Buy a challah and feed the hungry

Stanford University senior Rachel Waltman has her hands full these days, finishing up her studies before graduating in June. But every Thursday she takes a break from studying and gets her hands full of sticky, yeasty bread dough.

If it’s Thursday, it’s Challah for Hunger day at Stanford. That’s when Waltman and dozens of other volunteers crowd into the Hillel at Stanford kitchen for an evening of kneading, braiding and baking to make the world a better place.

Stanford’s baking brigade turns out 200 plain, sesame, poppy seed, cinnamon raisin, garlic rosemary and chocolate chip challahs before calling it a night. The next day the sales team sets up a booth at Hillel, hawking the challahs for $5 apiece. All proceeds go to charitable organizations.

“I can say without a doubt that Challah for Hunger has been the most influential experience and most important thing I have done since I came to Stanford,” says the cheery 21-year-old New Jersey native. “I love it. Challah for Hunger is my everything.”

Launched in 2004, the Philadelphia-based organization boasts 72 chapters on scores of college campuses nationwide, as well as overseas in cities such as London, Sydney and Montreal. Local chapters, in addition to the one at Stanford, include U.C. Berkeley, U.C. Davis and U.C. Santa Cruz.

The premise is as simple as it sounds: Bring students together to bake challahs, then sell the bread to raise money for charity.

At Stanford University (from top): Challah for Hunger volunteer Eleanor Walker; former advocacy manager Simone Hudson and shift manager Megan Donahoe; financial manager Tatiana Grossman with former volunteer manager David Wintermeyer.

In the last 10 years, Challah for Hunger has raised more than $600,000 for food charities on sales of 200,000 challahs. Every American chapter splits the proceeds between Mazon, the national Jewish nonprofit that feeds the hungry, and other charities chosen by the chapter.

Challah for Hunger decided last spring to join forces with Mazon in part because it works closely with local food charities.

“We found students were really connecting to that local place,” says Carly Zimmerman, who launched the University of Pittsburgh chapter in 2008 as an undergraduate and is now the nonprofit’s national CEO. “They take the hunger part of our work very seriously.”

Hunger remains a serious problem across America, in rural and urban areas, red states and blue states. According to a USDA study, in 2013 more than 17 million U.S. households (14.3 percent) were food-insecure. Benefits in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program average $1.45 per person per meal, forcing many families to rely on charity to avoid malnutrition.

“Challah for Hunger is successful because it connects with millennials’ Jewish values,” Zimmerman says. “It really resonates with this generation. You hear a lot about them being entitled, but this draws on one of the best parts of this generation: the desire to take action and not sit idly by.”

At Stanford, challah sales bring in about $800 a week, $20,000 a year, with every penny going to feed the hungry.

“This is at the core of what we do,” says Waltman, who started volunteering with Challah for Hunger in her freshman year and today serves as the chapter’s co-director. ”It’s why we exist as a student group. Tikkun olam and community service is the heart of who we are.”

The program certainly appeals to Jewish students, but Challah for Hunger also encourages chapters to team up with non-Jewish student organizations. It could be an equestrian team or the Filipino-American Student Association, the LGBT Queer Center or a Muslim student organization.

Politics are left outside the kitchen door.

“We are one group that is totally apolitical and brings students together,” says Maddy Winard, 22, a senior at U.C. Santa Cruz and the baking coordinator for her school’s Challah for Hunger. “More than anything it’s great to build community. We’re a very sweet organization that people are really happy to work with.”

Having fun on baking day (top); Rylee Hackley, Ariel Kent, Carly Schaeffer and Emily Kass display the goods, all at U.C. Berkeley

Josh Herskovitz, a 22-year-old senior at U.C. Davis who has volunteered for his campus chapter since sophomore year, agrees.

Despite a recent rash of anti-Israel and occasionally anti-Semitic activity, there has been no spillover into Challah for Hunger at Davis, he says, and volunteers come from a variety of campus organizations, Jewish and not.

­“It’s a philanthropic organization,” Herskovitz says. “Everyone understands we’re apolitical on the Israel front, and they can relate to Jewish values. There have been no problems with anti-Semitism.”

At U.C. Davis, the weekly cycle begins on Wednesdays when Herskovitz and dozens of volunteers make the dough, which must rise overnight.

“Volunteers come from different organizations around U.C. Davis,” he says. “A medical association, the food tech club. On Thursday morning we start the fillings: garlic rosemary to apple pie to Nutella strawberry. Whatever we’re feeling that week.”

The apple pie challah is his chapter’s bestseller. “When you come into the Hillel and smell apple pie, something in your heart says I need this. We’ve had police officers come in because they smell this amazing smell.”

After baking some 90 challahs, the chapter sets up a table at Hillel across the street from the campus, charging $5 a challah and usually selling out. In addition to Mazon, the Davis chapter donates to the Yolo Food Bank in nearby Woodland.

“People don’t realize that in agricultural regions the hunger rate is much higher,” Herskovitz adds. “We want to fight hunger in the Davis community specifically.”

