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Recipes from the heart — and B’nai Israel

Robin Pierce oversaw the process that resulted in B’nai Israel’s sold-out, from-the-heart cookbook.
Robin Pierce oversaw the process that resulted in B’nai Israel’s sold-out, from-the-heart cookbook.

It’s hard to believe, but some good things have come out of pandemic workarounds — that is, things we have to do because we can’t do what we usually do.

Take the B’nai Israel cookbook, for example. According to our community editor, Beth Chananie, it is a particularly good example of a synagogue project. “Truthfully,” Beth wrote, “in all my years as a Jewish Standard editor, I have received many, many cookbooks. Some I treasure, quickly delving into, looking for recipes to share; others never even get a mention in the paper. Truly, my secret favorites are the ones from synagogues and schools with recipes from the heart.” And, in her opinion, “Portions” — from B’nai Israel in Emerson — did not disappoint.

No one was prepared for what happened on Purim 2020, as synagogue carnivals were canceled left and right and shul life, as we know it, ceased to function. But this year, B’nai Israel was prepared, understanding that it would have to come up with a new, different, and pandemic-safe fundraiser to replace its traditional and successful mishloach manot project.

Congregant Robin Pierce has coordinated that project for the last 15 years, working with a large and enthusiastic group of volunteers. “Each year we do a mishloach manot fundraiser in our shul, one of our biggest fundraisers, and we have wide participation,” she said. “We put together our own trail mix, buy lots of products, and we even made our own hamentashen.”

With the onset of the pandemic, “The temple still needed funds, but we couldn’t work together to do it,” Ms. Pierce said. Looking at what was going on around her, “I kept seeing that people who don’t normally bake were baking during the pandemic.” They were baking so much, she added, that yeast was hard to come by. “I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to keep the project food-centered, giving treats, but doing it over the computer.”

And from these ruminations, a cookbook was born.

“I didn’t know how many recipes we would get,” said Ms. Pierce, who ultimately received about 200 submissions. She did know what she didn’t want, though. “I wanted to keep the haimish feeling of the shul,” she said; that was something she kept in mind, because most similar synagogue cookbook projects end up being “too formulaic. I wanted to be more creative and involve more people, so I asked for stories, photos, and artwork, along with the recipes.

“They came rolling in. It became a large project, bigger than expected. Everyone was super excited and happy to participate.” Rather than select particular recipes for inclusion, “I took almost all the recipes,” Ms. Pierce said. “If people took the time to send a recipe and a story, I wanted to honor that.”

That’s how Ms. Chananie, who volunteers delivering Kosher Meals on Wheels to Holocaust survivors, got involved. “A friend of a congregant reached out to me to reprint a recipe I published in the Jewish Standard for rugelach,” she said; it’s in the book, on page 186. “The recipe was shared with me by one of the Holocaust survivors, who is 96. She makes the rugelach regularly.”

“In all different ways, three-quarters of the synagogue contributed to the project,” Ms. Pierce said; the tasks, aside from sending in recipes, included editing and proofreading them, double-checking for missing ingredients, making phone calls, and finally, delivering the completed project to congregants’ homes.

“We usually send mishloach manot to our college kids,” Ms. Pierce said. “But this year they weren’t actually on their campuses.” Still, since every family in the shul got a book, college-agers still will be able to see it.

The project was “definitely expensive,” Ms. Pierce said. “It cost more than most years, but we also took in more revenue. In the end, this fundraiser was bigger than those in past years. I didn’t expect that.” She said that the shul donates a portion of its donations through its michloach manot project to an Israeli charity. “I lived in Israel for a number of years,” she said. “So I started a ‘Focus on Israel’ committee at the temple. People generally give to more local organizations. I wanted to put a spotlight on Israel-related charities.” This year, she selected Yad Eliezer Corona Relief Fund, which is helping people who are in economic need because of the pandemic.

