Synagogues mourn passing of John Brown


Passover is a little more than a week away, but this year’s observance will move forward without a man many local synagogues depended on during this time of year — and he wasn’t even Jewish.

John Brown died last month at 88. A real estate agent who moved from Riverdale to the upstate community of Minerva after he retired, Brown would buy up as much chametz leading up to the holiday as he could, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Chametz is food containing leavening ingredients like yeast or baking powder. Possessing chametz during Passover violates Jewish law, but households don’t want to simply throw away bread and pasta.

Instead, they could sell it to a non-Jew for a small fee, and then buy it back once the holiday is over.

Brown has been that agent since 1977 when he helped close the property sale where Young Israel of Riverdale now sits on Henry Hudson Parkway East. He was recruited as the synagogue’s chametz buyer by Rabbi Mordechai Willig because the religious leader believed Brown’s understanding of complex real estate law would help in what could be complicated deals to temporarily take ownership not only of leavened bread, but even of pets — who generally eat leavened food — and even businesses that sold chametz over Passover.

Brown continued brokering these deals until last year, JTA reported, when the coronavirus pandemic shut such operations down.

All of the transactions were symbolic, of course. The most Brown would get is a good word-of-mouth recommendation when he was working, and sometimes a nice single-malt scotch.

Brown was a Korean War veteran who worked at Mary Walsh Real Estate and Robert E. Hill, according to his published obituary.

John Brown, Young Israel of Riverdale, Mordechai Willig, Mary Walsh Real Estate, Robert E. Hill, Michael Hinman,