For many St. Louis Jews, Rosh Hashanah is a time for family and friends to congregate, pray together and enjoy a meal with sweet foods to usher in a new year filled with blessings and hope. But given COVID-19 and the need to keep gatherings small this year, most holiday meals likely will be confined to immediate family only.
And while that’s the way it is right now, two local Orthodox women are doing their part to ensure that Rosh Hashanah this year is still joyous and celebrated to its fullest.
‘Judaism Unboxed’ making home sweet home
Chanala Rubenfeld, mother of six boys and certified nutritional coach, personifies what it means to be a balabusta — the ultimate hostess and homemaker. She sees a need and then figures out how to fulfill it.
Her latest project, Judaism Unboxed, which she created with a friend, “addresses the growing trend of young families no longer ‘belonging’ to synagogues and the desire to engage Jewishly at home,” explained Rubenfeld, co-director of Chabad of Chesterfield along with her husband, Rabbi Avi Rubenfeld. “Little did I know or realize just how much the need for something like this would be with the hit of COVID-19 when everyone was ‘forced’ to engage Jewishly at home. The timing for the launch of my product couldn’t have been planned better.”
Judaism Unboxed unwraps Jewish discovery and growth, culinary lessons and quality family time all in one box. Through a subscription or a single order, Judaism Unboxed is delivered four times a year in advance of Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, Purim and Passover to create excitement about the Jewish holiday. Each box comes with everything needed to get into the holiday spirit, including a step-by-step recipe, ingredients, utensils (such as rolling pin, cookie cutters and more), as well as a holiday guide and blessing cards.
For example, the Rosh Hashanah kit is complete with everything needed to make caramel apple pops, plus ingredients and tools to make infused honey jars.
Due to the pandemic, “The gathering and celebrations will be different than the way we are used to,” said Rubenfeld, “but it creates an opportunity to refocus on how we can celebrate in a more intimate and personal way.”
After all, home is where it all begins.
“Rosh Hashanah is a reminder to refocus on what is truly important in our lives as well as how much we have to be grateful and appreciative for as we approach this New Year,” she said. “And the home is the foundation and the center of Judaism. Our warmest Jewish memories tend to revolve around the family holiday and Shabbat table filled with traditional foods. But with the hectic and busy on-the-go lifestyle many of us have, it is sometimes easy to forget how important our home environment truly is.”
In addition to the holiday boxes, Rubenfeld offers a “Challah Unboxed” once a month so that families can make the braided bread at home for Shabbat. Each box comes with step-by-step instructions, ingredients, utensils, and more. For more information, visit https://www.judaismunboxed.com
Faith in G-d during challenging times
Typically, Rosh Hashanah is a lively time for Rochie Usprich, a mom of seven as well as an artist, teacher and wife to Jonathan, whom she married 25 years ago after meeting in Jerusalem. This year, because of COVID, she expects only one extra guest: a Washington University student who joins the family for the Jewish holidays.
And though there will be fewer people around her Rosh Hashanah table and in synagogue, Usprich, who attends U. City Shul, focuses on what really matters: family.
“This year the meals will be quieter, but family has become very important and precious. I really appreciate my husband and kids. I am glad that we get along. This whole thing would have been really hard if we did not like each other,” said Usprich, who also has an older daughter, 32, from a former marriage who lives in Texas, and a 21-year-old son, Eli, who made aliyah in Israel and serves as a medic in the elite Givati Brigade.
What won’t change this year, even with fewer people, is her huge Rosh Hashanah feast, filled with simanim (symbolic foods). For the night meals, she serves apples with honey, carrots, leeks or cabbage, beets, dates, gourd, pomegranate and the head of fish or sheep, which represents the head or start of the New Year.
“Each of these foods has a corresponding blessing. I usually prepare a plate with all the simanim for each person and we say the blessings after we have made kiddush and have eaten the special round challah,” she explained. “I sometimes also incorporate the symbolic foods into the menu, for example, I will put leeks in the soup and make a roast and many side dishes like carrots with honey (tzimmis). We also try not to eat bitter foods because want a sweet year.”
Their love and connection to Israel and Judaism carries her through these challenging times.
“During the pandemic, we have all grown and discovered wellsprings of strength and gratitude that we didn’t know existed,” she said. “My relationship with God has deepened and I have learned over the last couple of decades that God is in control. Also living in the moment and not giving into fear helps.”