June 18, 2024
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Why Is This Challah Bake Different From Other Challah Bakes?

Ma Nishtana…? This question is typically associated with Pesach and usually refers to matzah, among a few other items. But in 2020, it refers to pretty much everything, and this year’s Great BIG Challah Bake was no exception. Last year’s challah bake attracted about 800 women and girls of all ages from Bergen County, but due to COVID-19 considerations, an event of this size could obviously not be held this year. The 2020 Great Big Challah Bake was actually a little like a Diaspora Yom Tov—there were two of them.

The first one took place on Zoom on November 4, as an international event directed and coordinated by Project Inspire, a celebrated kiruv organization, and was open to the general public. Hundreds of people attended, and there were multiple “baking rooms” from which to choose: beginner, advanced and gluten-free. People gathered ingredients in their own homes, followed prepublished recipes and prepared their challah dough together with others, reaching across the globe via the internet.

The second event took place on November 5. The “Leil sheini” challah bake, an in-person, local and socially distanced event, was graciously hosted in the tented backyard of the Hakimi family in Teaneck. Neighbors of Dr. Debby Rapps, director of the Jewish Youth Encounter Program (JYEP), the Hakimis have been hosting a backyard minyan throughout the COVID crisis, and they decided to join forces in a special way for this event.

Rapps explained, “The parents in the JYEP school wanted their children to have healthy opportunities to socialize.” Rethinking how they could address this need in a COVID-19 world, she approached the Hakimis about a challah bake, since there was already a “shul tent” in place. “Without missing a beat, they graciously offered their tent, and a third of the JYEP students and their parents joined.”

Rapps wore two hats, one as a 35-year veteran and director of JYEP and another as one of eight community leaders for Jewish Journeys, both outreach organizations. She reached out to another community leader, Debbie Rosalimsky, about how to coordinate the challah bake, and they decided to join forces. Thus, the small but “Great Distanced Challah Bake” was born, with Jewish Journeys and JYEP working together to make it happen.

To ensure COVID-19 safety, the area had to be “flipped” to ensure properly spaced table arrangements; setup and decorating quickly followed the Mincha minyan.

The front driveway entrance area was sentried with sanitizer, masks and gloves. 55 participants were spaced under the tent into family groups or individual “pods” according to the community’s protocols of accepted social distancing and mask requirements. Instead of a large refreshment center, compact snacks and mini water bottles were distributed. A side table near the demonstration area in front held a batch of pre-mixed dough, along with bottles of sanitizer and a box of masks and some disposable gloves.

Preparing last year’s ingredients required four full days and hundreds of volunteers. This year’s tent affair ingredients were prepared by a handful of volunteers in just a single afternoon. Several of this year’s challah supplies were generously donated by Grand & Essex.

Rosalimsky wore two hats this year also. She first explained the process of making dough and the spiritual significance of each ingredient. Then she stepped into the challah-braiding role. Perched in front of the tent and far away from all of the pods, she explained and demonstrated both a four- and six-strand challah braid for the group. For those interested in learning either of these and other braiding techniques yourself, you can find Rosalimsky’s video demonstrations on YouTube.

In her remarks addressing the group, Rosalimsky explained that this challah bake event was her first public “outing” in eight months, as she has taken extra precautions to protect the safety and health of her mother who came to live with the family when the quarantines and lockdowns were enacted in March. She commented that while past challah bakes with their large number of participants have been amazing, “This year’s event was very special by its palpable intimacy,” despite the mandated distancing.

Dena Levie, another Jewish Journeys community leader, raised the mood further by leading a round of songs to enhance the spirit of the moment and provide some time for the dough to rise. But there was no dancing, as in past years.

Other Jewish Journeys community leaders include Jordana Baruchov, Julie Farkas, Esther Friedman, Elana Kaplan and Andrea Portal.

By Ellie Wolf

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