In its third year, Boston University’s ‘Challah for Hunger’ has transformed from a neglected student group into a thriving community that demands the attention it needs to grow — and it’s all thanks to current president Jordan Rozenfeld.
As a national non-profit organization, Challah for Hunger divides itself into local collegiate chapters who bake and sell challah, a traditional Jewish braided bread, in order to garner community support for hunger relief programs across the United States and Israel. Half of each chapter’s proceeds are donated toward the organization’s primary cause, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, while the other 50 percent supports local charities dedicated to hunger relief.
Tying together their dedication to community service with a love for homemade Jewish baked goods, students at Boston University find their home with BU’s Challah for Hunger. Sponsored by the Florence & Chafetz Hillel House, the student-run group is just one of several chapters that meet on an almost bi-weekly basis to prepare, braid, bake and sell challah loaves to raise money for local and national hunger organizations. Here’s how they do it.
All baking inside the Hillel House must abide by traditional kosher standards. For Challah for Hunger, this means checking each individual egg for blood spots — a sign of possible fetal development — before mixing them into an egg and sugar batter that starts Challah for Hunger’s revised two-day baking process.
Both visiting students from Paris, Lorie Perez (center) and Elodie Msika (right) share a laugh with local BU undergrads while preparing three bowls of dough for challah. Perez said the pair learned about the event after taking a tour of the Hillel House earlier that day, and, as an avid challah baker at home, she was intrigued by the sense of community the event provides. “It’s nice because we can learn how to [make challah],” she said, “but also because it permits students to be together and to have fun together, and maybe even to become friends.”
Challah is usually a day-long event, but because most students can’t dedicate an entire day to baking, Challah for Hunger splits the process into two — preparing the dough one night and letting it slowly rise in the fridge before returning the next day to braid and bake.
Prior to each event club president Jordan Rozenfeld tests different fillings and toppings in an attempt to add a little spunk to her otherwise traditional recipe. This week’s flavor? A cinnamon-sugar blend braided inside, with a little extra on top to boost the flavor.
Students lined each of the three strands with a spoonful of cinnamon sugar before pinching them in half, trapping the sweet blend inside to ensure flavor with every bite.
Rozenfeld describes the process of braiding challah as “just like braiding your hair… only a little stickier.” The length and thickness of each loaf relies heavily on the braiding process, as some students tend to pull and stretch out their three strands of dough while weaving them together, while others keep their strands short, creating more plump rolls. Because they primarily sell to students, the group attempts to make smaller loaves more suitable for individual consumption, making only a few family-sized loaves as new volunteers practiced their braiding technique.
So, why challah specifically? “It seems like in different communities and different cities, challah is the one Jewish food that non-Jews actually know about,” Rozenfeld said. “They might have a friend who had it, and they sell it in grocery stores and bakeries, so it’s very widely out there. And it’s also a food that people can connect to and it’s something a lot of people love because their mom or their grandma makes it. So, it’s something that they already like to eat, and then they realize that by purchasing it, they’re also contributing to a great cause.”
Each tray holds roughly 10 loaves and bakes for 15-20 minutes in Hillel’s convection oven which circulates heated air amongst the loaves, allowing them to bake more evenly and in less time than a conventional oven. By the time the loaves were done, Rozenfeld already had five customers who heard about the $3 fresh challah while studying in Hillel and hoped to buy before sales officially began Thursday morning.
At their final event for the semester, Challah for Hunger sold all 48 loaves in one day, raising a total of $140 and bringing their semester-long total to $408, just below their goal of overall goal of $500.
Last year as a freshman, Rozenfeld saw Challah for Hunger as an outlet for her love of baking and a way to connect back to her Jewish roots. By second semester, she recognized many of the challenges the organization faced and sought to change those by taking charge as the club’s president.
“Challah for Hunger had kind of been neglected — no one really knew how to bake Challah, or they didn’t have the time to give to it — so I really wanted to get more involved,” Rozenfeld said. “I decided to take over Challah for Hunger and just try to vamp it up and be more proactive in the community — get the word out when events are happening, make sure we have people here to make the dough and braid and sell, and just spread the love of challah. People learn through their stomachs, so it’s really become an opportunity for me to teach other Jews and other people in the BU community about challah and the tradition it carries.”
However, one of the challenges Rozenfeld faced was that the group was relatively unknown throughout the BU student body, making it difficult to recruit both volunteers and consumers. To fix this, she revamped the club’s recipe, replacing it with the one she grew up using at home, and added a “flavor of the week” (all while reducing the cost from $5 to $3 a loaf) to keep students coming back. Facebook events and flyers helped bump up publicity around campus, and by keeping in constant touch with volunteers, Rozenfeld was able to fill all baking and selling spots each event.
“This year, sales have been going really well,” she said. “People have taken to seeing the different flavors every time and are getting more interested in purchasing. Three dollars seems to be a good price because people tend to have a couple singles on them and they know it’s going to a good cause, so they’re more likely to donate. And our sellers have been more interactive with people walking in; when you get people involved a little more, they tend to be more willing to pay.”
This semester her goal was to raise $500, and while they fell short at $409, Rozenfeld’s adjustments still helped the club overcome previous numbers. Last semester’s events raised roughly $300. Rozenfeld said she hopes to continue pushing the numbers higher, but ultimately the club’s success depends on Hillel’s schedule and the number of events they can host each semester.
As Challah for Hunger expands, Rozenfeld is looking to other successful chapters on where to go next. Her next step? Creating an executive board so that more students can take on a more permanent role in the mission.
“For some chapters it’s a big operation and they have an entire board — a president, secretary, treasurer, everything,” she said. “Right now I do a lot of the work, so I’d like to pass it on to other people and make them more passionate about this, and really just have a solid volunteer base.”