper way to dispose of chametz.”

Reach reporter Natalie Musumeci at nmusumeci@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505. Follow her at twitter.com/souleddout.