It’s Friday morning, a typical day for a group of men from across metro Jewish Atlanta and cities around the country and world who set aside time to bake challah. According to several of those interviewed by the AJT, using hands to knead, mix and braid the dough brings about a tactile way to reduce feeling stressed in today’s fast-paced culture of 24/7 social media, where hearing ringing phones to alert one to incoming text messages often demand instant responses. During the pandemic, when more men who might have enjoyed baking in the past are now working from home, a private Facebook group “Guys who bake challah” has become an integral part of the well-being for the 100-plus members.
The guys share recipes and techniques from fellow members, watch YouTube presentations, come up with creative variations and often provide their challot to others outside of their homes.
When Facebook group founder Jeff Weener bakes his 12 to 15 challot in two kitchen ovens in his Toco Hills neighborhood, his son Kobi told the AJT, “you can smell the challah aroma from the street.”
In a phone interview, Jeff Weener, who is Camp Ramah Darom’s director of business operations and a member of Congregation Ohr HaTorah, told the AJT how a favorite tradition during COVID is making challot to support charities such as Repair the World Atlanta.
By word of mouth or through referrals, neighbors and others contact him for Shabbat challah orders through social media or email. One can request plain, sesame or everything challot. Orders get picked up on Friday afternoons on his home porch. Customers leave monetary donations in envelopes in a designated box; the entire proceeds go directly to charity. If it’s a gift for someone who lives nearby, Weener will deliver it.
His challot recipes only use high-quality healthy ingredients such as natural eggs, organic virgin oil, and King Arthur brand flour. For those gluten-free like himself, Weener also makes challah using oat flour in the right proportions to count for Hamotzi.
Art and flavor
One’s mouth may start watering when anticipating the taste of Atlantan Noah Pawliger’s challah posted on Facebook during the Jewish New Year holidays. The pictured challah was filled with apples, raisins, figs, apricots cooked in brown sugar, bourbon, a little margarine, and vanilla, with streusel topping. “There is a very spiritual element to baking challah and it’s an important mitzvah,” he told the AJT through Facebook Messenger.
A few artful challahs made by the Facebook group guys include the portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Freddie Feldman of Skokie, Ill.; the Thanksgiving chall’urkey by Marc Aaron Melzer of Teaneck, N.J.; and the Chanukah menorah by San Francisco’s Steven Baruch.
Kobi Weener, who bakes traditional challot, says he thinks a challah becomes a challah when being braided. “This is when the spirit of Shabbat comes into the bread and your personality shows,” he said.
In a Facebook group post, one member asked how to get the best egg wash. Another wondered why his challah braiding was so uneven and parts of the challah were too spaced apart. Turned out he had to add 50 percent more time for the proofing (rising of the dough) and then added more flour to the braids.
Nathaniel Lack of Milton, asked Weener why canned pumpkin was listed in his published challah recipe instead of the more expensive saffron, which he had used for its yellow color and aroma. Weener added pumpkin to the dough mixture after reading the ingredient on a Publix challah’s packaging 20 years ago.
Lack says his best challah Facebook group advice was to weigh his flour, instead of measuring it. One time he followed a member’s video exactly. Despite the mess that ensued, “the challah was wonderful and worth the effort,” he said.
A family activity
Jeremy Schulman, whose wife’s grandmother used to work for Bernie the Baker in Toco Hills, grew up in an observant Atlanta Jewish household. He now replicates the challah’s aroma from childhood memories in his Dunwoody home when his four children join him to make about 12 challahs every four to six weeks, which he says is a great family activity. They eat two challot each Shabbat and often give challot to their friends and neighbors. Schulman said in a Facebook post, “Nobody in my family likes store bought challah. The taste and texture of home baked challah is second to none.”
The “Guys who bake challah” Facebook group is private, so you have to ask to join. Co-administrators are Jeff Weener and his son Kobi, who lives in New Jersey. Although primarily a group founded for “men only,” there are a few female members. In a phone interview, Jeff Weener said creating this Facebook group gives “men a space to have their challah experiences be front and center.” He wants people to invite their friends, saying it’s a collaboration, with members asking questions or offering advice.
- Flora Rosefsky
- Jeff Weener
- Kobi Weener
- Noah Pawliger
- Nathaniel Lack
- Facebook Messenger
- Repair the World Atlanta
- canned pumpkin
- Guys who bake challah
- toco hills
- Ohr HaTorah
- Bernie the Baker
- Ramah Darom
- Jeremy Schulman