Happy Challah Makers bake love, meaning into CRC’s bread creations

BY VICTORIA SIEGEL, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

When Ray Davidson first came to Central Reform Congregation (CRC) he was looking for a rabbi to help him with an obituary. He had just lost his beloved wife, Frieda. However, instead of finding an end he found a beginning to a new lease on life and started a congregation’s new tradition.

Davidson was asked to participate on the planning committee for the congregation’s first spiritual weekend in the then-new building on Waterman.

“Everything was going along smoothly with the planning,” he said, “until it came to deciding about the food.” The committee was going to bring in food from an outside source. Davidson pointed out that CRC had a brand-new kitchen and that they should do the cooking in-house.

“I’ve been a cook all my life,” he said. “We have five children and always had seven people at the table. On the weekends, I did the cooking to give my wife a break.”

As the youngest of three sons, he had learned to cook with his mom when she realized she wouldn’t have a daughter to whom she could teach her culinary skills.

Davidson served 150 very happy people five meals during that weekend, putting into motion what would become a drastic change in his life.

“I was used to having Shabbat dinner every Friday night, Frieda would make it, and I missed that tradition,” Davidson said. “I knew other synagogues offered them so I went to Rabbi Susan (Talve) and asked if CRC could start doing Shabbat dinners.”

Talve thought it was a great idea and asked Davidson if he would get them started. Those dinners blossomed into requests to cater b’nai mitzvot, Kiddush lunches, anniversary dinners and weddings. So at 80 years old, Ray Davidson hung out a shingle and became a full-service caterer naming the new business D Ray Catering.

But his story doesn’t end there. About six months after Frieda died, while feeling sorry for himself, Davidson was browsing through her recipe box and saw her recipe for challah.

“I had never baked anything in my life but I went out, bought the ingredients, and tried it.” Davidson says that Frieda’s presence must have been on his shoulder because the challah turned out fine. Buoyed by that first success he started making them for friends and family and his reputation spread.

In the middle of 2006, Talve approached Davidson with a proposition. “We were serving challah that had been frozen,” Talve said, “and often found ourselves scrambling to find challah for Shabbat. It just didn’t feel like Sabbath.” Talve’s sister had told her that in her shul the people get together to bake challah. Talve knew who to approach with this idea.

“Susan came to me,” Davidson said, “and explained the situation. Then she turned her head sideways, in that special way of hers, and asked me if there was a way we could do anything about that. There’s nothing she could ask me that I wouldn’t do.”

So began the second of Davidson’s life-changing adventures.

“The first time I made the challah for the synagogue, I made four of them. We used one for Friday night and another one for Saturday morning.” For the remaining two he stuck on an arbitrary price of $5, put them out at the oneg, and they were snatched up right away. Davidson was told to make more.

“I went to Susan and told her if we could buy an industrial mixer, I could make 16 challahs at a time,” he said. “Susan said ‘If you can find one, I’ll buy it myself.'” Turns out, there was enough money in the kitchen fund to finance the venture. Davidson found a used mixer and CRC’s challah-making endeavor was born.

Davidson discovered that his delicious home-made challahs were becoming very popular. He would make a batch early in the week and by Thursday, they were gone.

“The Hebrew School kids and their parents loved them. Plus, there’s a lot of activity going on that brings traffic into the building like the Torah study group.” A call for volunteers went out and shortly before Thanksgiving 2006 Davidson found the first of his challah makers: Carolyn Goss.

“I was looking for something that would be a good thing to do,” Goss said. “At services I mentioned to Ray I was interested and he got very excited.”

Goss turned out to be a quick student and Davidson a good teacher. “He’s a very positive person. If he needed to make any corrections to something I was doing, he was just so diplomatic in a very kind way.” Once she learned how to bake on her own, they were able to add a second shift and increase their number of weekly challahs to 32. But even with the increase in production, the challahs were still getting snapped up quickly. Davidson and Goss needed more helpers.

Michael DiPlacido was in the middle of his conversion process and during a meeting with Rabbi Talve he said he wanted to be more involved in the congregation. After thinking about it for a bit, and further discussion, Talve suggested he join the challah makers.

“I was just thinking that same thing,” DiPlacido said.

He then approached Davidson with his interest. “Ray is just wonderful,” he said. “I fell in love with him instantly because he became a mentor for me at CRC.”

DiPlacido took off a day of work to learn how to bake and after a couple of sessions under Davidson’s tutelage, in December 2006, he was ready to go solo with the third weekly batch. Still, the demand for the challahs was exceeding supply.

At a women’s business seminar Debbie Monfort was looking for a way to give back to the community when someone mentioned that CRC was looking for challah bakers.

“I thought I would try it,” Monfort said, “and I love it. I found a way to give back.” She had never made challah before and, in fact, had never even tried it. “I have a gluten intolerance so I’ve never been able to sample what we bake.” In spite of her inability to taste the efforts of her hard work, in January 2007 she took on baking the fourth batch.

The group named themselves the Happy Challah Makers and set up a baking schedule so challahs are available most days of the week. Rabbi Talve explained to the bakers the significance of baking challah and its link to the ancient Temple rite of gift offerings.

“From each batch of challah, the bakers take a pinch of dough, the size of an olive, and burn it in the oven,” Talve explained. “On challah days at CRC, not only does the whole building smell good, but I find burnt offerings at my door.”

This past year she collected the offerings and the congregation used them at Hoshanna Rabbah service at the confluence of the rivers. “When you know people are making something out of love and it’s not just business you can tell the sweetness and the love that’s in it,” Talve said. “We know it’s a great recipe, Frieda’s recipe, but you have to meet these challah makers….they do it totally out of love. It’s definitely a ritual for them.”

Then one day before the High Holidays, Davidson announced that he was moving to be with his daughter in Kansas City. In addition to leaving a big hole in CRC, his departure was putting the Happy Challah Makers at a disadvantage since now they would be short a shift. The call went out for more challah bakers and as of the present they are training a couple people who hopefully will be able to take a shift.

“You have to commit to making a batch every week,” DiPlacido said. “A lot of people think it’s fun to come back to the kitchen and bake challah but you really need to understand the commitment. We have a lot of demand for the challah and since Ray left, we’ve been running out of bread each week.”

While CRC works to fill Davidson’s shift and to recruit new bakers, Davidson’s legacy will continue in Kansas City. Calling the challahs Frieda’s Heavenly Challahs, he will be baking the braided bread at the JCC and Beth Shalom. His daughter Cathy Levin had lined up two volunteers to help Davidson at the JCC before he even left St. Louis.

Even though the Happy Challah Makers are producing the same product, the meaning behind why they do it is as individual as each person. For Monfort, it’s her connection to traditions and the history of the women in her family. “My mom passed away in June,” Monfort said, “so when I’m braiding, that’s when I think about her. Baking the challahs has been very therapeutic for me…it’s such a divine thing.” Goss also finds the baking process restorative. “I loved hearing Ray’s stories and having all the people coming in the kitchen and telling us their own challah stories,” she said. For DiPlacido, it’s his way of being part of the community. “I’m doing something for CRC in return for everything I’ve gotten out of it.” And for Davidson, it’s been a way to honor his Frieda.

For more information about purchasing challah or placing special orders, call CRC at 314-361-3919.

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