Fran Birnbaum, a member of Beth Chaim Congregation in Danville, is behind the synagogue sisterhood's efforts to raise thousands for Ukraine war relief by making and selling challah.
Fran Birnbaum, a member of Beth Chaim Congregation in Danville, is behind the synagogue sisterhood's efforts to raise thousands for Ukraine war relief by making and selling challah.

Challah for Ukraine fundraiser rises rapidly in East Bay

Four women in the sisterhood at Beth Chaim Congregation in Danville have raised more than $4,500 for Ukrainian aid and relief by doing something that was already part of their weekly routine: making challah.

The challah baking fundraiser began when Fran Birnbaum, 79, saw the suffering in Ukraine and wanted to do something to help, she said. Beth Chaim’s brotherhood recently had its own fundraiser to benefit Ukraine’s Jews, through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee; they raised $500.

“We thought, let’s try,” Birnbaum said. “Maybe we can get more.”

So in early April, Birnbaum reached out to three other women in the sisterhood who liked to bake, and they agreed to start after Passover. Birnbaum put out the call for orders: The plan was to make 25 challahs, for a minimum donation of $20 each. Donors would pick up their challah at the synagogue on May 1, after religious school let out.

“Initially, we thought … if we each do four or five challahs, we’ll reach our goal,” said Debbie Roof, 68, one of the bakers and Beth Chaim’s membership director.

The donations came rolling in. The 25 original challahs went fast, and there was a demand for more. Not only were many people giving more than the suggested $20, but at least one anonymous supporter donated $500. Requests even came in from outside of the area, including one from Birnbaum’s twin sister in Maryland.

By April 21, Birnbaum had received 60 orders and raised more $2,000. When she cut off preorders the next day, the number was up to 100.

Some of the Danville sisterhood's challah handiwork.
Some of the Beth Chaim Sisterhood’s challah handiwork.

Over the next week and a half, Birnbaum, Roof and the two other bakers (Kathie Bleier and Michelle Gabriel) each made between 20 and 25 challahs. Each person used a slightly different recipe; Birnbaum used her own, and another baker used her grandmother’s. Some of the loaves were frozen for the May 1 pickup, and some were picked up fresh. A few were mailed to distant customers, mostly family members.

“I went through many, many bags of King Arthur bread flour,” Birnbaum said.

On pickup day, the women set up a table outside the synagogue for distribution. One baker brought 14 extra loaves to sell on the spot to congregants who didn’t preorder. More donations came in, and in the end, the women sold more than 100 challahs and raised $4,700 — with all proceeds going to the JDC, which has been providing aid to Jews remaining in Ukraine and assisting refugees who have fled to neighboring countries.

The fundraiser had personal significance for Roof. Her ancestors and those of her husband immigrated to the United States from Ukraine in the early 1900s to escape Russian pogroms.

“This hit close to home,” Roof said.

The bakers are already planning their next move. Birnbaum, Roof and others will be taking orders again in September, this  time for round challahs for Rosh Hashanah, to raise money for Beth Chaim’s religious school.

For now, Birnbaum said, she is relieved to be done with the challah project. Last week, she took the last challah to the post office, along with the check for JDC.

“We were just very, very lucky that people heard we were doing this,” Birnbaum said, “and they said, ‘I want to help.’”

Lillian Ilsley-Greene
Lillian Ilsley-Greene

Lillian Ilsley-Greene is a J. Staff Writer. Originally from Vermont, she has a BA in political science and an MA in journalism from Boston University. Follow her on Twitter at @lilsleygreene.