Birthright Alumni at Israeli-American Council’s National Conference

Photo credit: Luqux

Photo credit: Luqux

The Israeli-American Council (IAC) and the Orthodox Union’s Bring Israel Home (BIH) program announced a new initiative to strengthen Jewish continuity. The IAC will welcome more than 100 Birthright Israel alumni from the BIH program, along with Israeli soldiers, as part of its third annual National Israeli-American Conference, taking place September 24-26 in Washington, D.C. [Read more…]

Interactive Map Connects Young Adults to High Holiday Opportunities

— by Jason Edelstein

To help Birthright Israel alumni and their friends connect to communities and create their own meaningful experiences during the High Holidays, NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation today launched its 2013 High Holidays Initiative. With an interactive online map of High Holiday services and events around the country, along with the first-time offering of resources and small subsidies to host Rosh Hashanah meals and Yom Kippur break-the-fasts, the initiative empowers young Jewish adults to form communities of meaning with one another, and to celebrate the High Holidays in ways that are accessible and authentic.

More after the jump.
According to NEXT’s CEO Morlie Levin:

Taglit-Birthright participants have returned from their summer trips – joining the hundreds of thousands of alumni from past years – with a personal connection to Judaism, Israel, and the Jewish people. Now is the time to build on that connection and help make Jewish opportunities and communities more accessible. We’ve found that Birthright Israel alumni are particularly interested in celebrating holidays with their friends, and the High Holidays Initiative offers them the opportunity to both create these experiences themselves and connect to community events they find meaningful.

More than 250 services and events in 145 U.S. cities were represented on the interactive map when it launched on August 5, with an increase expected in the coming weeks. Users can easily find events in their city and browse event details, including whether discounted or free tickets are offered. A new feature this year will enable users to filter events based on their preferences for things like egalitarian services, LGBT-friendly events, and more. This is the third year NEXT is offering this online tool.

The resources and subsidies for Birthright Israel alumni to create their own High Holiday experiences are being offered for the first time after the success of NEXT’s Passover Seder initiative. On NEXT’s website, alumni will be able to access traditional and modern insights on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Tools that will help them host High Holiday meals-including Pinterest boards featuring recipes, table setting ideas, and fun High Holiday themes-will also be available. NEXT will additionally offer small subsidies to cover the cost of food for these meals.

The High Holidays Initiative is part of NEXT’s year-round efforts to create opportunities for Birthright Israel alumni and their peers to engage in experiences that deepen their connection to Judaism, Jewish communities, the Jewish people, and Israel. NEXT also consults with local communities and individuals on the most effective strategies for young Jewish adult engagement.

Levin adds:

We have an incredible opportunity to help young Jewish adults turn a ten day trip into a lifelong Jewish journey. Whether by empowering Birthright Israel alumni to find or create meaningful Jewish experiences, or collaborating with local communities and engagement professionals on best strategies to engage this demographic, NEXT is intent on helping young Jewish adults explore deeper Jewish living and learning, as well as their connection to the Jewish people.

NEXT’s other “do-it-yourself” offerings similarly aim to make Jewish experiences more accessible to Birthright Israel alumni. NEXT’s flagship initiative, NEXT Shabbat, has helped more than 7,000 Birthright Israel alumni host more than 16,800 Shabbat experiences for their friends, creating Jewish opportunities that have drawn a total attendance of over 235,000 young adults.

Satirical Videos: Working for Romney & Taglit-Birthright


The one man in America you probably don’t want to work for.
Having said “I like being able to fire people”, Gov. Mitt Romney (played by Justin Long) is cast in the roll of The Office‘s Michael Scott.

This is Taglit
Israeli comedy show Eretz-Nehederet premiered its 7th season (Jan. 23, 2012) with this satire of the Taglit-Birthright Israel trips. Every year tens of thousands of American, European, and South American Jews get free trips to come on a two-week guided tour of Israel. For many this is a chance to see historical sites like Masada, practice whatever Hebrew they learned, and party with Israeli soldiers.

Home Baked Challah For Shabbat

Ronit Treatman

Olive oil lamps and tabun-baked flatbreads were the centerpieces of the first Shabbat tables.  As Jews dispersed around the world, candles replaced oil lamps, and the loaves used for the blessing over the bread sometimes changed as well.  In the fifteenth century, Jews settled along the Rhine River, and were inspired by the local braided egg breads to bake challah.  At that time, every challah was artisanal!  The woman of the house mixed her own dough, shaped it by hand, and baked it fresh for Shabbat. With the arrival of commercial baking, for many families the art of preparing a homemade challah was lost.  Now, many people are reclaiming the skill of baking their own challah for Shabbat.  They are rediscovering the serenity that comes from feeling the flour on their hands, kneading the dough, and filling their home with the sweet smell of fresh challah being baked.

More after the jump.
Currently, there are 216,000 recipes for challah online, 219 challah-baking demonstrations on You Tube, and 14,700 challah related facebook pages. There are spaces in message boards dedicated to discussing the challenges of getting the challah to turn out just the way the baker wants it. Men, women, amateur and professional bakers, and foodies from everywhere are happy to share their experiences.  This interactive world of the Internet has become our new shtetl marketplace.  We can just casually complain that our dough failed to rise, and anyone who hears us can pitch in with a suggestion.

