"Thank You for not burning plastic!"

Baltimore, MD - May 2, 2017 - When Dr. Bert Miller was living in the Glenview Apartments (now the Fox Glen), in 1969, he noticed an elderly gentleman across the courtyard burning chometz on his porch.  When a fellow neighbor saw the billowing smoke, she thought the building was on fire and called the fire department. The Glen Avenue Fire Station firemen responded to the call, located about 150 yards away on the neighboring property, and put out the fire burning in his barbecue grill.

As Dr. Miller explains, “The firemen soon realized that there was no out of control fire.  They learned that the man was performing one of the 3000-year-old Pesach rituals, likely the world’s oldest set of religious rituals still being practiced.  The man was merely burning some bread.  That day, I realized there must be other elderly people in the community, some without a porch, who would have even a more difficult time burning their chometz.”

This incident was the impetus, in 1982, for Dr.  Miller to organize Baltimore’s first Community Chometz Burning.  With the “go-ahead” from HaRav Moshe Heinemann, he emphatically pitched the idea to organize and conduct a community chometz burning under the auspices of the Vaad HaKashrus at their board meeting.

“The other board members agreed it would be a worthwhile project, but no one was sufficiently motivated to organize it,” recalls Dr. Miller. “I realized that either I would organize the project myself or there would be no community chometz burning.  In early 1982, I phoned Chief O’Connor of the Baltimore City Fire Department.  I introduced myself and informed him, ‘The Jewish people have been burning bread on the day before their Passover holiday for the last 3000 years in tens of thousands of communities.  Chief, if we continue with the status quo this year, there will be as many as 800 backyard fires in one neighborhood of Northwest Baltimore in one morning.’  The flabbergasted chief immediately understood the urgency of the problem and asked, ‘Dr. Miller, how can we help?’"

Dr. Miller’s next step was to ask for permission to have a controlled, supervised burning of bread in the parking lot of the Shearith Israel Congregation.  With permission of both the shul and Chief O’Connor, he went about organizing the project.

As the Jewish community grew, the venue for the chometz burning ceremonies changed. It was held at the Glen Avenue Fire Station itself and, from 1983 through 2008, and by 2004, the event had grown to where most of Baltimore's religious households came to burn their chometz.   Since 2010, the event has been held at the Pimlico Race Track, more recently drawing a crowd of over 3000 people, who come to burn their chometz in barrels fueled by charcoal and lulavim.

On April 24, Baltimore City Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer recognized Dr. Miller’s herculean efforts in spearheading and taking charge of running Baltimore’s communal Biyur Chometz for the past three plus decades.


“Our community owes a debt of gratitude to Dr. Bert Miller for his 36 years of taking a leadership role in the annual Chometz Burning project,” stated Councilman Schleifer. “Long before environmental protection and safety awareness were in vogue, Dr. Miller streamlined the burning of chometz in a controlled environment and reminded us of the importance of not burning plastic. It is an honor for the City Council of Baltimore to recognize him with our community service award.”

“I try to lead my life so that HaKadosh Baruch Hu will be satisfied with his decision to create me, and I am grateful to Him for giving me many opportunities for Avodas HaShem. The Mishna in Pirkei Avos (5:21) teaches, "Kol haMezakeh es haRabbim ein chait bah al yado (Everyone who strengthens community observance-no sin will occur through him.)"  I strive to be a "rabbim-zokker".

“When I became religious, I decided to create a project to strengthen some aspect of Torah observance for each Jewish holiday,” continues Dr. Miller. “Baltimore's centralized Chometz Burning, which has been copied by other cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Oak Park (Detroit) and Silver Spring, was my project for Pesach.  We will never know how many children are saved each year from burn injuries because of this project…My tefila is that Yitzi's idea to grant me this award will inspire others to contribute to Baltimore's spiritual enrichment.  I thank Yitzi for this award, the STAR-K for backing the Chometz Burning for three decades, Frank Storch and his Chesed Fund for managing and funding the Chometz Burning behind the scenes now, and my wife for putting up with Baltimore's smelliest husband on Erev Pesach.  The name on my hard hat is, "Uncle Burnie”.