April 19, 2018

Challah for Charity

UMass Amherst students bake, braid, and sell bread for a good cause

In the basement of the Hillel House, a center for Jewish life located just off the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus, students gather on a Thursday night in March to put their braiding skills to the test as they make challah, a traditional Jewish bread. They mix and separate the thick dough, and then tug, pull, and twist it into symmetrical braids. Students continue to braid as loaves of challah bake in industrial-size ovens and the smell of rising bread fills the room.

The bread making, led by the UMass chapter of Challah for Hunger, an international organization, takes place several times per year over three days: one day to make the dough, one day to braid and bake, and one day to sell. After baking and braiding, UMass students sell the fresh challah in the Campus Center and donate the proceeds; this semester they chose to support the Amherst Survival Center.

This evening, while the student volunteers braid, M. J. Budebo, the president of Challah for Hunger at UMass and a junior biology major, carries trays of braided challah to the ovens. She later bags the bread, over 60 loaves in all, with a list of ingredients, ready to sell the following day. Though Budebo didn’t bake challah until coming to college, she was one of the founders of the UMass group and has been involved since her freshman year.

UMass Amherst student kneading bread.UMass Amherst baking volunteer Rachel Polansky ’20 carefully kneads challah dough to ensure it is the right consistency for braiding.

Students bake plain challah and multiple nontraditional flavors of the bread, including lemon, chocolate chip, funfetti, and birthday cake. Budebo reports that their challah usually sells out at the Campus Center. “The most popular flavors are chocolate chip and birthday cake,” she says.

The bake-and-braid events are a fun and social way to make a difference, and the group welcomes all students—braiding novices and braiding experts, Jewish and non-Jewish students alike.

Volunteer Maddison Avergon, a junior kinesiology major participating in her first Challah for Hunger bake, grew up baking challah at home with her family. “My mom was always making challah for different occasions and holidays. I was the designated braider; it was fun and made the house smell great!”

Avergon braids quickly, with clear skill. “Braiding challah is a lot like braiding hair. It is important for the dough to be pliable and stretchy. Starting in the middle can make the bread more symmetrical,” she says.

Students bake challah four times per semester, with plenty of opportunity to get involved. “Baking and selling challah is fun because it is a way to be reminded of home or try something new, all while supporting a great cause,” says Avergon.

—by Ali Ziomek ’18