By Bayla Sheva Brenner
On the night of October 21st, more than 2000 Jewish women filled Brooklyn’s Grand Prospect Hall for Project Inspire’s Great Big Challah Bake in a quest to make the world’s largest challah.
“Our goal was to create an event to unify Jewish women around the concept of challah,” said Rabbi Yaakov Giniger, director of programming for Project Inspire, the Jewish outreach organization that arranged the event. “With what’s going on in the world, the Jewish people need to come together, especially around such a holy mitzvah (commandment).”
Thanks to the joint efforts of Project Inspire and OU Kosher, the crowd witnessed the unveiling of the world’s largest challah, a Guinness World Record—20 feet long, freshly baked, and certified kosher by the Orthodox Union. Challahs are the braided loaves of bread traditionally eaten by Jews on the Sabbath.
Making the world’s largest challah wasn’t an easy feat. Soon into the project, Rabbi Giniger ran into a glitch. Although Brooklyn-based Strauss Bakery’s professional team was ready and eager to braid the giant strands of dough, they couldn’t provide an oven large enough to bake it.
Rabbi Giniger turned to his neighbor, Rabbi Leonard Steinberg, an OU Kosher Rabbinic Coordinator, who put him in touch with Rabbi Yisroel Bendelstein. As a rabbinic coordinator for a number of commercial bakeries, Rabbi Bendelstein knew the right address for the colossal challah: Damascus Bakery, an OU-certified pita factory that produces 11,000 pitas and flatbreads an hour. Edward Mafoud, one of the owners, not only consented, but offered the bakery’s industrial state-of-the art long-tunnel oven free of charge.
“He was delighted to be part of such a novel idea,” said Rabbi Bendelstein. So much so, Mafoud had expert engineers adjust the oven’s band speed and temperature in order to accommodate the huge challah. The hefty challah also required four men to braid it, custom-made trays to bake it and a moving company to transport it.
As Chanalee Fischer, the entrepreneur behind “The Challah Fairy” challahs, demonstrated the steps involved in challah preparation on stage, loudspeakers and screens, thousands of green-gloved women and 200 challah coaches kneaded their individual bowls of dough. A portion of each participant’s challah was then joined to the giant challah.
Some worked in silence. 11 deaf women, members of Our Way, the OU’s program for the Jewish deaf, busied their hands not only to work the dough, but also to sign.
“I’m thrilled to be here and be a part of this,” signed Betty Kasher, a deaf attendee.
While waiting for everyone’s dough to rise, Chani Juravel, noted Torah lecturer, gave the aproned assemblage a minute to send up a prayer. The room’s happy chatter suddenly fell still and airborne, heartfelt requests quickly filled up the space.
The challah bake also unified Jewish generations. Mrs. Mirca Itzkowitz, a Holocaust survivor, took the stage and recited the Hebrew blessing over the ritual separating of a portion of challah to a rousing communal “Amen!” Her granddaughter, Gitty Itzkowitz, standing beside her, translated it into English.
Katherine Khozheva, 29, who heard about the Great Big Challah Bake from the kiruv (Jewish outreach) organization RAJE (Russian Jewish American Experience), proudly held up her challah—the first she ever made. “I just came back from Poland and Israel in June,” she says. “I wanted to learn how to make challah. It’s very exciting.”
And then, the big moment arrived. A challah that nearly covered the full width of the stage lay on a table before an astounded audience. Alex Angert, official Guinness World Records adjudicator, presented Rabbi Chaim Sampson, director of Project Inspire, with a framed Guinness World Records certificate. Rabbi Moshe Elefant, Chief Operating Officer of OU Kosher, proudly stood by.
“We are always on the lookout for exciting new records,” said Angert. “Particularly ones that represent the spirit of people coming together to achieve a greater good. This was the perfect attempt for that.”
“The OU was thrilled to be part of this event,” said Rabbi Elefant. “The energy in the room was incredible and we were happy to facilitate the baking of the challah and the certification. Hopefully it will go a long way in bringing our brothers and sisters closer to observing Shabbos.”
“I feel the love!” shouted Shimi Adar, popular Orthodox Zumba instructor and the event’s exuberant emcee. “It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, what you look like, or where you’re holding in your life; we are all here together!”
Music blasted from the speakers and everyone took to their feet, breaking into jubilant dancing. Arm in arm they circled around the tables and through the ballroom singing, cheering, and celebrating.
“I had the time of my life,” said Suzi Basch of Boro Park as she headed for home. “It was a moment of unity with Jews of every stripe.”
The participants filed out of the Hall into the Brooklyn streets, exchanging numbers and long goodbyes. They held fast to their challahs and to the indelible impact of that night, when, in this reporter’s opinion, 2,200 hearts became one.