Challahs made by members of the Hardly Strictly Jewish Women’s Group. (Photo/June Bell)
Challahs made by members of the Hardly Strictly Jewish Women’s Group. (Photo/June Bell)

This Jewish women’s group is ‘Hardly Strictly’ about challah

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Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

There’s a Jewish women’s group in the Bay Area that likes to fly under the radar. For an hour each Friday morning, the women meet over Zoom to make challah, partake in intellectual discussions and emotionally vulnerable conversations, and join voices in Jewish blessings. Entry comes by invitation from those already involved. It’s called the Hardly Strictly Jewish Women’s Group.

At first glance, it would appear to be like any social havurah one might find through their local synagogue. The fact that it’s not attached to a synagogue, or to any institution, is significant, as it connects women — usually about 20 each week — from across Jewish and Jewish-adjacent households throughout the Bay Area.

The group’s founder, Jackie Shelton, a San Francisco resident with a long resume of work in Jewish philanthropy and Jewish nonprofit leadership, had the idea in January 2020 to ask her friends and acquaintances to make challah dough together, envisioning a monthly get-together. When the pandemic struck two months later and shifted their meetings to Zoom, participants agreed to join online sessions weekly and invite friends, too.

“I just didn’t think I really needed any company to make challah,” said June Bell, a journalist in Foster City whose friends nudged her into attending a Zoom meeting in March 2020. “But I figured I’d give it a try. And I really got hooked.”

Prior to joining the “challah group,” as Shelton likes to call it, Bell routinely made her own challah for Shabbat, freezing extra loaves to use on subsequent Shabbats. Once she started making challah faithfully every week with Shelton’s group, she realized she’d bitten off more than she, or her family, could chew.

“So I have this tremendous amount of challah, what am I going to do with it?” Bell pondered. “I can give it to people!”

Now Bell has a delivery route, leaving her baked loaves at her neighbors’ front doors each week. One neighbor leaves fresh-cut flowers from her garden at her door in exchange.

“It gives my Shabbat a lot of meaning,” Bell said. “It’s nice to bake, but it’s so much better when you can share it with other people.”

Erica Saltiel-Levin, a San Francisco realtor and self-described “computer hater” who would not normally look forward to yet another Zoom room at the end of a busy work week, now finds herself eager for the hourlong meetings every Friday morning.

“I know I can count on those women to be really vulnerable and supportive and teach me something, and just show up,” Saltiel-Levin said, sharing that the group was a source of mental health support during the pandemic, when she was craving connection with others more than ever. “The conversations really get pretty deep, and sometimes very, very vulnerable and really pretty intense.”

Each meeting begins with a prompt, an open-ended question that Shelton emails to the group a day in advance. For instance, when Thanksgiving was approaching, the group discussed the concept of gratitude.

I know I can count on those women to be really vulnerable and supportive and teach me something, and just show up.

“But it wasn’t just ‘What are you grateful for?’ It’s the idea that we have so many blessings in Judaism that we talk about gratitude … so kind of being more expansive,” Shelton said. “Where’s the interplay then between gratitude in the Jewish tradition vs. gratitude on Thanksgiving? Where do those things overlap for you? What does American gratitude feel like? You know, we tried to go kind of beyond.”

One discussion, led by Bell, was about the Orthodox Union’s decision to not give kosher certification to the vegan product Impossible Pork.

“We talked about how we make decisions about food, and what to eat, and other ethics that come into deciding what to buy — whether it’s fair wages for workers, or protection, or safety of animals, or buying organic or packaging,” Bell said. “It led to a really robust discussion that was about more than just Impossible Pork, but really talked about how Judaism intersects with what we eat and the ethics of making those decisions.”

In some ways, the group appears to be a modern-day salon, in the style of Gertrude Stein or women of the French enlightenment — but Jewish.

“I think it’s a sisterhood,” Shelton said.

Saltiel-Levin will often pose discussion topics from the group to her children, ages 12 and 9, around the Shabbat dinner table.

“Or if somebody shared a poem or some bit of Jewish learning, we’ll bring it up at night. It feels like it’s this very sustaining thread that continues for me,” Saltiel-Levin said.

Meetings conclude with the women singing the Mishebeirach, offering a prayer of healing for loved ones. They also observe yahrzeits and commemorate life milestones. Recently, some of the women have begun meeting separately for a Mussar group.

“This group has evolved in a way that I never expected,” Shelton said.

She’s hopeful that speaking about it in J. will inspire more women to consider forming similar groups of their own.

“This is what I always say,” Shelton said. “You come for the challah, but you come back for the people.”

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Emma Goss.(Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.