The social hall at Congregation Beth Shalom was transformed into a public bakery September 25, as the eight centers affiliated with Chabad of Western Pennsylvania hosted a challah baking workshop attended by more than 350 women and girls from across the area.
Coming from different affiliations and backgrounds, the participants learned how to mix, knead, shape and braid two loaves of the traditional bread; organizers intended for one loaf to stay at home with participants and the other to be given to a friend. The baking was done at women’s houses.
Batya Rosenblum, one of the organizers of the event, saw significance in the workshop’s timing.
“Before Rosh Hashanah, when we stand before Hashem, united as Jewish women, we have a great power,” she said.
As the women gathered in the large room — its round tables set with measured ingredients — happy, animated voices could be heard, as women got to know strangers, chatted with friends or enjoyed being with family. Women expressed excitement at the opportunity to learn or renew the performance of a specifically “women’s mitzvah.”
Many brought their daughters or granddaughters with the hope of establishing a family tradition or continuing one that had been lost. Randi Wedner of Baldwin brought her 9-year-old daughter, Lana, for that reason, as did Naomi Margolis, who brought her daughter, Jessica. Margolis recalled her grandmother making her own gefillte fish, horseradish and potato kugel, but nobody in her family makes challah anymore.
“I was looking for something to involve my daughter in Jewish culture and traditions,” she said.
Becca Ackner, operations director at Rodef Shalom Congregation, was encouraged to come by her two sisters, who were there with her. Leslie Itskowitz had three generations at the event, as her daughter and her adult granddaughter joined in.
Other women had no background in challah baking and came alone or with friends. Karen Werley had never tasted challah, but her daughter, a college student, was eagerly awaiting her first sample of the home-baked bread. Susan Sofayov also didn’t grow up with challah, though she buys commercially formed loaves each week.
The program began with a short video that explained the deeper meaning of the seven ingredients that go into the dough such as “sugar for the sweetness you hope to see in your family’s life” and “eggs for the blessing of life and children.”
Each of the sponsoring Chabad centers’ rebbetzins had a role in the program. Rivkee Rudolph demonstrated how to mix the dough, and every table had a captain to assist when there were questions or problems. Many participants helped each other as they worked, accompanied by the high-pitched notes of laughing and chatting.
When the mixing finished and the dough was left to rise, the women took part in a sing-along. Many got up, held hands and danced to the verses of “Am Yisrael Chai.”
Before the women shaped their loaves, Rosenblum turned to the custom of separating a portion of the dough — known in Hebrew as challah — as a remembrance of the portion that was set aside for Judaism’s priestly caste during Temple times. Rosenblum explained that even today, the custom offered an auspicious time to ask for blessings, and a screen showed the names of those needing healing or desiring a spouse or children.
Blumi Rosenfeld gave a keynote speech in which she explained that the event was not just a fun, social experience, but also one that served as “a link back to our matriarchs Sara, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” She pointed out that Jewish women are able to “tap into their [the matriarchs’] strength, and that in connecting to our mothers and grandmothers, we gain strength.”
Rosenfeld also explained the physical act of making bread as part and parcel of Jewish life: “A mitzvah is a physical action that creates a spiritual reaction,” she said.
As the women left, some took their second loaf to give to someone who lives alone or someone experiencing a rough time, or as a gift of appreciation. Many left a loaf with the Jewish Relief Agency, which will deliver them along with food to needy families for the holidays.
Leslie Itskowitz, who grew up in a home where challah was baked, said she was inspired and uplifted by the event.
“The infusion of music and dancing, the spirit of simchah, the seamless merging of women from all different backgrounds and affiliations — that’s what I saw Thursday night,” said Itskowitz. “We have more in common than we have differences. We are all speaking to [the Almighty] at Rosh Hashanah and asking that He give us life.”
Chani Altein, one of the co-organizers for the event — which Chabad of Western Pennsylvania plans to hold annually — echoed that feeling.
“It was so special to be gathered in one room with 350 women of all ages and affiliations, united by song, dance, prayer and the mitzvah of challah,” she said. “It was a powerful experience and the perfect way to head into the New Year.”
Simone Shapiro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.