More than 450 people—moms and dads, boys and girls, grandparents, friends and neighbors—joined together at Temple Israel Center in White Plains for the Fifth Annual Great Big Challah Bake and in the mitzvah of making challah together as a community. Stephanie Balkin, director of “arts & talks” and adult programs at the JCC of Mid-Westchester welcomed everyone, explaining that the JCC of Mid-Westchester was the coordinating body for this event, which was part of the global Shabbat Project that originated in South Africa.
Balkin said, “We are part of close to 1,400 cities around the world hosting challah bakes and Shabbat programs this week. This challah bake represents the unity of our community, across all denominations, all over Westchester, for people of all affiliations and all ages.” Co-President of the JCC of Mid-Westchester Ellen Reinheimer joined Balkin at the podium, thanking Nicky Ziman, event chair, and the amazing volunteers for their commitment to the Challah Bake. Special recognition was given to community partners UJA Federation of New York, Westchester Jewish Council, Temple Israel Center, Young Israel of Harrison, ESP Productions, Seasons and Dorot.
The applause was deafening as Balkin thanked Israeli lone фsoldier Michael for attending and offering the prayer for the IDF and Israel’s safety.
On large TV screens situated around the huge ballroom, master baker Rebbetzin Faygie Bienenfeld, whose husband is the rabbi of Young Israel of Harrison, and who has led the challah bake and offered her spiritual insights about challah baking for the past several years, spoke to the audience about “The 10 Facts of Challah Baking.”
Laura P., from Edgemont, commented on the importance of Bienenfeld’s message that making challah was a mitzvah given to women, to uplift them and their families as they brought light and sustenance to their loved ones and to the world. “It is a joyful experience,” she said. She learned that challah baking is an act of elevation that encourages one to uplift oneself to a higher place, both in mind and body, and that challah baking is a very spiritual experience. It gives a woman the time to pray, to be conscious of one’s connectedness to God, to ask for comfort and healing for those who are ill.
Having been raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, Laura attended yeshiva through high school, but had strayed from this way of life. Now in her mid 50s, happily married, but an empty-nester, she was feeling envious of a traditional lifestyle where Shabbat was celebrated with friends and family, bringing unity to their lives. For Laura, when friends asked her to join the challah bake, she was ready to go.
“Challah baking is all about the light,” she said, “It’s about connecting to rituals, bringing light and joy into the world during these very dark days of winter, being joyful and sharing memories.” She sees, among her friends, a trend toward connecting to Judaism and to the community. “After the Yom Tovim we have no holidays until Chanukah. Maybe this is the reason the challah bake is conducted during this very dark period. It’s a way of bringing light back into the world.”
With tables set up beforehand with all the necessities of challah baking, Rebbetzin Bienenfeld demonstrated how to make challah and recite the blessings of “taking challah.” After the “bakers” rolled up their sleeves to begin the challah-making process, flour was everywhere, music was playing, chatting and laughing resonated in the room and, while the dough was rising, the singing and dancing in and out of the tables and around the room resounded with joy. Children danced with adults, friends and strangers hugged each other and happy faces were seen everywhere.
Leah Klein attended the Challah Bake with her daughter, Ava, and Ava’s friend Kyla. Grandmother Susan Bailin, Leah’s mom, attended so she could spend time with her daughter and granddaughter. As Leah said, “It’s great to be with a few dear friends engaging in a fun Jewish activity. The vibe at this event is always so great and I wanted to be a part of it. Ava is already talking about next year’s event!”
All those in attendance received a tote bag, an apron, a place mat with challah recipes and Shabbat blessings and for newbies, a Challah Rookie pin, as well as a challah to be taken home and baked. Balkin explained there were people at the event who have been there five times before and others for whom this was a first experience.
“The planning takes months,” she said, “and it is over in a flash!” Balkin commented on the sense of community in Westchester and feeling connected to the wider Jewish community around the world. “The Challah Bake connects one to Jewish tradition and history, to fun and dancing. It brings people together in a unique way. The energy in the room is amazing, especially with the combination of kids and adults!”
By Yvette Finkelstein