Any Jewish professional or lay leader knows that sometimes you have to field complaints. The optimist in me believes it’s because we come from a culture that thirsts for goodness, raised to believe we have the power to create the best scenario possible. But do we have the tools we need to get us there?
In the past few years at GW Hillel, residing in a temporary space without an oven, I often heard complaints about the cancellation of the beloved Thursday night challah extravaganza. Each week, stage one of the process involved one or two volunteers arriving to make the dough in the morning. Stage two involved many friends joining them later that afternoon, cramming into the kitchen to braid and kill time while the challah baked. Our students missed the camaraderie and couldn’t find a creative way out of this loss.
While wading through our challah-less abyss though, two bright students hatched a plan. They continued to embrace stage one and two, but instead of throwing the challah in the oven, they put it in the freezer and added a small ‘how to bake’ page. Another group of peers would arrive on Fridays, $5 of tzedakah in hand, to take the challah and bake it across campus – in common kitchens of freshmen dorms, in sorority houses, or in off-campus senior apartments. These challah purchasers came out of the woodwork including students I had never met with a thirst to create a sense of Jewish life in their own homes. They had the will; they just needed the way.
I am in the business of tool giving. Our model of work at GW Hillel is firmly rooted in helping our students feel a sense of pride and empowerment as they move from Jewish children in their pre-college homes to Jewish adults left to their own devices. How can we give them the tools they need to live their own vibrant meaningful Jewish lives, working ourselves out of the equation? And how can we think critically about what those vital tools are and how they can be adapted to an ever-changing world? For some students, it means providing them a text or website to help them see the world through a Jewish lens. For others, it’s helping them create a Jewish home, the smell of a challah baking serving as an indicator of what they are capable of creating.
I often tell my students that all were given an amazing gift of Jewish life when they were born. Some had help opening the present immediately, encouraged by a Bubbe or a teacher or a friend to see what was inside and start utilizing it. But many of our students still have that box sitting in the corner. It’s my job – and my holy honor – to help the unwrapping process begin — one frozen challah at a time.