May 21, 2024
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Flour Power: The Greater Union County Challah Bake

Elizabeth—The auditorium of the YM-YWHA of Union County was buzzing with conversation over the din of clanking utensils against the sides of hundreds of bowls. The room was filled from wall to wall with tables and chairs, thousands of pounds of flour and other ingredients, and girls and women who gathered together to join in the mitzvah of making Shabbat challah with kavana (special intent) and a bracha.

This year’s theme was “Flour Power,” and the event was celebrated across the country and on other continents. It enjoyed sponsorship from numerous organizations including the Shabbat Project, Jewish Federation and Chabad. At the helm of this year’s event was Rebbetzin Yael Bleicher of the Elmora Minyan and Amy Tropp. Organizing an event like this is a monumental undertaking in logistics, vision and woman power hours ahead of time and during the event itself. The capable planning and communication necessary to bring together this many bakers and all of the provisions requires special leadership, and its success was evident in the efforts of Yael and Amy.

The Jewish Link asked Rebbetzin Bleicher to explain the origins and intent of the event. “The Challah Bake is part of the Shabbat Project, a world-wide project to inspire Jews from across the world to all keep one Shabbat together. At the Greater Union County Challah Bake there was a palpable sense of unity with Jewish women from the many local area synagogues and organizations.” The list included students from the Kean University Hillel and the Greater MetroWest Federation Shlichim program. Bleicher added, “Hundreds of women from all Jewish backgrounds, gathering together to bake challah, as Jewish women have for generations, coupled with the inspiring words from Mrs. Shani Gejerman, created the unity felt on Thursday night and served as an inspiration to all those in attendance.” This was the first time making challah for many participants, so having knowledgeable friends and neighbors serving as “Challah Coaches” at each table to guide them throughout the challah-baking process was a highlight of the program, according to Bleicher.

Ancient Torah and Kabbalah sources enumerate the spiritual and mystical aura of blessing in the preparation and baking of challah for Shabbat and Yom Tov. Sefer Bamidbar, Chapter 15, Pasuk 17, provides the primary source for this mitzvah, and plenty of commentators and recognized organizations add further spiritual significance to its fulfillment. When engaged in the preparation of the dough, many people add special tefillot and personal kavanot.

Some of the various customs include saying, “Lichvod Shabbat kodesh—in honor of the holy Shabbat,” or reciting Psalms to pray for those who are in need of God’s healing, help and salvation. The mitzvah of separating challah is widely recognized as a segulah (a sort of charm for protection or some positive outcome) for an easy and safe pregnancy and delivery. Another source states that, according to Chazal, the mitzvah of separating challah brings blessing for a good livelihood.

One source writes that because of the great merit of separating challah, it is important to bake particularly for the sake of fulfilling this mitzvah at least once a year. So here was an ideal opportunity for the women and girls of Union County to fulfill this mitzvah together with so many others.

Recently, many Jewish communities have adopted a group tradition with a specific objective, where 40 (or more) women gather to bake challah, and focus their tefillot while separating challah as a merit of a person in need of a yeshua (salvation from a difficult situation—like recovery from an illness, a shidduch or the birth of a healthy child).

Given this unique opportunity, the girls and women at this event were clearly enjoying themselves. The excitement and the spirituality in the room were palpable, underscored by the joyful smiles and laughter of grandmothers, mothers and daughters, sisters and cousins, good friends and neighbors filling the landscape. Multiply that by the aroma of all those hundreds of challahs wafting through the air of the Elizabeth community in preparation for the first “early” Shabbat of the season. All the more reason to enjoy the onset of Shabbat, and what a grand way to bring it in.

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