If you don’t know the meaning of the word achdut, you don’t have to bother with a Hebrew-English dictionary. You just have to look at pictures and videos from the many, many communities who participated in this year’s Great Challah Bake.
Under most circumstances, if someone suggested that I spend my Thursday evening in the Cow Palace of the Maryland State Fairgrounds with close to 5,000 other women, they clearly didn’t know me very well. While I generally spend my Thursday evenings baking challah, I prefer to do it in my jammies and the comfort of my own kitchen.
So what was it that motivated me to step way outside my comfort zone (literally)? Achdut. The word literally translates to “unity,” but in this case its deeper meaning reflects that regardless of our differences—maybe because of our differences—we are one people.
I had some behind-the-scenes info about the planning of Baltimore’s event, and so I knew that this year’s Great Challah Bake was an incredible effort, not just to encourage women to come together in the mitzvah of making challah, but as a celebration of the different women who make up our community. It was an acknowledgement that all the members of our community are vital to the strength and spiritual makeup of the Jewish community.
When I walked into the massive building, I saw the 160,000 square foot space set up with beautiful pink tablecloth-covered tables lined up in rows with all the supplies bakers would need. Hundreds of volunteers had gathered to make sure each table had flour, sugar, eggs, water, oil, salt, and yeast. Simple ingredients that our matriarchs have used for centuries to create challah—the special bread that serves as the centerpiece of the Shabbat table in Jewish homes each week. After greeting friends and schmoozing over a snack of soup, salad, and cookies, women gathered at each table to combine the supplies according to the provided recipe. Table captains were assigned to each group to make sure that even the novice challah baker created a masterpiece. We mixed ingredients while the organizers spoke of the purpose of the event—not only to teach mixing, kneading, and braiding, but to feel the connection to Jewish women all around the world and to focus our collective spirituality and energy.
In the spirit of achdut, great efforts were made to ensure that nobody would feel left out. There were tables that were easily accessible to people with physical disabilities, as well as chairs if needed; tables close to the stage and an ASL interpreter; tables with leaders who spoke Russian and Hebrew to make everyone feel comfortable and welcome; tables with gluten-free and vegan options. Leaders of the event came from all walks of Judaism, and at each of the close to 400 tables, there were women who were expert challah bakers, first time challah bakers, and even people (believe it or not) who had never tasted challah before, let alone made it. An added bonus was that I got to share this experience with my 12-year-old daughter. She and her entire middle school came as a group.
So yes, it was worth it—worth the crowds, the noise, the traffic, and the chaos. I’ll spend the rest of the year baking challah on my own in my jammies, but I’ll be looking forward to next year’s Great Challah Bake.