Pizza at the nexus of art and science
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Pizza at the nexus of art and science

Teaneck’s Sidney Gussen, 12, raises money for Chesed 24/7 with outdoor oven wizardry

Sidney Gussen works at the oven. (Josh Lipowsky)
Sidney Gussen works at the oven. (Josh Lipowsky)

As temperatures around town rose into the 90s on Sunday, July 31, it was even hotter in the Teaneck backyard of Adam and Shari Gussen. That’s because their 12-year-old son, Sidney, was preparing fresh pizzas in a wood-fired stone pizza oven that his father built in the backyard last year.

Sidney and his father were spending this hot July day in front of the roaring fire for a fundraising campaign for the charity Chesed 24/7 as part of Sidney’s yearlong bar mitzvah project. By the time Sidney, a rising seventh-grader at Teaneck’s Benjamin Franklin Middle School, is called up to the Torah on September 10 at Teaneck’s Congregation Shaare Tefillah, he hopes to have raised $5,000 for Chesed 24/7 through almost weekly challah bakes, a Chanukah empanada sale, and the pizza sale.

The choice of Chesed 24/7 was a personal one. Adam Gussen, a former Teaneck councilman and deputy mayor, underwent spinal surgery in June 2017 at Pascack Valley Hospital. Due to complications, he ended up in Hackensack University Medical Center’s ICU before finally spending a month in rehab. While he was in the hospital, Chesed 24/7 delivered kosher food to him daily and ensured he had food for Shabbat. “Chesed 24/7 was providing all the meals for him,” Sidney said. “If they’re always giving to people, why don’t we give back to them?”

Chesed 24/7 offers kosher food, hospital visitations, transportation services, and other volunteer outreach at 15 hospitals in the tristate area. The charity also provides kosher food to the maternity ward at Englewood Hospital, where Sidney and his 15-year-old sister, Molly, were born. Without even knowing it, the Gussens benefited from the charity, Mr. Gussen said.

“They’re always giving to people. They play a big role in my life and my father’s and for many other families,” Sidney said. “I wanted to give back to them for a change because they’re always helping people and now, we’re helping them.”

In September 2021, Sidney and his father began baking challah together and selling it locally. During Chanukah, they made hundreds of brisket empanadas. Because of the Nine Days—the mourning period leading up to Tisha b’Av during which observant Jews refrain from eating meat—the duo decided to sell pizza using recipes Mr. Gussen developed from watching a multitude of online food science videos.

Using a laser thermometer, the Gussens keep a close watch on the oven, which can reach up to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. To maintain the optimal temperature for pizza between 700 and 850 degrees, Sidney adds new wood into the oven about every 20 minutes, carefully moving the logs to their optimal position for an even cook. Sidney’s precise wood placement is based on the need to create a convective thermal draft. Identifying hot and cool spots in the oven and knowing just where to put the wood maintains a uniform cooking temperature, preventing the dough from burning before the cheese melts. “Making pizza dough is science,” Mr. Gussen said. “Managing a live wood fire in a homemade oven is art. This pizza lies at the nexus of art and science.”

The end product of Sidney’s work.

The project has taught Sidney different cooking methods and how to work with others, skills he plans to use to raise money for charities in the future, Ms. Gussen said. But, she noted, it was Sidney’s level of involvement in the process that really impressed her. While Mr. Gussen built the oven and developed the recipes, Sidney has been involved in practically every step of the cooking for the yearlong project. “He was hands-on,” Mrs. Gussen said. “Once Adam set it up, he set it up in a way Sidney was able to participate and do stuff for his age level. Sidney did work for it.

“I thought it was a big endeavor, but Sidney was passionate because of how Chesed 24/7 helped his father when he was in the hospital,” she continued. “He wanted to give back to an organization that he had a connection to. We were trying to think of organizations.” Because Mr. Gussen relied on Chesed 24/7 for food, “we thought that was a good connection.”

Natan Cohen, a fellow congregant from Shaare Tefillah, was one of the Gussens’ early customers for the pizza sale. “The pizza’s delicious,” he said. “The challah’s amazing. The quality is above whatever you get in the stores. It’s really fresh. A nice crust. You can see the time and energy that goes into making it.”

But it’s not just the fresh pizza that drew him to Sidney’s fundraiser.

“It’s an incredible way to bring awareness to the tremendous work Chesed 24/7 does,” he said. “What they do for people in hospitals — it’s tremendous. It’s one less thing to worry about” for families experiencing trying times.

The Gussens sold more than 60 pizzas at $20 each on July 31, raising more than $1,100 toward Sidney’s goal. Adding in collections from challah and empanada sales, Sidney’s total stood at approximately $4,900. The family planned for one or two more challah bakes to push them past their goal. Hands-on philanthropy is just what Mr. Gussen wanted to impart to his son at the beginning of this project, along with the lesson that “we have the ability to do things that can vastly improve the circumstances of others, and with effort on our end, it can be fun and enjoyable and rewarding,” he said. “We have an obligation to help when we can. Sidney had an opportunity to learn a lot in the kitchen, to learn the food science of scaling recipes. It was a great experience for him.

“Ultimately, 20, 30, 40 years from now, if we can look back and Sidney’s doing projects like this with his kids, that’s when we know it’s truly successful.”

Sidney praised the project as a “learning experience” that taught him more about how the oven and fire work. The experience also taught him about patience, which he has applied in other areas of his life. “I can’t rush being an amazing basketball player. You can’t rush moves in Tae Kwon Do. You can’t rush dough rising,” he said. “You have to give it time, like being an amazing chef.”


For more information on Chesed 24/7, go to chesed247.org.

To contribute to Sidney’s bar mitzvah project or to buy a challah, follow Adam J. Gussen on Facebook for an announcement about the next challah bake. Be forewarned, he says; they sell out quickly.

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