It looked like a wedding hall.
But instead of tables set with flowers, fancy flatware and napkins, each place had a big colored plastic mixing bowl with a bag of flour, a bottle of water, disposable apron and gloves, challah recipe cards and a bracha chart. In the center of the table were bags of sugar and yeast and bottles of oil.
This was no ordinary simcha. It was the largest challah baking event of the Shabbos Project in Israel, taking place in The Pavilion Halls in Talpiyot in Jerusalem.
The challah bake was part of the International Shabbos Project, which began three years ago under the direction and drive of Rabbi Warren Goldstein, Chief Rabbi of South Africa. Over time, it has blossomed from a South African event to an international project involving more than 350 cities and an estimated one million participants.
The English-speaking seminaries in Jerusalem were well represented. Bluma Rubin and Hefzi Weberman, both from Miami, recalled helping set up a challah bake last year at home in the United States, as did Malka Erlamger from Toronto and Esti Myers from Baltimore, but this was their first time actually participating in making challah. They are students in Neimos Seminary and had brought along Rachel Siegel from Philadelphia who had never seen or heard of a challah bake before and was visibly excited as she looked around the ever growing number of people flowing into the hall and claiming their places and bowls of ingredients.
In the adjacent hall, a wedding was about start. The mother of the kallah had seen the notices about the challah event and that the guest speaker was Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi, one of Israel’s most influential women and most popular female speakers. Rabbanit Yemima’s appeal to Jewish women of all shades of religious observance has made her a household-name and the bride’s mother didn’t want to miss this opportunity to see her. She approached Tamar Ansh, challah-expert, author of A Taste Of Challah and one of the event’s organizers, and asked if she could bring her daughter to get a bracha from the rabbanit.
So when Rabbanit Yemima came to address the challah bakers, she was joined at the podium by the kallah who received a bracha not just from her, but from the 900 participants as well. The crowd that evening included teenagers right through to a “young” woman of over 90 who came to make challah for the first time in her life.
It was a spectacular opening to an amazing evening. As the bride joined Rabbanit Yemima on the stage, the many young seminary girls in the crowd spontaneously erupted into “Od yishama be’Arei Yehuda” and soon the kallah was pulled into the circle and the dancing in the “challah” hall was even more enthusiastic than any in a simcha hall.
Rabbanit Yemima reminded us that only a few minutes from where we were gathered to bake challah together, there was another event attracting thousands of Jewish women. Rachel Imeinu‘s yahrzeit was that Shabbat and this Thursday night was the closest time for women to gather at her kever in Beit Lechem and daven… for health, parnassah, a shidduch or children, just as women all over the world do when preparing challah each week. When you live in Jerusalem, events of thousands of years ago easily connect with events today.
As Rabbanit Yemima left to inspire another group of women, Tamar Ansh took over. Challah dough can’t just be prepared, plaited and then taken home to be baked. After the ingredients have been mixed, the mitzvah of hafrashas challah, separating the challah, has to be performed. Tamar explained in careful detail how to perform the mitzvah and received 900 amens to her bracha. She explained to the women who had brought their daughters with them that girls under bat mitzvah were not allowed to say the bracha, but that everyone, whatever her age, was encouraged to take a few minutes of quiet davening to ask Hashem for all her needs, those of her family, whomever she knew who was ill, looking for his or her bashert or in need of parnassah. The time of hafrashas challah is especially propitious for asking for brachot.
The tears and expressions of pain on the faces of many of the women in the room made clear that there were plenty of requests to make and that they were taking advantage of this special time and opportunity.
Those elbow deep in dough came from all backgrounds and countries. Carien Van Roogen and Izel Van Ellewee, both from South Africa, are in Israel while they convert to Judaism and were very moved by the thought of the whole challah making process, its meaning and importance. Their teachers had already taught them about this mitzvah and its significance and now they were experiencing it for themselves for the first time.
While the dough was rising, videos were screened about the importance of challah baking and the myriad events and shiurim that Emek Learning Center, a growing community and kollel for Anglos located on Emek Refaim, and the organizers of the event, arrange every week. Then the energetic seminary girls and the loud beat of the music got the ladies up on their feet singing and dancing, until Tamar decided the dough had risen enough and was ready to be shaped. She demonstrated many different types of strands, shapes and sizes for the women to copy.
The crowd left happily, many staggering under the heavy weight of their bowls of challot, all ready to be baked.
Rabbanit Yemima had told the crowd what Rav Kanievsky has said: If women knew how powerful their prayers were at the time of hafrashat challah there would be no challot sold in stores any more. Who knows, maybe with more of these events, the bakeries will have to make their parnassah from cakes and pastries.