The D’Angelo Center of St. John’s University is a beautiful building, with a soaring two-story lobby, glass stairs, and a working fireplace – if you can find it among the labyrinth of the college campus, which is really a small city. But find it I must. The JSA-Emet Challah Bake is not an event to miss. So I ask one student, then another. I’m pointed up a graceful flight of shallow stairs, down a mini-street – seriously, there are green road signs – up a hill, and then I confirm at the door that this is indeed the D’Angelo Center. Then I wander around the cavernous space until I find a staircase to the fourth floor, room 416 B&C.
As soon as I push open the door, I know I’m in the right place. For one, shawarma, onion rings, and middle-eastern style salads (heavy on the roasted eggplant and the pickled everything) are being set up on a few side tables. Experience has acquainted me with Emet’s rotating array of gourmet meals, and this is one.
For another, there is mellow Israeli music playing. Yep, this is an Emet event, atmospheric and accessible to all types.
But the real tip-off is the room set-up: dozens of round tables, each place setting with a large plastic bowl. Each bowl is filled with a measuring cup, nestling measuring spoons, a laminated recipe, and properly portioned ingredients. There’s a five pound bag of flour, several bottles of water, yeast, sugar – and on each chair, there is a blue apron with words to remember the event. Good thing for those aprons. Like all Emet groups, this crowd is chicly dressed. Good thing for the plastic gloves, too; there’s plenty of bling on these fingers.
I meet my friend, Lisa, and we choose a table with red bowls, overriding the pink, green, yellow, and blues. Thank you, Lisa, for agreeing to match my fleishig dishes. Soon we are joined by Esther and Mazal, St. John students. Esther says it’s her first time making challah, and she’s certain it will flop. She definitely would never try this alone at home.
But at the next table, Elizabeth Boboyev grins. She’s been making challah at home for years, and this is her third challah baking event with Emet. I shouldn’t be surprised. Elizabeth has been with Emet for eight years, from when she was a student. “It feels good,” she says of making challah.
Her friend and tablemate, Janet Abrakhaimova, agrees. “I feel it bringing brachah into my house,” the Emet alumnus says. When I ask her how she got into Emet, she says that Rabbi Reuven Kigel approached her at Hunter College ten years ago. “He asked, ‘Are you Jewish? Do you like Chinese food?’ And now I’m part of the Emet family,” she says. “Mrs. Devorah Kigel was my dating coach and is my mentor.”
A group of college freshmen at the next table are excited to bake challah for the first time. Rachel Eliav, who is there with a table of friends, says that the St. John’s Jewish Student Association, or JSA, is like a family. “It doesn’t feel like a Catholic college,” she says. “Everyone here is friendly. They find out you’re Jewish and then you’re part of the JSA, like that.” The JSA is a sister organization to Emet, and the challah baking event was organized together.
The next table is an even younger group, high school seniors who have been brought along like Emily’s sister. Being in a public high school, but coming from traditional families, Mary, Emily, and the rest of the table are eager to join in a Jewish event.
It’s wonderful to see Inez Yadgarov, a Touro and Emet graduate. This past August, Inez joined a group of St. John’s students on Emet’s moving and growth-oriented Poland trip. Like Janet and Elizabeth, Inez is still in touch with Emet through social media, and especially through Sara B., Emet’s coordinator/magician. Inez and her friend, Diana Kakurebo, are religious women and know how to make challah. They are at the event for the beautiful atmosphere and for the inspiration. “These girls are in school full-time. Some of them are also working. They’re from traditional homes, and they’re here to make challah,” Inez says, explaining why she just couldn’t miss the night.
As per Emet’s formula, there’s plenty of time to mingle and eat before the main event begins. And good thing, too, because the shawarma is predictably good. (I take issue with those mini-muffins, though. Yes, the packaging says they are “school safe,” but are they digestion safe? That thing tasted like poppy-flavored sheetrock.)
At a quarter to nine, JSA president Natalie Eshaghian, who organized the Challah Bake with fellow JSA leaders, begins the event. By the crowd’s reaction, this is one popular event leader. She introduces Mrs. Shonnie Rutenberg, the wife and quiet force behind Emet’s cofounder and CEO Rabbi Akiva Rutenberg. Shonnie speaks about the significance of challah. She draws in the crowd by explaining that although we’re removing a portion of the dough, we’re actually gaining, not losing. As Jews, we recognize that as a giver, you benefit as much as the recipient, and bestow brachah upon your possessions. Shonnie’s friendly and candid manner resonates with the crowd of 100+ students.
Next, the demonstration of making challah begins. Natalie takes the mike and directs the students with clear instructions. Baking “coaches” circulate and ensure that everyone follows with no major snafus. Even my tablemate Esther finds that she can follow along! Maybe making challah isn’t that hard; maybe she will even do this herself one week.
The evening was topped off by a powerful speech from Mrs. Devorah Kigel about the importance and significance of the mitzvah of Hafrashas Challah. Mrs. Kigel is an extremely popular lecturer and shalom bayis expert who speaks at many Emet events. She is a warm, penetrating speaker, with whom many Emet students of all levels of observance have developed a strong, lasting connection.
Of course, the most significant moment is the mafrish challah brachah, when women from all spectrums of Jewish observance recite the words together. On this Catholic campus, in this large glassed-in room, in this corner of New York, there is a moment of holiness. This is why we came, this transformation, when time and bread and women transcend their physicality and become something more. Everyone in the room feels it. The students took their rising dough home to bake, and to extend the spirituality into their own domains. Like all Emet events, this one will reverberate far past its given time.
By Zisi Naimark