Loaves of Love rise in remembrance of loved ones

Julie Eisenberg (left) and Alana Minoff (carrying son Yishama) make challah together during a Loaves of Love baking session at Eisenberg’s home in late April. 


Whether with pebbles on tombstones or prayers inscribed in our hearts, many of us find ways to memorialize a loved one. Julie Eisenberg is no exception.

August will mark two years since she, along with the women she started welcoming monthly into her Olivette home and kitchen, began letting challah dough rise as a way to remember her father, Stuart Raskas, who died of lung cancer in 1991 at age 54. He had been a longtime smoker.

Raskas was owner of a necktie factory, a philanthropist and, at 6 feet 2½ inches tall, a standout in Eisenberg’s eyes no matter where he went or what room he entered. 

Should his link to yeast and flour, periodically enlivened by chocolate chips or cranberry bits, seem tenuous, that’s because it took Eisenberg, the eldest of three siblings, to knead together the elements.

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She was 32 when her father passed away. Married to her junior high sweetheart, she was a mother of three.

“Even though Dad was young, I just couldn’t put his age in perspective,” Eisenberg says.

Over the years, her understanding deepened. From her father, Eisenberg learned to help others. 

“After he died, so many people came forward and told me things I had no idea about,” she says. 

Her mother, JoAnn Raskas, taught her to be a good friend. Both parents were role models for “taking real pride in being Jewish.”

In 2013, nearly two decades after her father’s passing, Eisenberg faced the birthday her father had never aged beyond. By then a mother of four, she dreaded it.

Already, her family had memorialized Raskas with such tributes as the annual Stuart I. Raskas Dessert Reception at Aish HaTorah, and the Stuart I. Raskas Outstanding Day School Teacher Award.

Eisenberg is no stranger to long-term projects, such as reversing her “horrible cook” tendencies so she could entice her family to associate Friday nights with her delicious home-cooked Sabbath meals. She yearned to do something on her own for her father. 

“Dad is just part of things and, through my actions, I know that he’s with me all the time,” she says. 

But wanted a new reason to mention him to others and continue his legacy of caring.

As she often does in such times of need, she turned to Shiffy Landa, the wife of Rabbi Yosef Landa. The Landas came here three decades ago to establish Chabad of Greater St. Louis. Rabbi Landa is now regional director for three Chabad houses here.

More than 25 years ago ago, Eisenberg began studying with Shiffy Landa, sometimes one-on-one and other times in groups. 

“Julie kind of considers me a spiritual mentor,” Landa says. “She loves to learn. She wants to find meaning in her Judaism, and she wants to share that with her family and her friends.”

Serendipitously or not — Eisenberg firmly believes that there’s “no such thing as luck, it’s all divine providence” – Landa suggested a program undertaken by Chabad years ago that is now in place from the United States to Canada to Hong Kong.

Bread is the vehicle. The concept is called Loaves of Love: Multigenerations of women meet monthly to bake challahs, learn a bit more about Judaism and gift others with the bread.

Participants gather at Chabad houses, community centers, country clubs or, in the case of the groups St. Louisan Chana’la Rubenfeld has led for close to a decade, at a Schnucks in Ballwin until the Chabad in University City completes a major face-lift.

The Loaves of Love are given to others, whether to celebrate a baby’s birth, nourish mourners, for comfort after a difficult diagnose or for guests. 

“You’re reaching out to touch someone who may not physically need a challah, but emotionally they do,” Landa says. 

In some places, the cost of ingredients is covered by Chabad or other benefactors. Elsewhere, challah makers divvy up costs.

Eisenberg, now a cook so savvy she thinks nothing of supervising the preparation of a meal for 300 at her congregation, Nusach Hari Bnai Zion, had her own spin.

Working through Chabad, she wanted to greet women in her large kosher kitchen. 

“My passion has become cooking and showing my love through food,” Eisenberg says.

In memory of her father, she decided that she would pay for the bread-making ingredients, including a pan for each new participant. Returnees would bring their pans back each time to refill.

Like so many seasoned cooks, Eisenberg can’t resist tweaking her recipes. One month, she and participants might grill onions for inclusion. Another time, they add chocolate chips, cranberry and orange bits, or pumpkin filling. 

Would Eisenberg’s father have relished such challahs? Maybe not. He wasn’t all that crazy about challah, Eisenberg says. Sure, he liked challah. Who doesn’t? But what he really loved, she says, was being with family and friends. 

Therefore, one place where Eisenberg promoted her very first challah-baking session was at her 54th birthday party, at home in August 2013. That month and practically every month since, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on the third or fourth Thursday, anywhere from 12 to 25 women have gathered around the center island in Eisenberg’s kitchen. 

Landa is a regular. As the dough rises and before it’s divided into portions for braiding or otherwise arranging, Landa leads a religious discussion. Afterward, the women place the dough in well-greased loaf pans to take home and bake.

Eisenberg and her husband, Don, who sold the family’s necktie business and bought the local franchise for an exercise business,recently celebrated their 36th wedding anniversary.

On Aug. 6, Eisenberg will turn 56. 

“A birthday is the day God wanted me to come into the world for a special purpose,” she says. “It’s a special time for me to reflect on my life.”

With or without a slice of fresh challah, her dad would no doubt have approved.