'Holy' grain saved; barn raising starts

John Christensen
After watching one of their farm's large barns go up in flames Sept. 23, Mary-Howell and Klaas Martens are seeing the brighter future that comes in the form of support from neighbors and friends who are helping them rebuild.

The fire that struck the Martens family farm recently could have been devastating to a family less optimistic than Klaas & Mary-Howell. Drawing inspiration from their faith, their family, the supportive community around them, and the mercy of Providence, they keep seeing the blessings in the midst of what could have been a disaster for them if they were alone.

Firstly, they reported that the bin containing the spelt they grew and harvested for the orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, was untouched despite being right in the firestorm for an extended time.

There are strict and precise scripturally-based rules for producing “schmurah matzoh” for the Passover Seder. “One drop of rain is enough to make an entire load not suitable for making the matzoh,” says Klaas. “The grain must be physiologically mature but may not be damaged or sprouted at all.” The harvest equipment must be undercover and the bin be closed by sundown. The combine, trucks, wagons, and the harvested grain must be within the sight of a Rabbi or someone qualified and continuously watched. Then the grain bin must be locked and sealed.

The grain also cannot be dried with heat. “With our very rainy season,” says Klaas, “we had to be long enough after the last rain but not get one single drop on the crop. When the last truck was nearly empty, Samuel (the Rabbi) felt the first raindrop of the incoming storm and had to stop the auger before any of the exposed grain made it into the bin. We had covered the opening and fill-auger with a tarp so the grain in the bin was OK. Samuel closed the lid on the bin under the tarp as it began the sprinkle harder.”

After all of that care and anxiety, the fear the entire harvest would be ruined by the fire was very real. Klaas recalls that a load of hay on the opposite side of the bin, 40 feet farther away from the fire, burst into flame as he drove it away. “I couldn’t reach the truck without the protection of a heavy fireman’s coat,” he says, adding, “There was not even any soot or darkening on the surfaces. The fire chief and fire fighters were stunned by the condition of the bin and its propane tank. The heat was so intense they couldn’t get anywhere near it to spray water.”

When the Rabbi inspected the inside of the bin, he said that the grain was not even warm, nor was it even damp from the fire hose water sprayed over it. “It was totally untouched by the firestorm,” says Klaas. When the fire chief inspected the bin, “He was unable to find even a dark spot anywhere on it, while everything around it was scorched. All he said was, “A mighty hand shielded that bin!”

The Rabbi told Klaas that according to the Talmud, “The place where the Passover grain is stored is Holy, exactly like the place where the Host is kept in a Catholic church.” Klaas says the fire began right after the end of Rosh Hashanah, the cleanup took place between Rosh Hashanah and the start of Yom Kippur, rebuilding began on the Monday after Yom Kippur. “This matzoh is going to make the next Passover really exciting.”

Joking in a social media post, Klass said, “We’re considering erecting a shrine: Our Lady of the Blessed Kosher Matzoh!” More seriously, he adds, “If this fire can lead to a community barn raising event with Mennonites, Hassidic Jews, Amish, Presbyterians, Catholics and atheists, Democrats and Republicans, all working, laughing, talking, and eating together, perhaps that is the greater miracle in this era of major division.

“If something bad like this fire can lead to something truly good, like a healthy, happy community united in kindness, then we can only be deeply grateful, deeply humbled, deeply strengthened. There is so much about our country that is right and good and uplifting!”

“A disaster reveals a lot about people,” say the Martens. “We have been touched by the kindness and selfless generosity of so many people since our barn fire. One week after the fire, the mess was all cleaned up. Now after two weeks, the walls are back up. In another week, a new barn will have risen out of the ashes of the fire.”

As the framing work was underway, Mary-Howell wrote, “We have had about 50 Mennonite men here all day framing the barn. At lunch, the Mennonite and Presbyterian ladies went spoon-to-spoon with dueling casseroles (and salads and cookies), and we had a spread that we couldn’t begin to finish. The light rain this morning has given way to brilliant warm fall and the hammering is continuous. It is so incredibly amazing.” Adding later, she says, “It is too easy to forget that the world is filled with good generous people who truly value friendship, decency, loyalty, and commitment.”

“We can never repay all of the good people who came to our aid and worked tirelessly to help us. The long hours of hard dirty work, the prayers, the gifts of food, and the wonderfully skilled craftsmanship that we are being so freely given can never be adequately repaid. They can only be passed on to the next family that needs help. Until then all we can do is humbly say,‘Thank You!’”

Continuing in that spirit of paying it forward, the Martens hope to celebrate the completion of the barn with a large dinner and concert, both to thank the community that has supported them and to raise funds for hurricane disaster relief in Puerto Rico, where the farms and crops have been destroyed. No food can be produced on the island this season, and flooding and loss of electrical power destroyed much of the stored food.

“If all goes well, we hope to have the barn raising on Oct. 14,” says Mary-Howell. That won’t be certain until they are sure that all of the materials are in place. The backup date is Oct. 21. As specific information is available, it will be posted at www.Chronicle-Express.com.