By: Nava Katz  | 

Challah Bakes Are More Than Just Challah Bakes — Even at YU

Growing up, YU alumna Raquel Sofer’s (SCW ‘19) friends and family had participated in challah bakes run by a prominent figure in her community: Rabbanit Sarah Levy. When Rabbanit Levy passed, the tradition continued in her memory and was run by another local Rabanit and Sofer’s mother and grandmother. (Challah bakes are events where participants get to learn about the mitzvah of challah and enjoy baking it together.)

When Sofer came to YU, she was surprised that the Jewish institution had never run a challah bake. Coming from a “challah bake” household, Sofer had personally experienced the beauty of the mitzvah and wanted to bring it to Beren students, many of whom had never baked challah and were unaware of its significance. As the president of the International Club, Sofer felt that she was in a unique position to make that happen.

Every year, Jewish communities worldwide participate in The Shabbat Project, a movement that unites Jews in experiencing one Shabbat together. This extended weekend begins with a Thursday night challah bake. Although her childhood challah bakes had not been affiliated with     The Shabbat Project, Sofer decided to run the 2017 YU Challah Bake in affiliation with the movement. 

The project was difficult to get off the ground. There were many technical issues, including funding and getting approval to run a large event that included preparing food, in addition to receiving permission to use the school cafeteria ovens. With the help of faculty from the Office of Student Life and the International Club, Sofer worked hard to ensure the event happened in spite of the obstacles. She fundraised and worked to get supplies and a speaker for the event. She packed bags with bowls, aprons, and booklets that explained the mitzvah while she was at home in Panama over holiday break and convinced people to help her bring them back to Beren. With only three weeks to the event and numerous hurdles standing, many doubted that the event would occur, but Sofer knew that if she could initiate it, there would be infrastructure in place to continue it year after year. 

Although it was not easy to coordinate, over 200 people attended the event, and it was an overwhelming success. For some participants, this was “their first time [baking] challah, and [they] were really grateful for this amazing opportunity,” Sofer recalled. She was grateful for the chance to make a difference. “My mom taught me that you can always make an impact, no matter how large or small,” she continued. Aside from last year’s cancellation due to COVID-19, Sofer’s dream of instituting the challah bake as a yearly event has continued to be fulfilled. Pre-COVID participation was high, with 250-300 women participating in the 2019 challah bake. 

The challah bake is a fun way to unite the student body in learning about the mitzvah of baking challah. “It is huge and so special to get all these women together to do a mitzvah!” International Club Co-President Lara Amar (SCW ‘22) told The Commentator. 

Costs associated with the event are expensive — requiring around $3,000-$4,000 — so the International Club runs fundraising campaigns to pay for it. Much of the funding comes from alumni, but YU sponsors a large portion of the costs. 

This year, the YU Challah Bake took place on Oct. 28 in the Koch Auditorium on the Beren Campus, where it has traditionally been held. Due to COVID-19 and the fact that the event coincided with midterm week, turnout was lower this year than in past years, with only around 70 attendees. Regardless, the event was a huge success. 

Students had a great time learning about hafrashat challah and getting to know each other better. The event featured three guest speakers — Danielle Immerman, Adela Cojab and Sheli Fouzailoff — who spoke about their experiences as working religious women. “They gave us amazing insight on how to [stay] religious in their [respective] fields of work, and it was really inspiring to hear them talk about what motivated them to do what they do,” said International Club Co-President Sharon Benzaquen (SCW ‘24).

“It was a beautiful event,” she continued. “Having 70 girls in a room doing an important mitzvah and seeing the impact it had on everyone was really special for me.” The event has become an integral part of YU’s student life on campus.

The challah bake is accompanied by a coed Shabbaton hosted on the Beren Campus, which will take place on Nov. 19. “You'll hear a ton of different languages being spoken, and everyone has different traditions, but everyone shares their love for Shabbat!” said Amar, regarding the upcoming Shabbaton. 

The club also continued an initiative they began in 2018 known as the “Pick-a-Mitzvah” campaign. It involves picking one new mitzvah to focus on for the week of the Shabbat Project, with hopes to continue it for the rest of the year. The campaign started in Panama five years ago and has now spread globally.

Photo Caption: YU Challah Bake

Photo Credit: Lena Ohayon