By: Marissa Stern | JE Staff
If you work in the Jewish Community Services Building, chances are on two Fridays a month you’ve been approached by some friendly folks wheeling around a cart of challah for sale.
The challahs are freshly baked (the best kind), come in a variety of flavors from chocolate chip to rosemary and garlic, and are baked thanks to those involved with STEP-Up (Supportive Training and Employment Program), the Jewish Family and Children’s Service program that “provides employment training and work experience to individuals with disabilities.”
“We’ve been working with people with disabilities for a long time,” said Lisa Ney, assistant director, Individual and Family Services for JFCS, “and we work around life skills and helping people to be independent and live a life of their choosing.”
Ney helped get the program, cleverly titled Baking a Difference, up and running about three months ago.
Baking a Difference is partnered with Challah for Hunger, a nonprofit dedicated to “bring people together to bake and sell challah, in an effort to raise money and awareness for social justice causes,” according to its website. It operates more than 70 chapters around the world, most commonly seen on college campuses.
“While we were looking to explore how we could expand Challah for Hunger beyond the college campus,” said Loren Shatten, Challah for Hunger program director, “it became clear JFCS was a perfect partner. They reflect every aspect of what Challah for Hunger is hoping to do. We are impressed with their commitment to regularly coming together to bake challah and their thoughtful conversations about hunger in Philadelphia.”
They bake on two Thursdays every month at Adath Israel, which donated its kitchen for the program, and distribute the challahs the next day for a suggested $5 donation. The proceeds funnel back to Challah for Hunger and are sent to MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, as well as JFCS’s Food Voucher Program.
They’ve made more than $250 every time, Ney said.
But besides the delicious incentive of a freshly baked challah and the philanthropic mission, there is an important academic component the program focuses on.
Ney wanted the program to be a way for the participants to learn additional vocational services and life skills.
“We talk about how do you sell a product and interact with other people,” Ney explained. “We talk about how to work together as a team and then they go out on a Friday, and we go distribute the challahs in the Federation building and the $5 donation.”
Coupling with Challah for Hunger was a way to also join together the missions each organization shares.
“One of the elements that we try to constantly bring in JFCS,” said Eli Schostak, director, Individual and Family Services for JFCS, “are ways to collaborate with other organizations who are looking to provide similar yet different components to making sure people feel successful on a holistic level.”
He added that there is good synergy between these organizations — including MAZON — because they all have the same intention.
“That’s what is really nice,” Ney said, “is that our clients can give back and they really enjoy to be a part of the community, and it helps them be a meaningful part of the community.”
Each packed challah comes with a fact about hunger, which helps the community understand the scope of the problem. For instance, one package might tell you “11.3 percent of households in Pennsylvania were food insecure” or statistics about how one in five children is food insecure.
“They’re talking to people about the challah, but also educating the community around hunger, and it makes them feel like they’re giving back and giving back to the community,” Ney said.
As the program continues, Ney has most enjoyed hearing how valuable it is for their clients to be working — they become employees of JFCS (though not full time) through this program, providing them experience they can put on their resumes — and “to feel that they’re making a contribution to society is very meaningful to them.”
“Inherently, we all want to feel like we’re givers as opposed to takers,” added Schostak, “and in a program like this, everyone’s made to feel that they’re giving to somebody else as opposed to taking. That’s one of the wonderful components that we’ve seen in terms of contribution and people feeling like they can contribute to society and making people’s lives happier.”
Working on life skills and watching people’s faces when the challah cart rolls around is one of Ney’s favorite moments.
“Seeing that people are so receptive of this and want to give to a good cause — it just warms your heart,” she said.
For Schostak, this program is one example of the reason JFCS does what it does.
“One of the reasons we come to work every day is to see programs like this to come to existence,” he said. “It’s an honor to be doing work where not only the people that we are feeling are getting benefits from our programs, but they’re able to help others in need.”
For the bakers themselves, they love seeing how excited people are when they come around with the challah.
Chelsey Bernstein, 21, and Joseph Hulmes, 22, wheeled around the cart of challahs on a Friday morning, albeit a bit exhausted from spending the previous day baking with the 10 volunteers who join them at Adath Israel.
Not that that stopped them from being excited to share the fruits — or crumbs — of their labor with the community, of course.
“I enjoy getting to cook because I love cooking, and I also love the cause that we’re supporting,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein prefers the chocolate chip challah — and highly recommends putting it in the microwave for about 30 seconds so the chocolate softens and melts — while Hulmes enjoys the classic plain.
Or Ben Ari, Baking a Difference program supervisor, was walking around with Bernstein and Hulmes.
Afterward, they will head to a class to learn about life skills and job training. But the baking itself and the experience of selling the challahs certainly “seems like it’s extremely rewarding.” Bernstein and Hulmes agreed.
“Seeing how many people light up when we come with our wagon,” Bernstein said, “it just makes it all worth it.”
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