Barb Zweigbaum has prepared challah, the traditional Jewish braided bread, hundreds of times in her kitchen. But on Thursday, she stood kneading a heap of challah dough in a high school cafeteria — joined by 500 women and girls doing the same.
They were all part of the Great Big Challah Bake, now an annual event that offers a night of global solidarity for Jews engaged in one of their faith’s most treasured traditions. From 7-year-olds to seniors, they packed the cafeteria at Hopkins High School, where every table was converted into a mini kitchen countertop with bowls of challah ingredients awaiting preparation.
“I really like that this is happening all over the world,” said Zweigbaum, of New Hope. “My sister is doing something like this in Toronto.”
The bake was one of more than 1,500 such events around the world that took place Thursday as part of the Shabbat Project, a community-building effort launched in 2013 by South Africa’s chief rabbi. Its goal: “Jews from all walks of life, from across the spectrum of religious affiliation, young and old, from all corners of the world — come together to experience the magic of one full Shabbat kept together.”
More than a million people from 101 countries participated in similar events, according to the Shabbat Project. That’s not to mention the roughly 100 folks in St. Paul who gathered for a challah bake and other activities at Mount Zion Temple.
This is the fourth year for the Minneapolis-area event and by far the largest, said Alyssa Huck, events manager for the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, which sponsored the bake. While pleased with the turnout, challah prep for 500 was not exactly a breeze, she said.
It took staff members four days to measure ingredients and assemble the individual bowls for 500 bakers, Huck said. That included parceling out 2,500 cups of flour, 150 pounds of sugar and 1,000 tablespoons of salt.
“It was a lot of work, but totally worth it,” Huck said.
If the goal was to build community, it succeeded. It was a lively, often noisy event, with conversations and music echoing across the cafeteria rooms.
“Welcome to the Great Big Challah Bake!” the announcer boomed as the women and girls settled in.
Irina Cherevatsky was among those checking out the ingredients in the bowl at her table. A first-time challah maker, she followed the recipe steps included. She mixed the flour, sugar and salt in the bowl. Set aside the yeast. Added the eggs and oil, etc.
All the women at her table were immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Cherevatsky recalled growing up in a village in then-Soviet Georgia, where there were no synagogues and few Jews. But she remembers watching her grandmother, who took care of her while her mother worked, making the bread.
Decades later, here she was in Minnesota, giving it a try.
“For me this is a new experience,” said Cherevatsky, of Apple Valley. “And it’s good to feel the community, the unity, here.”
That was a theme throughout the event, as the women and girls marveled at the night’s turnout. The Minneapolis Jewish Federation was also pleasantly surprised, as the event was a fundraiser for its community caring programs.
“I’m amazed,” said Diane Ingber of St. Louis Park. “I grew up here in St. Louis Park, and for as many people as I know here, there’s that many [people] that I don’t.”
Ingber came with her daughter-in-law Rachel Ingber of Plymouth. She admitted she’s not a regular challah maker, in part because “there’s a lot of waiting around for challah.”
The event planners had that problem figured out. When time came for the dough to be set aside to rise, a DJ entertained the crowd with music and dance. It went over particularly big with the high schoolers.
“This is a great event,” said Tybie Jaffa, 14, sitting with her friends. “It’s a good way to learn how to make challah, to hang out with your friends. And I like the dancing.”
After the dough had risen and dancing wound down, the bakers returned to their tables and challah dough. Cutting it into strips, they rolled the dough between their palms, the first steps to creating the braids that characterize the bread.
“Challah doctors” donning red scarves moved among the tables to help bakers in need of emergency assistance.
“Don’t twist it!” one challah doctor urged a first-timer. “Now roll it like play dough.”
By close to 9 p.m., most of the dough had been braided and was ready to bring home to bake. Cherevatsky eyed hers with satisfaction. She was expecting family members for Shabbat dinner the next day, and her first-time challah would be on the menu.
“I’ll get to serve it then,” she said.