The Great Challah Bake

At 6:45 p.m., you could stand at the east entrance of the Royal Oak Farmers Market and take in the calm before the storm. A ceiling strung with paper lanterns and twinkling lights. A stage set and projector screens fired up. Row after row of tables neatly arranged with bowls, flour, salt, measuring cups, everything needed to make the perfect challah dough. The finishing touch – at every seat, a lime green apron printed with the words everyone had been talking about for weeks, “The Great Big Challah Bake.”

At 7:00 p.m., the calm quiet was replaced by a buzz of energy and excitement that steadily grew as the room filled with 650 women from every Jewish background imaginable. It was show time.

The Shabbos Project

From Johannesburg, where it all began, to Dublin, Paris, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, San Francisco, and everywhere in between, Detroit was one of hundreds of communities from countries all over the world to host a Great Big Challah Bake the weekend of October 23rd as part of the international program The Shabbos Project.

In 2013, Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein, the Chief Rabbi of South Africa, presented his community with a challenge — to keep the Sabbath. Just one Shabbat, from beginning to end. And to everyone’s surprise, the majority of South African Jews participated.

One year later, The Shabbos Project had spread to 65 countries, 465 cities and over one million Jews. That year, many communities kicked off the Shabbat festivities with a Thursday night challah bake, including Detroit, which hosted 400 women at Silver Garden in Southfield organized by Partners in Torah.

“It’s not any congregation or organization’s project. It’s a community-wide project that everyone participates in, so that everyone feels welcome and comfortable,” said Estie Tolwin of Aish Detroit, this year’s organizer. “It’s a project beyond denominations or movements. The Great Big Challah Bake welcomes everyone from every congregation, every organization, every temple, every school.”

Accurately anticipating growth in participation, community organizers moved the event to the Royal Oak Farmers Market this year. Women and girls of all ages and walks of life filled the tables, measuring and mixing as Rachel Rosenthal of Aish Detroit lead the live challah-making demonstration from the stage.

“It was incredible seeing hundreds of women from all parts of the Detroit Jewish community unite around the special mitzvah of challah to enhance their Shabbat,” said Rosenthal.

On the rise

As the bakers waited for their dough to rise, community member Julie Zalla led a getting to know you game that got people talking to new faces and making new connections.

Then Federation’s JFamily Director, Lisa Soble Siegmann, took the stage with her guitar and had everyone singing together as she played some Hebrew favorites.

“It’s the idea of having everybody get together and do something that is universal and crosses all lines,” said Tolwin. “When you do an actual activity with someone else, you feel very connected.”

As the evening ended and the women began to leave, dough in hand, you couldn’t help but picture all those braided loaves heading home to be baked and served the next night at a Shabbos table. Amazing how a bit of flour and water, some salt and oil brought a whole community of women together and connected us to our Jewish family around the world, if only for just one Shabbat.