On Thursday, October 25, over 300 women and girls gathered at the Riverdale Jewish Center to participate in the annual Riverdale Challah Bake. As part of the international Shabbat Project, dozens of similar mass challah bakes were held that day. According to the website, the Shabbat Project’s activities spanned an entire weekend, from the challah bake to Havdalah, and involved over 1,000,000 participants in more than 1,400 cities in 97 countries, and in 10 languages.
“It is pretty amazing that hundreds of thousands of women from all over the world are having challah bakes that same night!” exclaimed Bracha Rosenbaum, one the Riverdale bake organizers. “One of our baking guides, who just made aliyah, sent us a photo of her at an Israeli challah bake representing Riverdale, wearing our apron from last year!” The women of Riverdale were welcomed at their stations with an apron, and a bowl filled with gloves, a spatula, a laminated recipe card and pre-measured ingredients of flour, salt, sugar and yeast. On the table were measuring cups and spoons, as well as water and oil. The Riverdale community would be preparing Rebbetzin Kanievsky’s water challah recipe.
The event began with guest speaker Rebbetzin Rochie Pinson, author of “Rising, the Book of Challah.” Pinson told the crowd her story of how she started baking challah. She explained that when she and her husband were sent to Japan, she quickly realized that she was going to be the source of challah for her community. She quickly learned how to make challah, and then perfected her recipe. Upon returning to the United States, she realized that challah needed to be a part of her life.
“Rochie Pinson has a beautiful book on challah and has been baking challah for many years, so we thought it would be appropriate to have her speak about it at the event,” stated Rosenbaum.
The program continued with the women following the recipe to prepare their dough in unison. Once the dough was fully kneaded, the women covered their dough and waited for it to rise. While waiting, the room erupted in music and communal dance.
Simultaneously, in the side hallway, school-age girls prepared their own challahs. After making their own dough and braiding their challahs, these young girls added special toppings, such as chocolate chips and rainbow sprinkles. The youth activity also included simcha dancing, while waiting for their mothers to complete their challahs.
“This event unifies women and community. Putting hundreds of women together in a collaborative fashion to own one of our most personal mitzvot is very rewarding and the spirit will extend on our Shabbat table with challah I made,” explained Melanie Gordon-Felsman of Riverdale.
Devorah Courtney, attending with her 7 year old daughter Libby, both also of Riverdale, added that she attended, “to support the greater Riverdale community, the Shabbos Project, and the beauty of hundreds of women coming together to bake challah. This event was an opportunity to spend time with my daughter and my friends from all over Riverdale.” Courtney’s goal that night was not butchering her dough, while Libby was very excited to add colorful sprinkles to her challah creation.
Leora Kulak, also of Riverdale, is a professional chef, formerly of “Food & Wine” and currently at “The New York Times”. She added, “I come to the challah bake with my daughters every year to show them that things we do privately at home such as baking challah for Shabbat connects us as Jewish women to something much larger,” she said. “We are part of a living, breathing and thriving community of hundreds of diverse women here in Riverdale, thousands in New York, and millions around the world who, on this very night, all come together to fulfill this mitzvah in unity. The Great Challah Bake is not simply utilitarian and a way for us to get challah on the table for Shabbat. It deepens our connection to the diverse group of women in our community and the world at large, it gives my daughters a sense of pride and accomplishment to make their complicated challot from start to finish on their own and it provides us with a hands-on opportunity to bring Torah learning and yahadut to life in a fun and entertaining way.”
After dancing, the women viewed a video detailing the history and purpose of the Shabbat Project: Jews from all from all over the world and of all religious affiliations come together to experience the magic of one full Shabbat. Next, each person performed “separation of challah,” with its bracha. The last step was the signature braiding of the dough. The event concluded with packing almost 1,000 challahs for baking in their own homes.
“It took a community to make this event possible,” recalled Rosenbaum. “There is a massive pre-packing party with about 50 local adults and kids that help measure out ingredients about two weeks before the event. Setup for the event takes many hours. It’s a lot of work and is only possible with our wonderful committed community.”
Rosenbaum concluded, “We hope the participants walk away being inspired by Jewish women of all backgrounds coming together to do a mitzvah. The challah bake is much more than just baking bread. It’s a night of unity, inspiration and just plain fun.”
By Judy Berger