The smell of any amount of baking bread is heavenly. The smell of thousands of loaves of challah baking in Passaic on November 9 is likely to be nothing short of divine.
Organizers of the New Jersey Great Big Challah Bake at Factory 220, sponsored by the worldwide Shabbos Project and the New Jersey chapter of Women’s International Zionist Organization — more familiarly known as WIZO — aim to get 2,000 women and girls pre-registered to knead, braid, and bake Sabbath bread under one roof in the spirit of unity and inclusivity.
“This event is a rare opportunity to gather with Jewish women from all over the area, from different backgrounds, different levels of observance, different cultures, different opinions, different ages,” its co-chairwoman, Janet Hod of Teaneck, said.
“All of these women gather together for one special night of Jewish unity revolving around a beautiful mitzvah, making challah. Our barriers are dropped. Our hearts are open, and the energy of the room is palpable. This unified energy lifts our spirits, ad reminds each of us who we are, and rekindles our connection with all Jewish people.
“We are each a braid in the bread of Judaism, and only when we come together are we whole,” Ms. Hod concluded.
The name of the bread served with all Sabbath meals — whether it’s braided or in any other shape — derives from the biblical mitzvah (commandment) to separate and sanctify a small piece of bread dough, saving it for the ministering priests of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem to help support these civil servants. The separated dough, also called “challah,” has come to refer to the loaf itself, and the act of separating challah has continued as a symbolic remembrance even some 2,086 years after the destruction of the Second Temple. (The little piece is burned or discarded these days.)
And while baking challah isn’t a gender-specific activity, the process has taken on deep meaning for many modern women.
Esther Friedman of Teaneck, a city leader for the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, explained that the New Jersey Great Big Challah Bake began three years ago under the auspices of the Shabbos Project, which was launched worldwide by the chief rabbi of South Africa.
“We began with 300 ladies in the auditorium of a day school in Paramus and it grew last year to over 1,300 Jewish women,” she said. “The walls shook with emotion and joy as the music played and the women danced and baked challah.”
Last year’s bake, held at the Rockleigh Country Club, was cosponsored by WIZO NJ, a fledgling chapter of the 90-year-old charitable organization that is said to be the largest non-governmental provider of social-welfare services in Israel.
Galina Shenfeld of Cresskill, the chairwoman of the chapter established in April 2015, explained that she wanted to introduce WIZO to the region “with something completely different, and the Shabbos Project was exactly what we wanted to help unify the very diverse Jewish people across New Jersey.
“I found that an incredible group of women, mostly from Teaneck, all from different shuls, had united to do a challah bake in 2014, and we joined them in 2015.”
As a representative of a nonprofit organization, Dr. Shenfeld enabled the committee to add a tzedaka component; all proceeds after expenses go to WIZO’s Gina Fromer Battered Women’s Shelter in Jerusalem.
The combined group of coordinators expanded its scope this year to every Jewish organization, synagogue, school, and day camp in Bergen, Essex, Passaic, and Hudson counties. “Almost every organization we reached out to agreed to partner with us and publicize the event,” Ms. Friedman said. “Our goal is not just to unite the community, but to show every participant that we have more in common than we think.”
In her work with JWRP, Ms. Friedman accompanies groups of young mothers on Birthright-style trips to Israel. She said that some past participants have been gathering monthly to bake challah as a way to incorporate more Jewish traditions into their lives and to touch base with their roots.
Co-chairwoman Debbie Rosalimsky, also of Teaneck, took on the responsibility of perfecting the recipe to be used next month. She also has been recruiting and training “table coaches.”
“Although challah expert Rochie Pinson will be leading the challah bake, we felt that since many of the participants may not have ever made challah before, it would be a good idea to have a challah coach at each table to serve as a guide for any questions that may come up,” she said. (Ms. Pinson is the author of “The Rising Life: Challah Baking Elevated,” which will be on sale that evening.)
Each ticketholder will take home her two loaves of bread, along with a laminated placemat with challah-baking instructions and the accompanying blessing recited on separating the small piece of dough; an apron; a mixing bowl, and a challah cover. (The loaves traditionally are blanketed with a decorative cover during the recital of Kiddush before the Sabbath meal.)
Corporate sponsors are helping to keep costs low. The Factory 220 facility is being donated; Main Event-Mauzone-Mark David Hospitality (M3) is donating the ingredients, Benzel-Busch Mercedes is sponsoring the aprons and challah covers, and Home Dynamics is driving the items to the venue. Students from area schools are helping with set-up to earn community, volunteering “chesed hours.”
Ms. Rosalimsky created the placemat in the hope that participants will want to continue baking their own challah. “I’m not much of a baker, but three years ago I went to a small, 40-woman challah bake,” she said. “By the end of the evening I realized that making challah wasn’t as difficult as I had thought! I decided from that point forward that I wanted to start bringing the mitzvah of challah baking into my home. Now, three years later, I — and my kids — can’t imagine Shabbos without homemade challah every week.”
Ms. Rosalimsky added that she is saddened by any animosity among Jews from different backgrounds. “I am hoping that the excitement and energy felt in the room during this special evening will create a feeling of connection between the women, and that maybe it will open them up to accepting, appreciating, and respecting each other’s differences,” she said.
What: The New Jersey Great Big Challah Bake
When: November 9 at 6:30 p.m. (Doors open at 5:30)
Where: Factory 220, 220 Passaic Street, Passaic
How to register: Every participant must register online ahead of time at http://bit.ly/2016challahbake. No walk-ins will be admitted.
For information: Email firstname.lastname@example.org