On Thursday night, over 130 Jewish women from around Howard County got together to chat, laugh, and sing as they mixed, kneaded, and braided challah. At the same time, thousands of Jewish women around the world gathered to do the very same thing.
"It creates solidarity with Jewish women all over the world," said Sophie Novinsky, director of adult programming at the Jewish Federation of Howard County, which sponsored the local gathering. "It's so powerful, knowing that all these women are coming together on this day at this time. It unifies all of us, and gives you this feeling of solidarity and connecting to women globally."
The Great Big Challah Bake, held at the Lubavitch Center of Howard County, was one of many similar events held in cities all over the world on Thursday evening.
"We received an email from one of the women who did it in Baltimore last year," said Novinsky. "She wanted Howard County to participate in the event in Baltimore this year. And it's just such a great community-building event, that we decided we should do it on our own. If Baltimore can do it, we're mighty as well, so we're doing it!"
Last year, the Baltimore Shabbat Project held a challah baking event attended by more than 1,300 Jewish women, according to Baltimore Jewish Life.
Challah is a braided sweet bread eaten by observant Jews during Jewish holidays and also during shabbat, which is a day of rest kept every week from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday.
"It's a time to slow down, take a break and work on those relationships that you didn't have time for during the week," said Brachy Davis, who led sing-alongs at the Howard County event.
The idea of gathering women from all over the world to make challah on the same day and at the same time originated from the two-year-old Shabbos Project, a grassroots movement started in South Africa that "calls on Jews around the world to experience one complete Shabbat together -- from sunset to stars out," according to the project's website. Challah bakes were started as a way of unifying Jewish women and kicking off Shabbos Project events.
The tradition, or mitzvah, of the making of challah is imbued with spiritual meaning in the Jewish faith, especially for women.
"While she mixes all the ingredients together, that is an opportune time for women to pray for the health and safety of their families, and whatever needs people have," said Chani Baron, who explained the religious significance of challah at The Great Big Challah Bake. Baron is the wife of the Lubavitch Center's rabbi. "As she puts in the ingredients, the thought process and prayers and intent fills the dough, so that those who consume it partake in those efforts and prayers."
After a woman mixes and kneads the yeast, water, sugar, salt, oil, egg and flour into dough, she first pulls off a small piece and prays over it, a reminder that "the first part of everything we do should be for God," said Baron.
"I like to take off the first piece of dough, so that I can think of someone who needs something, like a speedy recovery," said Baron's daughter Rachel.
Many of the women at The Great Big Challah Bake had never made challah before, so Rachel's sister, Chaya, called out recipe instructions over the microphone.
"When your dough is ready — not too sticky, just right — put it in your bowl to rise," she said.
Vikki Raven, who was making challah for the first time, looked skeptically at her dough. It did not look like it had risen after sitting for about twenty minutes.
"Maybe I should sit on it, like a chicken," she said.
"This is the first time I've ever made challah," said Irene Vogel, who attended with her daughter, Hallie. "It's always just seemed way too difficult. But I'm hoping it's not as difficult as I thought and that we'll do it again."
In years past, the tradition of baking challah was passed down from mother to daughter, said Baron.
"Unfortunately over the years, that may have been lost because our culture isn't set up so that the generations are together to pass on this tradition of challah baking," she said.
But Jodie Reid and her 12-year-old daughter, Alanna, were not at the event to learn how to make challah. The two make it every weekend, Reid said.
"I thought this would be a fun night out," she said. "And [my daughter] can see that she's part of a larger community."
Tickets to The Great Big Challah Bake were sold out three days before the event, according to Hedy Tanenholtz, a member of the Jewish Federation's board of directors.
"Today, 130-plus women Jewish Howard County women with different affiliations, from various backgrounds and traditions, have come to share this amazing experience with the community here tonight," she told the audience before the challah making began.
"It's really exciting that there are so many people are here, from so many different congregations," said Lynn Weinsteen, who attended the event with her friend Susan Wheeler. Both women are part of Bet Chaverim, a new Jewish congregation in Howard County.
"There are groups from all over the world doing this — that's what got me," Wheeler said. "That's the one common thing between all of us Jewish women, is the baking of challah."