Some of the best challah recipes have been compiled in a book called The Secret of Challah, by Shira Wiener and Ayelet Yifrach.  

In The Secret of Challah, we learn how to perform the mitzvah of Hafrashat challah, or “separating challah.”  This custom takes us back to the 10th century BCE, to the First Temple in Jerusalem.  We separate the prescribed amount of dough before we start braiding our challah.  The blessing which we say over this piece of dough is

Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu l’hafrish challah.

Praised are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and has commanded us to separate challah (from the dough).

We then hold the piece of dough and say

Harei zoh challah.

This is the challah.

This piece of dough is burned, to remind us of the portion of grain every family gave to the Kohanim serving in the temple (Numbers 15:17-21).    This is what is meant by “challah is taken” on packages of kosher bread or matzah.  

This book has beautiful photography, and can handily guide most people through the process of braiding six strands of dough into a splendid, golden challah for Shabbat.  There is a wonderful chapter about decorative traditions for the challah in different communities.

My family baked Chani’s Shabbat Challah from The Secret of Challah.  Here is an adaptation.


Chani’s Shabbat Challah

  • 2 tablespoons dry yeast
  • 2 cups warm water
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1-tablespoon salt
  • ½ cup vegetable oil
  • 4 eggs
  • 9 cups flour

Combine the warm water, sugar, and yeast in a large bowl.  Cover with a clean kitchen towel and put in a warm place.  After about ten minutes, the mixture should be foaming.  Add the eggs, flour, salt, and oil.  Knead the ingredients into dough and cover the bowl with the towel.  Let the dough rise for one hour.  

Remove the dough from the bowl.  Separate it into three pieces.  Roll each piece into a long rope.  Braid the challah and place in a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.

Allow the challah to rise for another forty minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Beat the yolk of two eggs, and brush the challah.

Sprinkle sesame seeds and poppy seeds over it.

Bake the challah for 30 to 40 minutes.

For some people, mixing the dough from scratch is too time consuming and messy.  This is no reason to miss out on all the fun!  For those who don’t want to knead their own dough, it is possible to order frozen Kosher challah dough online.  Wenner Bread Products is a family owned industrial bakery, which operates under the supervision of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.  If you order their kosher challah dough, you can go straight to braiding and baking.  Challah has already been taken at their facility.

For those who yearn for interpersonal interactions, Chabad hosts weekly challah baking workshops, charging only a nominal fee for materials.  About fifty years ago, the Rabbis’ wives started to invite women from their respective communities to bake challah for Shabbat and learn about Judaism.  These rebetzins preserved challah recipes from their grandmothers that otherwise would have been lost in the ashes of the Holocaust.  Chabad is not famous for its gourmet food, yet when it comes to challah baking no one can compete with them!  There is no one “Chabad challah recipe” that is used in all the Chabad centers around the world.  Their instructors are very adventurous!  Chabad collects recipes from everywhere and everyone.  Every challah baking session tries one or more different recipes.  Chabad wants as many people as possible to learn how to bake challah.  As a result, they have created a challah baking class for the deaf, taught in American Sign Language.

Chabad’s success has not gone unnoticed.  Many Jewish Federations and synagogues in the United States have added challah baking as fun hands-on way to build community.  It is one of the most popular activities created for Birthright alumni.  Hillels in colleges across the country are coordinating Challah for Hunger baking sessions.  These challahs are sold, and the money goes to charity.  In my community, my dear friend Rabbi Fredi Cooper has started a group named Kesher.  Kesher volunteers meet in the kitchen of our synagogue and bake fresh challahs.  These challahs are delivered to welcome every new baby in the community, to homebound seniors, and people in hospitals.  

Are you too busy or antisocial to participate in a challah-baking workshop?  That is no excuse not to bake your own challah!  You can follow step-by-step instructions in this video.  

I love baking challah with my children.  This activity is a way of turning Friday after school time into a special occasion leading up to Shabbat dinner.  My philosophy is that it is the process that matters, not the product.  Our challah would never win any sort of award for presentation or taste!  I love to play beautiful music for Shabbat on You Tube while we measure the ingredients and knead the dough.  One example is this video.  I set the Shabbat table while we let the dough rise.  We only have time to let it rise once, but we don’t let that stop us from enjoying ourselves!  The kids form their challahs.  It is possible to be so creative!  A challah doesn’t have to be in the form of a braid.  It can be shaped like a bunch of grapes, a key, and even a hamsa (hand shaped amulet).  Then, my magnum opi paint the challah with egg yolk, to give it a golden sheen.  The challas are sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and poppy seeds.  We put the challahs in the oven one hour before dinner is scheduled to begin.  This gives them enough time to bake, and then cool off a little before they are served.

What I love the most about baking my own challah is that it is part of the process of turning my home into a cocoon for Shabbat.  No matter what else has happened during the week, this is a time to minimize all the bad things, and accentuate the special.  I focus on creating a festive environment, with the sounds of Shabbat music, the tactile pleasure of kneading the dough, the smells of yeast and baking bread, the sight of beautiful golden loaves emerging from the oven, and the taste of fresh, warm, sweet challah.  To me, the smell of a baking challah is the smell of love.