Commenting on what she likes most about the cookbook, Ms. Chananie said she “loves the personal stories that accompany the family recipes from moms and grandmas and sons and aunts and even Hebrew school students — and the memories they evoke when preparing them. There’s also a nice history of people preparing some of these dishes in the Emerson shul’s kitchen for holidays.” For her Standard column of Shavuot recipes, she chose a challah bread pudding recipe from Warren Kuperinsky. In 2002, the shul’s kitchen was named for his mom, Bernice Kuperinsky.

One of Ms. Pierce’s favorite stories was submitted by Ellen Sonkin. “This Cabbage Soup with Flanken is Bruce’s grandmother Lillie’s recipe, and one of his favorites,” she said. “When she moved to Florida, she was no longer available to make this favorite food. One winter before coming to visit he called and asked her to make his favorites and to wait until he arrived to make them.

“When he arrived in Florida, she was ready to begin cooking — but first he had to go out and buy a measuring cup and measuring spoons, which she didn’t own. Since she really didn’t have a recipe, as she added an ingredient, such as a palmful of sour salt, he took it from her hand, measured it with a measuring spoon, and recorded it.

“He always said she added some extra love when she made it.”

And another, this one from Lisa Pollack: “My mom (who Charlotte is named after) made this Devil’s Food cake regularly when we were young. On Charlotte’s bat mitzvah, I asked several of my friends from sisterhood to make some of my mom’s favorite recipes. I served them at her party the night of her bat mitzvah. My relatives told me that it brought back wonderful memories of my mom. It made me feel that my mom somehow was there.”

“I particularly love the recipes passed down through families, where somebody’s grandmother who came from Europe used to make it, and now her granddaughter makes it. And the rabbi’s son [Eric Weisz, son of Rabbi Debra Orenstein and her husband, Craig Weisz] submitted four different challah recipes. He’s made them and tweaked them numerous times, and he sent a picture.”

A fifth-grade Hebrew school student also submitted recipes. “She loves to bake,” Ms. Pierce said. “She’s doing online cooking classes and submits recipes to contests.” In addition, a graduate of the Hebrew school who is now in college studying art therapy has donated artwork to be used on the pages between segments (soups, desserts, etc.).

The book also includes “CBI’s Story Through Food,” written by longtime member Idelle Schwinder, as well as “Greetings, Gratitude and Grub,” an introduction by Ms. Pierce. “We had recipes submitted by Hebrew school teachers and our temple administrators, so it truly was a community project, with participation by almost all,” she said. “The stories included give it a uniquely Congregation B’nai Israel feel.”

“Portions” costs $30. The first printing, of 240 copies, sold out, so the shul has had to do a second printing. For information, email Robin Pierce at robin.pierce@bisrael.com or go to bisrael.com.


Challah bread pudding

by Warren Kuperinsky

Yield: 6-8 servings

Ingredients

2 cups milk
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) unsalted butter, more for greasing pan
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup sugar
pinch salt
1/2 loaf of challah cut into 2-inch cubes (about 5-6 cups)
2 eggs, beaten

Directions

Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a small saucepan over low heat, warm milk, butter, vanilla, sugar, and salt. Continue cooking just until butter melts; cool. Meanwhile, butter a 4-6 cup baking dish and fill it with cubed bread. Add eggs to cooled milk mixture and whisk; pour mixture over bread. Bake for 30-45 minutes, or until custard is set but still a little wobbly and edges of bread have browned. Serve warm or at warm temperature.

This recipe turns left over challah into a dessert without much work. Great dish for Sunday brunch!  I often made this recipe for Sunday morning breakfast after minyan following the high holidays with all the left over cut up Challah!  It received rave reviews from the Sunday morning breakfast gang! — WK

Books are $30 each, with a portion of the proceeds benefitting the Yad Eliezer Corona Relief Fund in Israel. For information, email Robin Pierce at robin.pierce@bisrael.com or go to bisrael.com.

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