Completing a Jewish holiday table with challah bread

UW Hillel donates challah proceeds to charities
Completing a Jewish holiday table with challah bread
Photo by Amelia Bates

In the Jewish faith, challah (pronounced with a guttural “h”–khah-luh) holds quite a bit of meaning.

There’s much commentary about the true origin and significance of the holy bread that’s eaten by many Jews on Friday nights with the Sabbath and at holidays, but Rabbi Andrea Steinberger of University of Wisconsin Hillel simplifies it to a basic idea.

“The challah really symbolizes the gratitude a person might feel for having sustenance in their lives. Both the physical sustenance of food and, for some, it might also be the sustenance of culture and peoplehood associated with it,” she says.

The beautifully braided bread is often a centerpiece of Jewish families’ holiday tables, generally taking the shape of a long loaf when served on Fridays in particular. But Rabbi Steinberger mentions that for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, it’s often in a round shape to signify a new year and a new cycle of life. “On the Jewish New Year, [it’s made with] raisins and other sweet things … so that you’re kind of eating your way into sweetness,” Steinberger says.

UW Hillel is a nonprofit that provides Jewish programs and activities for college students and other community members, and it also houses Adamah Neighborhood Table, one of only two kosher restaurants in Wisconsin, headed by executive chef Jason Kierce.

“We put out some pretty good food, but people don’t realize what we have to do to put it out,” says Kierce, who isn’t Jewish. “We’re an extremely kosher organization, but I’m an extremely Christian individual,” he says. He says he understands and appreciates the significance of the food he makes at Adamah. “This job is much more than putting food on a plate and hoping someone smiles and making a buck. There is huge spiritual and religious significance to everything I do, and I have to follow the rules,” he says. “I take great honor that they trust me to do it.”

Challah bread is one of the food items that is blessed in the Adamah kitchen by a rabbi. It’s served every Friday night at UW Hillel’s community dinners to observe the Sabbath. On every Thursday, college students come into the kitchen to bake challah as part of a program called Challah for Hunger, in which all challah sale proceeds go to the Madison nonprofit Porchlight and a U.S. nonprofit based in Los Angeles called MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

For Steinberger, challah helps her family find appreciation on holidays. “Our goal with making the challah is to bring meaning to the table and into the dinner conversation about the holiness of our being together and celebrating the holiday,” she says. “And an awareness that not everybody has what they need in the world, and it can stir us to be more aware of what we can do to help others.”

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