When pedestrians walk by Temple Beth El of Somerset on a typical Thursday morning, they can’t help but notice the delicious aromas wafting from the building.
Inside, a small group of congregants are busy churning out loaves of hallah, Linzer Tortes, onion rolls, cookies, and other goodies for grateful temple members to consume at the weekly oneg Shabbat, kiddush, and other occasions. The baked goods are also available for sale to members and others.
“It is wonderful having a bakery in the synagogue,” said the congregation’s Rabbi Eli Garfinkel, who serves as the mashgiach, or kosher supervisor for the operation, and unofficial taste-tester. “It brings life to the place and fills the building with smells that are so wonderful that people actually come in off the street and say, ‘What smells so wonderful in here?’”
Ira and Sheri Messer of Somerset head the corps of bakers, who have been operating out of the synagogue kitchen for the last four years. Sheri is no newcomer to the art of turning out delectable baked goods — both her parents and grandparents ran a bakery in Boston.
In their later years, her parents spent considerable time with the Messers and were on hand to help launch the temple bakers, said Ira, recalling that his father-in-law was horrified when he first walked in and saw the standard kitchen mixers and equipment being used. He proclaimed, said Ira, “in that Boston accent of his, ‘What are you doing with these toys?’”
Over time, they received donations of better equipment. Searching on Craigslist and in newspapers for a large mixer, Ira connected with an equipment supplier who inquired why he needed a bakery-sized piece of equipment.
“It turned out he was on the board of his synagogue,” said Ira. “He said to me, ‘You know what? I’ve had a very good year and it would be my mitzva to donate the next 20-pound mixer that becomes available.’”
Initially, the idea was to bake for synagogue functions, but the variety and quality of the baked goods were so outstanding, “people wanted to buy them,” Ira said.
There is a steady demand for cookies and bread throughout the year — the bakers go on hiatus during Passover and from January to March when the Messers are in Florida — but their busiest time is Rosh Hashana; people are already placing orders for the holiday, which begins Oct. 2.
“We bake over 100 round hallahs with and without raisins, 50 honey cakes, 30 sponge cakes, and various kinds of bobka,” said Ira — “and mounds of cookies,” added Sheri. The baking team also does birthday cakes and sweets for other special occasions at the temple.
Hamantaschen are baked for Purim, pies for Thanksgiving, and, Sheri said, people even ask for cookie platters around Christmas to give to non-Jewish friends.
There are rotating weekly specials, although hallah is available every week, and not every cookie or baked item is available all the time. However, the variety is extensive. Cookies include chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin spice, and lemon. The weekly special when NJJN visited was lemon Linzer Tortes.
The chocolate chocolate chip biscotti sampled was crunchy and very chocolatey, the lemon cookie was tart and sweet, and the onion roll with cream cheese was delicious. The extra hallah rolls sent home were good toasted.
“We do a lot of rolls,” said Ira. “A lot of our people are singles and senior citizens so they prefer rolls. We will do whatever people want.”
Sheri added that sometimes they will cater a bar or bat mitzva at the temple. Hallah rolls are also baked for the synagogue’s bikur holim volunteers to take when they visit the sick and when volunteers make chicken soup for patients at the Stein Hospice on the Oscar and Ella Wilf Campus for Senior Living in Somerset.
A typical Thursday will find three to five retirees arriving at 7:30 a.m. to prepare the hallah dough. While it rises, the group breaks for morning minyan.
Supplies are purchased at Restaurant Depot, a members-only wholesaler.
“When we do a kiddush for someone we go in there with them,” explained Ira. “You can buy tuna and egg salad and lox. It’s all kosher.”
While the baking brings just over $4,000 annually into the temple coffers, Ira noted it wasn’t so much the money that comes in but “the money that doesn’t go out” for prepared kosher baked goods.
And not only are some customers not temple members, some are not even Jewish.
“I have a 90-year-old Indian neighbor who orders every week,” Ira said.