Honey oat and pesto challahs are staples at Stanford, says Waltman. “We do chai pumpkin in the fall, cherry chocolate for Valentine’s Day, all in addition to our five standard flavors: plain, sesame, poppy seed, cinnamon raisin, garlic rosemary and chocolate chip.”

At the U.C. Santa Cruz chapter, on any given week the bill of fare may feature s’mores challahs with marshmallow, chocolate and graham crackers. Winard says other favorites include maple glaze, donut glaze (with vanilla sprinkles) and a Sriracha garlic challah.

Challah for Hunger not only aids local communities, it also strengthens participants’ Jewish connections.

Benjamin Tausheck measures dough (top) while Katie Kroger makes filled challah, both at U.C. Davis. photo/zoe aspitz

Winard says she grew up in Los Angeles quite involved in Jewish life, attending Camp Newman and participating in Reform youth events. By her sophomore year of college she realized she missed that aspect of her life and remembered her sister had volunteered for Challah for Hunger at the University of Oregon. She signed up, too.

Winard says her chapter has grown since she joined two years ago, attracting up to 30 volunteers each week.

Though all chapters bake challah and raise funds for charity, chapter organizers must take a close look at their communities and figure out how best to attend to their particular needs.

That sense of ownership among chapter leaders, Zimmerman says, contributes to the organization’s success.

“U.C Davis has created a specific Challah for Hunger experience,” Zimmerman says, “which looks very different from Berkeley, Stanford and Santa Cruz. It’s a really powerful way to expose both Jews and non-Jews to Jewish tradition and community.”

Once a chapter becomes active, it runs like a small nonprofit. It only costs pennies to make a loaf of challah. Coupled with volunteer labor and rent-free kitchens, the overhead is low. That means chapters become self-sustaining quickly.

They also get help from the home office. Last fall, a national Challah for Hunger convention held at Stanford drew volunteers from across the country. In addition to leadership workshops, activists attended a challah lab to come up with new and, in some cases, arguably insane recipes, from Mexican cocoa to peach basil cinnamon.

“We put out 40 ingredients,” recalls Zimmerman, “and said this is your time to experiment. It was very much like ‘Chopped,’” the TV cooking competition that uses unorthodox ingredients.

The convention was more than a shmoozing opportunity. It cemented the volunteers’ commitment to the cause. According to veteran volunteers, that leadership experience is a fringe benefit of Challah for Hunger. The program promotes entrepreneurship, communication skills and teamwork, all while feeding the hungry.

The student board of U.C. Santa Cruz Challah for Hunger

Annie Pill, a 20-year-old Los Angeles native, is in her second year on the board of the U.C. Berkeley chapter. Last year she served as early-shift manager, which turned her into a challah-braider par excellence.

Like Winard at U.C. Santa Cruz, Pill had been active in Jewish life throughout her childhood, attending Jewish day schools and summer camps. She, too, worried that her Jewish identity would suffer while she was away at college. Challah for Hunger became her way to stay in touch while serving the cause of social justice.

“We consider ourselves a Jewish approach to hunger,” Pill says. “What’s great about our organization is we transmit Jewish values to non-Jewish students as well. We’re not a polarizing club. We’re open to anyone willing to get their hands messy and support food justice.”

Once a week she and her fellow volunteers show up in the Berkeley Hillel auditorium. Some belong to Hillel. Some are from the local Habitat for Human-ity chapter. Sometimes the Cal Pre-Optometry Club sends a few hands.

There they find ready-to-knead balls of dough on trays and a table topped with ingredients for the customary rosemary garlic and chocolate chip, and a few recipes unique to Berkeley, such as raspberry chocolate or carrot cake, sundried-tomato pesto or zatar, a Middle Eastern spice. When the first loaf comes out of the oven, everyone joins hands and says a blessing.

Fun is another key ingredient of Challah for Hunger.

“There’s always music playing,” Pill says. “Usually we make about 160 loaves. We do this Tuesday nights and sell fresh challahs on Thursday and at Sproul Plaza on Friday.”

The Berkeley chapter charges $2 a loaf. Hillel usually buys a dozen for Shabbat. In addition to Mazon, the chapter donates funds to the Berkeley Food and Housing Project and a Holocaust survivors support group. Urban Adamah and the San Francisco Food Bank have been recipients in the past.

Any unsold loaves are handed out to the homeless in nearby People’s Park.

Skyler Wites, a 20-year-old molecular toxicology student, serves on the board with Pill at the Berkeley chapter. Now in his third year as a volunteer, he says Challah for Hunger has been a boon to his leadership skills.

“I’ve never led a group of people like this before,” says the San Diego native. “This is a new experience, to [be on] a board that runs a huge group of volunteers. Everyone’s welcome. We try not to exclude anyone.”

After Waltman graduates Stanford in June with a double major in history and Spanish, she plans to study human rights at graduate school in London. She says she will miss her “challah family,” and is already pondering launching a Challah for Hunger chapter at her London campus.

Even if she doesn’t, she says she will never forget her experience with the nonprofit at Stanford.

“I can make bread now, which is awesome,” she says, “but it taught me to be more organized, more patient, understanding and communicative, that a project’s failure or success depends on you.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.