(New York Jewish Week) — New York City kitchens are notoriously small. Nonetheless, on Friday Congregation Rodeph Sholom on the Upper West Side unveiled a 35-foot-long challah that they and their partners hope will break a world record.
The gargantuan loaf was made in collaboration with the Jewish Federations of North America and the Orthodox Union with the aim of besting the current record-holder: a challah baked in Australia in 2019 that was just over 32 feet.
The 35-foot challah — braided in Borough Park and baked in New Jersey before being transported to the Reform synagogue — was made in honor of Shabbat of Love, a JFNA initiative that took place on Jan. 19 across North America. JFNA, OneTable, the Orthodox Union and 250 other partner organizations helped Jews organize and host thousands of Shabbat dinners.
“We came up with the idea of doing the Shabbat of Love to uplift people and to communicate the idea that you’re loved for who you are and you’re loved for being Jewish, as opposed to a lot of the messages that I think people are absorbing right now from social media,” said Sarah Eisenman, the chief officer of community and Jewish life at JFNA, who spearheaded the initiative alongside the challah-baking effort.
As for the challah, “I was thinking about what could we do that was a record-breaking, feel-good, prideful thing,” Eisenman said. She had thought about trying to break a record for the world’s largest Shabbat dinner, but realized that the challah would be less complicated and easier to measure.
Eisenman said she reached out to the Orthodox Union for help with logistics and they immediately jumped on board. “They said, ‘Let’s do it,’” she said. “Without the OU, we wouldn’t have been able to do it because they knew who to call right away.”
That call was to Strauss Bakery, a kosher bakery in Borough Park, Brooklyn, who pitched in by creating the dough. Said dough weighed in at more than 200 pounds, and was mixed and braided at the bakery last Thursday night.
Braiding a 35-foot challah is one thing; baking it is another story: The unbaked challah was then loaded onto an 18-wheeler truck and driven across state lines to a kosher commercial kitchen in New Jersey operated by David’s Cookies, which has a 40-foot long tunnel oven — one of the only places in the tri-state area that can fit a challah of that size, according to Eisenman.
Once the challah was baked Thursday night, it was loaded back on the truck and transported to Congregation Rodeph Sholom, where Eisenman’s children go to school. There, a crowd of dozens of volunteers showed up to help unload the oversized challah. Some spontaneously broke out into song, singing “Am Yisrael Chai” (“The People of Israel Live”) as they maneuvered the challah into the building.
Come Friday morning, the challah was finally revealed at an all-school Shabbat assembly for Rodeph Sholom Day School students and their families. Also in attendance was Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine.
“I was shocked it was edible actually,” Eisenman joked, adding that although the bake was “doughy” in parts, community members of all ages were excited to dig in.
Eisenman said the collaboration between the Orthodox Union, the non-denominational JFNA and Rodeph Sholom, a historic Reform congregation with many Israeli members, is “exactly the kind of unifying message we need right now.”
The challah measured 35 feet, 2 inches, Eisenman said. The JFNA and the Orthodox Union are sending the measurements and video evidence to the Guinness World Records this week, and they hope to hear a verdict soon after.
If Guinness accepts the measurements, the challah would break — by several feet — the current record set by Grandma Moses Bakery and the Jewish National Fund chapter in New South Wales, Australia.
The New York-based groups also baked a backup challah that turned out even longer than the challah that was unveiled on Friday — Eisenman said it measured roughly 35 feet, 11 inches but, as it happens, was too long to fit on the wooden planks that transported it from the bakery to the truck. The back-up challah remained in New Jersey, where it was cut up into a dozen three-foot long chunks and donated to all the Moishe Houses in New York City, where the communal residences, designed for Jewish 20-somethings, were hosting their own Shabbat of Love dinners.
“Obviously, right now is a kind of a watershed moment around Jewish identity formation. It’s going to take a little time for the Jewish world to come to terms with what kind of strategies or new initiatives we might need to respond to the moment,” Eisenman said. “In the meantime, we took the approach that we can invest in and create Jewish positive spaces and experiences. We need more of them and we need them now. That is what this is about — building pride, confidence, unity and community.”