Area volunteers bake High Holy Day challahs for kosher pantry
A throng of bakers packed the kitchen at Poale Zedek synagogue, kneading dough on top of counters covered in white flour as the smell of freshly baked challah wafted through the air.
But these were not the usual synagogue bakers preparing their challah inventory for Shabbat. These bakers were community volunteers answering the call for the Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry.
The volunteers’ efforts were part of an undertaking by multiple facets in the Pittsburgh Jewish Community in August to bake challah for the Food Pantry to give to Jews who have a hard time affording challah during the High Holy Days.
Judi Kanal, chair of the Volunteer Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, got the idea when she found out that the Food Pantry needed challahs for the chagim. The Food Pantry bought challahs in previous years, but at a significant cost. Kanal had the Volunteer Center organize a challah baking for the Food Pantry.
“It took a long time to organize,” said Kanal. “We needed a facility that would welcome us and we needed the volunteers.”
They also needed ingredients as well as people who could help with the baking process.
The Volunteer Center approached Deena Ross and Moishe Siebzener of Creative Kosher Catering. They took on the project right away.
“We didn’t blink,” said Siebzener. “Not even a question.”
Creative Kosher donated all of the necessary materials and taught the volunteers — many of whom had never made challah — how to make the bread from scratch.
“It’s very easy,” Siebzener said of teaching the volunteers. “It just becomes routine because we’ve made thousands and thousands over the years.”
The volunteers not only learned, but also enjoyed themselves.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Judy Perlow, one of almost 40 community volunteers.
When word about the opportunity to help got out, the volunteer spots filled up so quickly that some had to be turned away.
“So many people wanted to help; so many people heard about challah baking and wanted to, [but] we unfortunately had to turn people away,” said Kanal. “We had no idea how it would go and it was overwhelmingly successful.”
The volunteers spent three days in Poale Zedek, baking, bagging and labeling the challah. They produced about 600 loaves and donated all of them.
“We’re so thankful to the Jewish Federation and the community volunteers and Deena Ross and Moishe Siebzener,” said Matthew Bolton, director of the Food Pantry. Bolton is not exactly sure how much money the effort will save the Food Pantry, but said it will save them “quite a lot.”
The challahs, many of which were baked in early August, had to be stored somewhere before they were given to the Food Pantry for distribution. Creative Kosher stored them in its freezer at the beginning of the process, but the space soon ran out as the number of challahs increased.
So the volunteers turned to Sampo Distributors in McKees Rocks.
“We went to someone who has a much larger freezer capacity who was willing to donate their space for this,” Kanal said.
Sampo, which serves businesses and institutions that need to provide kosher food products and meals, stored the challahs until the Food Pantry could take them.
“We couldn’t have done it without the storage,” said Ross.
Closer to the High Holy Days, volunteers brought the challah from Sampo to the Food Pantry. From there, volunteers distributed the challah around the community.
Between the work done by the Volunteer Center, Creative Kosher, Sampo Distributors and the community volunteers, contributions had been made on several fronts to make the idea into a reality.
“It’s a chain of mitzvos going on,” Kanal said. “It’s an incredible amount of people all working together to do this wonderful mitzva of helping people who can’t afford to buy the things necessary to celebrate the holidays in an appropriate manner. We’re helping everyone; it’s such a good feeling. It’s so fulfilling to know that we’re helping people who need help at this point in time.”