By Lisa Woolfson
The Jewish Federation of Howard County’s Sixth Annual Great Challah Bake will be held virtually for the first time on Nov. 15.
The event will be hosted on Zoom and will begin with an introduction by Federation lay leaders. Participants will watch a video about troubleshooting dough and learn some challah-braiding techniques. Afterward, they will go into breakout rooms to mix their ingredients, then play trivia games over Zoom. Attendees will also learn about the Federation and what they’ve been doing for the community during the pandemic. Lastly, they’ll go back to breakout rooms to shake out the dough and hang out.
The annual challah bake normally takes place in person. Attendees pay an entrance fee and are provided with ingredients. They sit together at tables of ten, often at intergenerational tables, with grandmothers, mothers and daughters, or with friends or other community members.
This year, the event planning committee had to figure out if it was even possible to have a challah bake with COVID-19. They watched cooking demonstrations online and thought people could all bake challah together at home with their own ingredients, but they worried about the Zoom fatigue that comes with spending months interacting over a computer screen. How could they attract people to this virtual event?
Organizers decided breakout rooms were the answer. Instead of having everyone staring at pages of tiny Zoom squares, they could join breakout rooms with their friends and family or people in their community.
“A lot of people missed the Jewish holidays with their families so we thought this would be a great opportunity,” said event co-chair Adrienne Goldstein, an Ellicott City resident and member of Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia.
The breakout rooms came with some benefits. For example, while tables at the in-person events were limited to ten people, this is not true of the virtual rooms. Breakout rooms this year will include larger groups, such as synagogue sisterhoods and a Hebrew school second grade class.
Traditionally, this event has been primarily geared towards women, according to Shauna Leavey, program director of the Federation.
“We’ve had requests for at least three years of how we might expand it to be more inclusive in the community,” said Leavey, who resides in Owings Mills and whose children attend Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. “This was such an easy way to say yes, absolutely, that anyone can participate this year, and it might inspire our future years [of this] program. We’ll see who shows up and how they like it, but I really do think it’s expanded for the better.”
The virtual nature of this event also provides more geographic opportunities. In years past, only those in the area could attend. This year, people from all over will be able to partake via Zoom.
One of the event co-chairs, Columbia resident Vicki Harvey, is taking advantage of this. “I’m gonna be able to be with my cousins in New Jersey,” she said.
This year, attendance will be measured by household instead of individual. Typically, there are about 250 people who register. This year, between 150 and 170 households are expected to participate, but each household could have one person or multiple involved in the event.
This turnout was a pleasant surprise.
“We’ve actually been overwhelmed with the response, we’re absolutely thrilled. … We are just so happy that COVID times didn’t ruin the challah bake for all of us,” Goldstein said.
Once they figured out how to attract participants, the committee found a way to streamline the process of people getting their ingredients. They partnered with Sunflower Bakery in Rockville to sell baking kits with premeasured ingredients. People can order and pick up the baking kits, which will make it easier to bake the challah in their own homes.
Regardless of whether participants choose to purchase a baking kit, there is still an admission fee for the program. The proceeds go toward the event itself and helps fund the social services department run by the Jewish Federation of Howard County.
Registration for the event closes at noon on Wednesday. Baking kits are no longer available at this time.
“We’re really excited,” Leavey said. “It’s a new creative way to engage in the community, and no matter who’s there, they’re gonna have a lot of fun. They’re gonna learn a little bit and they have the opportunity to hang out with their friends and family and make challah, which is gonna be delicious.”
Lisa Woolfson is a freelance writer.