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Temple feeds a need to help the hungry
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Temple feeds a need to help the hungry

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

The rabbi thinks it’s a model for the synagogue of the future. The baker feels she has found the perfect match for her talent and passion. The congregants are building community while they learn a Jewish culinary art. And the profits go to charity.

Knead to Feed, a project of Temple Har Shalom in Warren, began when Rabbi Randi Musnitsky gave a Yom Kippur sermon about hunger in New Jersey and the need for the congregation to combat it. The sermon was so well received that Musnitsky started receiving checks immediately. That money, $5,000, ultimately seeded Knead to Feed.

Since launching in May, the project has generated sales of hallah and cake — made by volunteers under the supervision of baker Kathy Decker — raising over $7,000. The synagogue expects to reach $25,000 by the end of the 2014-15 year, $35,000 within five years.

All profits are donated to groups feeding the hungry, which so far is about 70 percent of their take. (The other 30 percent covers the cost of ingredients and other overhead.) Three percent goes to Mazon, the Jewish anti-hunger organization; 50 percent of what is left goes to a Jewish organization, the rest to a secular organization. So far they have supported Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey’s food programs and the Hillside and Somerset food banks.

At $8 a hallah and $12 a cake, the goods are not cheap, but after one taste, many customers are willing to pay the price. It doesn’t hurt that they understand that every purchase helps fight hunger.

With the assistance of 40 to 60 volunteers, the process takes two-and-a-half very full days about twice each month. When the baking is finished, close to 100 loaves are ready to sell, including chocolate chip cakes made from hallah dough with a little extra sugar added. Some customers pre-order the baked goods; others just walk in to pick up the loaves at the temple. Some of the products are also brought to the Birnbaum JCC in Bridgewater for sale there.

“When I think about hunger, I think of starving children in a Third World country,” said Rachel Ostry, a physician and temple member who cochaired the committee that created the project. Musnitsky’s sermon “brought it close to home, talking about children and adults who are hungry in our surrounding area, just down the road. The statistics were frightening.”

The Food Bank Network of Somerset County in Bridgewater served about 3,500 individuals in 2011, a 35 percent increase from 2010. One out of every five New Jersey families does not earn enough to afford basic necessities such as food, housing, and child care, according to a 2011 report by the Poverty Research Institute.

‘A passion and a gift’

Arriving at the synagogue mid-morning on a recent baking day, a visitor followed the scent of baking bread from the parking lot to the kitchen. About 10 volunteers were busy with different tasks; one woman was pulling a freshly risen batch of dough that was then turned out onto a table so other volunteers could punch it down, divide it into sections, and braid it into loaves.

In another area of the kitchen, Decker, the baker, pulled two freshly baked loaves out of the oven — gorgeous, perfectly risen, their tops covered in a variety of artisanal seeds. She placed them on a cooling rack, where about a dozen other loaves were already resting. “Make an egg wash and brush it,” she instructed a volunteer. “Don’t put on any seeds. And then throw it in the oven.”

Decker oversees every step of the baking marathons, and taught the volunteers to make hallah in a series of workshops. “This is not baking cookies or brownies,” she said. “You have to learn how to do this.”

Finding her was a stroke of good fortune. Decker baked hallah for onegs, holidays, and special occasions at her own congregation, Temple Beth Am in Parsippany, over the last few years. Friends had urged her to open a hallah bakery, but she declined. “Going into business would be a good way to make me fall out of love with baking hallah,” she said. “I want it to stay a passion and a gift.”

Decker had heard a little bit about Musnitsky’s plans from Rabbi Ron Kaplan, Beth Am’s former religious leader, who happens to be Musnitsky’s husband. He connected the two. When Decker got the e-mail inviting her to spearhead the project, she said, “I wrote back, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ It was like all the stars came into alignment. It was a no-brainer!”

The volunteer base has grown from a handful to 60, and it brings in people who don’t normally enter the sanctuary. Decker has even involved members of her own synagogue, who prepare the dry ingredients for each baking session.

Ostry said that part of the project’s appeal is the process itself. “You just can’t be grumpy when you come in here,” she said. “We’re not just making chili or stew, and we’re not just baking. We’re making hallah. It’s a spiritual experience.”

Musnitsky expressed her delight at the project’s success. “I feel like a proud parent,” she said.

But she has more on her mind than just fighting hunger. She believes she has hit on a transformative idea.

“I’m a huge believer that the synagogue has to connect with people in what has meaning to them,” she said. “One thing we know engages people is good work. Good work touches people’s hearts, souls, and spirit. But not good work for the congregation.” Instead, she said, people want to build relationships with the larger community.

“This project works because the money is going elsewhere,” the rabbi said. “We are not raising it for ourselves. I think it’s the model of the future for synagogues.”

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