Manna from Heaven: Jewish Community Center teaches all faiths to make Challah bread

Elizabeth Reihman didn’t need directions to find the challah-making class; she simply followed her nose and the drifting aroma of the freshly baked loaves.

“I always knew how to find my grandmother’s house because this was the smell,” said Reihman, who showed up for the second session of challah making Feb. 24 at the Augusta Jewish Community Center.

She arrived in time to enjoy the scent of the previous class’s loaves as they came out of the oven.

According to Jewish tradition, three Sabbath meals, Friday night, Saturday lunch and Saturday late afternoon and two holiday meals begin with two complete loaves of bread in commemoration of the manna that came from heaven during the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt, according to Leah Ronen, the executive director of the Augusta Jewish Community Center.

The word “challah” comes from a Hebrew word used for the position of dough given back as an offering to the priests every Shabbat.

While there are slight variances in recipes, most of them contain yeast, flour, eggs, salt, sugar, margarine and sesame seeds for sprinkling on top.

Reihman was one of six participants in the class. Some of the attendees had made challah before, and others never had.

Elliott Levy said he’s always enjoyed cooking, but he’s never made challah before, so he and his wife took the class.

“I want to be able to make it myself, and I thought it might be fun to do,” he said. “My sister knows how to make it.”

And if there’s bread left on Sunday, Levy said it makes “wicked good” French toast.

Reihman had made challah before, but there’s one step she never learned how to do – the beautiful braiding of the bread before it goes into the oven.

“It’s a lot simpler than I thought. It was daunting to me,” she said.

Challah loaves are typically braided with four or six strands of dough. Three braids signify love, justice and truth. Additional love can be found in the other strands, which can look like intertwined arms, according to Ronen.

Braiding is easier if you remember to move the piece farthest right to the left with an “over, under, over” pattern, she said.

The challah can be shaped differently according to the holiday. People often make ladder or hand shapes at Yom Kippur before the fast to signify trying to ascend to greater heights in the new year.

About once a month, there’s a baking activity at the center, said Ronen.

“They’ve been very successful,” she said.

The center is a place where people can learn about Jewish culture, and those who aren’t Jewish are welcomed to participate in programs there, she said.

“In keeping with the philosophy of the JCC, we’re a meeting place for the Jewish community, and we are open to the outside as well.”

To learn more, visit the Augusta Jewish Community Center’s website at www.augustajcc.org.

The Recipe

Betty Feldman’s challah recipe, courtesy of her granddaughter, Elizabeth Reihman:

1 package yeast

¼ cup sugar

1 to 1½ cups warm water

¹/³ cup oil

3 large eggs

2 teaspoons salt

5 to 5½ cups bread flour

Sesame seeds for sprinkling

Dissolve yeast in warm water with a large pinch of the sugar. Let stand for 10 minutes.

Whisk oil into the yeast. Add 2 beaten eggs, and the rest of the sugar and salt.

Slowly add flour for 15 minutes. Grease bowl. Return bread to the bowl. Let rise for 45 minutes.

Turn dough onto a floured cutting board. Split into thirds (fourths or sixths). Roll each into a long strand. Braid strands. Brush egg wash on finished dough. Sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Bake 35-45 minutes at 375 degrees.

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