Q&A: Squeezing Out the Last Drop of Olive Oil for Your Menorah

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Colorado Rabbi Yisroel Engel, 57, has been showing kids how pressing olive oil for almost 30 years now. He started back in 1986; after running successful Passover matzah-bakery and High Holiday shofar-factory programs, he decided to branch out to a different kind of activity during Chanukah time.

“I saw how excited the kids—and their parents—were from a hands-on project; they loved it! I was looking to do something interactive.”

An idea hit him: olives. He would show children how oil is made from olives. Better yet, he would have the children do the pressing themselves.

The rabbi (originally from Montreal) and his wife, Leah (from Brooklyn, N.Y.), the parents of 12, started their shlichus in Denver in 1982. They run Chabad-Lubavitch of Colorado and the full-service Bais Menachem shul, which sit in the heart of Colorado, one of 16 Chabad centers in the state. Theirs lies in a Jewishly populated area, complete with a mikvah, day schools, an eruv and other foundations of Jewish life.

Q: What is your target audience for the olive-oil press workshops?

A: Every Jew who moves. The typical group consists of 30 to 40 kids, and a few teachers and other adults. But I’m really directed towards the kids. Children who see this, many of them come from homes where their families don’t light candles (yet!). Those who do light are usually not familiar with the role of olive oil, so this is an exciting foundation for teaching them the meaning of Chanukah. I describe the story of Chanukah, leading up to the miracle of the oil. The kids get all excited, and we are then ready to begin the “pressing” issue.

Q: Beginning with the basics, what do you need to produce oil from olives?

A: You need three items: olives, a wine press and a centrifuge. I’m on my third press; we had one that was so well-used that it actually stopped working (may it rest in peace). The olives come from California—the seasonal timing is just right—courtesy of the Olive Growers Council, headed by Adin Hester. He was so excited about the prospect that the first year that he had them cut and shipped to Denver as a favor—an entire case of olives, no less. They were perfect. They are not the ones you purchase in stores; these are raw, bitter and inedible. Once, a preschool teacher tried one at an event (“Oh please, how bitter can they be?”) and I still remember the look on her face; she recoiled! Adin Hester continues to ship olives to “Chanukah Factory” workshops everywhere.

Q: Once you have the olives in hand, what then?

A: The volunteers love taking the olives and running them through a wine press, turning the handle to crush the olives and then “catching” the oil. Actually, it’s not pure oil at this point; it’s a purplish juice that’s extremely oily. Then we pour the juice into two large test tubes, gently insert them in the centrifuge, and let it run and spin. After a few moments, we pull out the test tubes and see that it has separated into three gradations. There are dark, thick sediments on the bottom; moderate mush in the middle; and on top, there’s a beautiful layer of clear oil—pristine and yellow, similar to what you would get in a store. The presentation produces about one-fifth of a cup of oil.

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Kids enjoy the hands-on nature of the workshops, where they get to see the olives, turn the handle of the wine press and “catch” the oil as it flows out.

Q: And after that?

A: Into the Chanukah menorah it goes, and I ask the children: “Do you think it’s good to light?” Most kids say yes; some say no. Then, I light it. It’s quite dramatic. Seeing that a little wick can light is in itself a novelty to them. It’s a powerful program. I complement the program with candle-making. Using beeswax, the kids take six-inch wicks and walk around a table, dipping them into the heated wax; they do this while the centrifuge spins. In about five minutes, they get a beautiful beeswax candle that they can take home. I encourage them to use it for the shamash (the helper candle from which the others are lit). They also receive dreidels and brochures with the Chanukah blessings.

Q: What kinds of questions do the kids ask?

A: I was presenting a workshop at a Jewish Community Center, and a little boy, no more than 6 years old, a spunky little boy, asks: “Rabbi, are you Jewish?” And he meant it in all sincerity. I tell him: “Yes, I’m Jewish.” Later, the teacher explained that it was an interesting question. The boy was used to seeing other people with tools—the janitor, the maintenance man—who were not Jewish, and here he saw me working with all these tools. These kids make interesting connections; they are so impressionable. Here are some examples of questions they’ve asked over the years: How did they use a centrifuge back in the olden days when there was no electricity? How many olives does it take to make enough oil? Can you make latkes with the centrifuge? Did they stamp the olives with their feet to get the oil—and did they wash their feet first? Was Judah Maccabee a rabbi? And perhaps, the most common one: Is your beard real?

Q: You’ve been presenting the olive-oil press workshop for a while now? When did it really take off?

A: I started in 1986. The second year, at the Kinus Hashluchim (the annual International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries in New York), I spoke to different shluchim and gave a workshop. More and more rabbis started doing it, and then it spread geometrically with Tzivos Hashem (Chabad’s children’s organization) promoting it. Here in Denver, the “Chanukah Factory” workshops are presented during the week for schools and on Sundays for the community, with private demonstrations sometimes held in the evenings. Between 1,000 and 1,500 children participate every year. A letter is sent to principals, youth-group directors and community centers, and voilà: the phone starts ringing off the hook. From preschools to Talmud Torahs, day schools to birthday parties, and Girls Scouts to Boy Scouts, it’s very well-received.

Q: What is it about the holiday of Chanukah that makes this so appealing for all?

A: Chanukah is very popular; it’s a family-oriented experience, with the children getting gelt (coins) and presents. A person who is not yet doing mitzvahs will still seek a menorah to light. People feel that it’s a special time of joy and celebration; everyone wants to do something for Chanukah on some level. It goes back to the miracle of the oil, and the miracle of the oil is the miracle of our existence. Officially, when the Jews were confronted with lighting the menorah without sufficient pure oil, they would have been allowed to use the impure oil. But they refused to relent; they were determined to find the oil. It wasn’t a question of “‘if,” but “where.” They were reaching for the top, and G‑d rewarded them with the oil—the oil that now illuminates the darkness around the world.

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Examining gradations of the oil back in 1988, and holding up the finished product for all to see.

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