Over 150 women and girls were treated to an evening of inspiration, challah baking, music and fun when Rutgers Chabad held its first-ever Mega Challah Bake on Wednesday, February 22, at the Chabad House in New Brunswick. Women from the local Jewish communities of Highland Park, Edison and East Brunswick mingled with Rutgers students and women from as far away as Marlboro, Manalapan and Brooklyn.
For thousands of years, ever since our matriarch Sarah shaped challah loaves in her tent, challah baking and, specifically, the mitzvah of “separating challah” has been a symbol of the Jewish home. Every Thursday, for more than 25 years, students at Chabad House at Rutgers continue to observe the mitzvah. Led by Rebbetzin Sarah Goodman, Rutgers students gather in the Chabad House kitchen and bake challah loaves for the hundreds of students that come for the Friday night Shabbat meal. This year, the local community was able to join in the mitzvah and make challah to grace their own tables on Shabbat.
The Mega Challah Bake event began with a lavish buffet of salads, sandwich wraps, salmon, fruit, cookies and cake. With the array of food prepared by the Chabad dining staff, it was easy to understand the source of the “freshman 15,” since this was the way the students on the Chabad meal plan ate each day. Large round tables were pre-set with challah-baking materials and supplies for each participant, as well as an apron and goodie bag.
Rebbetzin Goodman formally opened the evening as she described challah baking as the “essence of the Jewish woman,” as it is one of only three mitzvot that are either mostly or exclusively performed by women. Covering the other female-centric mitzvot of family purity and lighting Shabbat candles, a description of the mikvah at the Chabad House was provided and those in attendance were informed that a set of Shabbat candles was included in their goody bags. She humorously described the misadventures of her first attempt at baking challah and assured the room that their efforts would be far superior. Years of challah baking with students at Rutgers and at home had perfected her skills. She then proceeded with the step-by-step instructions, and the challah baking process began.
As the women worked, Mrs. Rivka Pevzer, principal of Sinai Schools of Paris, spoke about the life of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, the wife of the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose quiet, behind-the-scenes work was critical to the success of the movement. Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka’s practice of private public service was exceedingly powerful, as was described in the brief movie that was shown.
Conversation flowed as the individual ingredients turned into dough. Roz Beberman of Highland Park reported that she has been successfully making challah for several years, but her first attempts would not have won any awards. She confided that her mother-in-law used one of her early challahs as a doorstop.
Mindy Berman, also of Highland Park, saw the Mega Challah Bake as not only a good community event to bring people together, but also as something she could share with her daughter, Edie.
Danielle Cohen saw the advertisement for the Mega Challah Bake at the Chabad and thought it would be “awesome and fun to be with friends and make challah.”
The Mega Challah Bake was coordinated by Rabbi Mendi Pevzner, a new addition to the Chabad House staff. Thinking it would be a good way to introduce the students to the local community while showing the community what Chabad has to offer, he planned the event as the first of many that will join the community and the students.
As the challahs were set aside to rise, musical entertainment by Mrs. Esther Freeman brought many bakers to their feet to dance. Standard simcha tunes and original compositions accompanied by a cellist soon had the room joined in song. Freeman’s music ranged from slow soulful ballads to high-energy songs based on deep esoteric concepts of the Torah and life experiences, all accompanied by personal stories. The strength of her songs was evident in her meaningful lyrics that reflected a genuine passion to share the beauty of Judaism with the world. The original compositions focused on daily life as a woman, wife and mother, with which many in attendance could identify. For example, the song “Superheroes” reminded everyone that we are all superheroes in what we accomplish each day and that it doesn’t take a cape or the ability to fly to be a hero. Freeman, who uses music and lyrics to empower women, resonated with the audience and their busy, multi-tasking lifestyles.
At the end of the evening, attendees were given instructions as to how to braid the challah. Using the trays provided, participants made individual challahs and rolls and placed them in foil baking pans that had baking instructions printed on the lid.
This event was made possible through the generous sponsorship of Saker ShopRites and partnership with the community organizations of Highland Park and Edison. The event may have been the first for Rutgers Chabad, but will likely turn into an annual event.
By Deborah Melman