April 19th, 2011
05:00 PM ET
By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
Washington (CNN) – The emails are flooding into Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld’s Washington office from around the world - London, Zurich, New York, Mexico - all with one goal: to have the rabbi sell all the bread products in their homes in time for Passover.
As Passover approaches, orthodox Jews strip their homes of all bread products, called chametz in Hebrew. Cereal, breads, even grain-based alcohol is consumed, destroyed or sold - through a rabbi - to a non-Jewish neighbor.
After Passover, the seller can buy the chametz back. In almost all cases, the bread products never physically change hands but are put away under lock and key in the seller’s home.
Traditionally, the seller fills out a form for the rabbi. This year, Herzfeld decided to embrace the latest technology and, with the help of a member of his congregation, develop mobile apps to accomplish the task.
With just a few taps on “i$ellChametz,” orthodox Jews around the world can appoint the rabbi to sell their chametz. With each request, the app generates an email that lands in the rabbi’s inbox.
Herzfeld has been a rabbi for a decade, much of it at Ohev Shalom, the National Synagogue, an orthodox community of about 300 families in Washington.
“With technology you always have to be looking. Even with religion. You have to try and reach the next generation,” he said. “We wanted to streamline the process to make it easier for people.” Herzfeld developed apps for Android devices as well as the iPhone.
For years Herzfeld had been selling his congregation’s chametz to his neighbor, NPR anchor Michel Martin and her husband, famed attorney Billy Martin.
Typically the sale works this way: The rabbi collects forms from his congregation with the estimated value of their chametz and the location where it will be stored through Passover. Then he meets with his neighbor and they agree to a penny down payment for each family and another penny down payment to rent the space where the chametz is stored.
"When you think about the process, you have to go and see the rabbi,” Herzfeld said. “Now that's not so bad, I love it! And people love it, but people's lives are busy.”
With the app, he said, “it just makes it easier for people to fill out the form.”
Eliezer Templeton, a programmer who belongs to Herzfeld’s synagogue, helped the rabbi by designing the Android app. A firm in Israel created the iPhone version of the app.
"It was a compelling idea so I dropped what I was doing," Templeton said. "We've had downloads from Ukraine, Israel, UK, and that's really, really gratifying. It feels like I've made an impact, and to able to do that for frankly what was not a lot of work was great."
Templeton said it took him about four nights after work to write the code for the Android app. For him it was a lovely diversion from his other programming duties.
“I love designing mobile apps,” he said.
Templeton is storing his chametz in his kitchen in a cabinet under the sink.
“There’s some Chimay [beer], molasses, which I’m mainly concerned about because it’s not certified,” he said as he goes through his cabinet, pointing out obvious bread products and things he is not sure about because they are not certified kosher.
Herzfeld said he usually gets about 200 or more chametz forms from his congregants each year. This year he's gotten dozens more through the app. Some congregants used the app, though most did it the old-fashioned way.
“There's so many barriers to participate in religion,” Herzfeld said. “We want to lower the barrier for entry into the faith.”
As for being the go-between for people across the globe this Passover, he said it’s a job he cherishes.
“I take on the responsibility because there might be someone without access to a rabbi who needs help," he said. "We get some far-flung places, and I want to provide a service for them. It's my mission as a rabbi to help people celebrate Judaism.”
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.