Josh Krafchin at his weekly free challah pick-up. (Photo/Rachele Kanigel)
Josh Krafchin at his weekly free challah pick-up. (Photo/Rachele Kanigel)

Oakland man starts handing out free challah — and messages for a better world



Like many Bay Area Jews locked in their homes under Covid-19 shelter-in-place orders, Josh Krafchin began baking challah on Fridays. But not just a loaf or two.

The first week he baked five loaves and gave some away to his neighbors. The next week he baked 10. Last week he baked 90, distributing most of them free to strangers from around Oakland who had heard about his baking efforts on a neighborhood listserv.

Krafchin calls it Challah for Humanity, and he sees it as a modest step toward a sharing economy. He hopes that by giving away loaves of his honey-infused bread he can bring a little bit of sweetness to people’s lives at a dark time for the world.

“It’s kind of like a game,” said Krafchin, 40, a community organizer and entrepreneur who has designed video games, among other things. “It’s about generosity. It’s about making as many people happy as possible.”

Now, every Friday, the smell of fresh-baked challah wafts from his home in Oakland’s Glenview neighborhood, and people wearing masks over their noses and mouths come to collect their yeasty gifts.

The father of two small children has now baked and given away nearly 300 challahs, and he has a waiting list of about 150 people. He buys flour by the 50-pound sack from restaurant supply stores and has arranged to get hard-to-find yeast from breweries. Last week, another baker joined his efforts and Krafchin even recruited his 76-year-old mother, Barbara, to help.

A serial entrepreneur currently on a career break, Krafchin estimates he spends about $100 a week on ingredients and about 20 hours a week baking and managing orders. He recently created a management system to keep track of requests.

Krafchin starts on Thursday by mixing and kneading a small mountain of dough, often with help from his daughters, Mikaela, 6, and Talia, 3. On Friday morning he takes the dough out of the refrigerator and starts rolling out ropes and braiding them, finishing each loaf off with an egg wash.

At first, Krafchin’s baking project was simply a way to create a treat for people slogging through yet another stay-at-home week. But as an experienced marketer and community organizer, he soon recognized his efforts were also a unique vehicle for delivering a social or political message.

Lisa McNally intended to use the challah she picked up last week for French toast the next day. (Photo/Rachele Kanigel)
Lisa McNally intended to use the challah she picked up last week for French toast the next day. (Photo/Rachele Kanigel)

Last week, for example, Krafchin posted a handwritten sign, “Stand Up for Black Lives,” on the challah pickup table outside his home. And included with each challah was a message linking the historic plight of the Jewish people (“slavery, oppression and genocide”) to the struggles of people of color today.

“In modern America, much of the Jewish community enjoys tremendous privilege,” read the labels attached to each bag. “Meanwhile, our black and brown neighbors are harassed, impoverished, imprisoned and killed because of the color of their skin. It’s easy to say we want things to be different. The hard work is to examine how we individually have been complicit in the way things are. And then take bold action.”

For those inspired to take action, the bag included a link to a Google doc that lists local and national anti-racism organizations where they could make donations, petitions they could sign and legislation they could support.

This week’s message on the bag addresses the spread of Covid-19 in prisons and encourages people to contact elected officials about the need for testing and personal protective equipment for Californians who live and/or work in penal institutions.

Krafchin has impressive credentials in community activism. In the days after the election of Donald Trump, he co-founded Swing Left, a grassroots political group that uses the internet to give people in predominantly blue parts of the country a way to support progressives in nearby swing districts. Though he is no longer involved, the group has gone on to recruit hundreds of thousands of volunteers working for progressive causes and Democratic candidates.

Most of the people picking up Krafchin’s challahs these days are strangers who have heard about the service from Nextdoor. Beginning around 4 p.m. every Friday, mask-protected people start arriving in front of his family’s yellow house on foot or by car.

Though he insists the challah is a gift, and he asks for nothing in return, some bring a treat to share — a bottle of wine, a bag of lemons, a jar of homemade plum chutney. Krafchin encourages them to drop their offerings on a sharing table in front of the driveway, where other visitors can choose from the bounty. If people offer a few dollars, he will accept donations to pay for the next week’s ingredients.

Krafchin and his wife, Miriam Stone, mostly stay in their house, talking to people through a window screen to ensure social distance.

“I think his generosity is really special, especially now that we’re so divided in this country,” said Lisa McNally, who intended to use the challah she picked up for French toast the next day.

Another recipient, Alli Shapiro, said she planned to share the challah with her five housemates. “It’s a beautiful thing. I love the energy behind this.”

Krafchin hopes to scale up in the coming weeks. He said he fantasizes about buying an industrial-size stand mixer and a second refrigerator to store the dough. But he’s also concerned about quality, and he continues to perfect the process and the recipe, experimenting with different types of flour and varying proportions of eggs.

“I keep trying to improve it,” he said. “If I’m going to give you a free challah, I really want it to be the best challah you’ve ever had. That’s kind of the goal.”

To participate as a baker or challah recipient contact [email protected].

Rachele Kanigel
Rachele Kanigel

Rachele Kanigel is a freelance writer and chair of the Journalism Department at San Francisco State University.