By Channa Fischer
When Racheli Taubes, rebbetzin and yoetzet halacha at Mount Sinai Jewish Center in Washington Heights, received a WhatsApp message from local resident Sara Schreier, she never imagined it would turn into a community-wide gathering of over 100 women. The first event of its kind since before the pandemic, Mount Sinai teamed up with the Shenk Shul, a Yeshiva University community synagogue; N’Shei YU, a group of married women affiliated with Yeshiva University; and members of the Breuer’s community to host a challah bake on October 19.
The timing of this event was planned as the community’s participation in The Shabbat Project, which took place globally on October 22 and 23. And, as October is known to be Breast Cancer Awareness Month, sponsors of the event arranged for all proceeds to be given to Sharsheret, which helps Jewish families face the effects of breast cancer. Natera, a genetic screening organization and one of the challah bake’s several sponsors, sent representatives to Mount Sinai to provide testing for the attendees and create awareness of cancer risks in the Jewish community.
Schreir, a friend of Rebbetzin Taubes and a key organizer of the N’Shei YU group, explained that she initially reached out with the idea for some sort of activity ahead of Rachel Imenu’s yahrzeit, which fell this year on Sunday, October 24. “I was thinking of doing a community challah bake, because I saw an advertisement for the Shabbat Project, and I told Sara, ‘Let’s make this happen,’” Rebbetzin Taubes said of the first planning conversation.
Schreir was able to connect with none other than famous kosher cookbook author Naomi Nachman, whom she knew from her time as a camper at Camp Dina, when Nachman was teaching culinary arts to young students. Schreir secured Nachman to lead the challah bake, as well as provide a cooking demonstration from her second cookbook, “Perfect Flavors.” Once Nachman’s involvement was secured, the planning took off.
“I reached out to a few people from the different community shuls, and we gathered several women to begin the planning,” explained Rebbetzin Taubes. “We thought we would set a goal to get 50 women to attend the challah bake, but looking back, we should have ordered supplies for well over 100. Luckily, we have places like Evergreen, Amazing Savings and the dollar store that all helped us to get to this.”
Eliana Steinreich, vice president of the Shenk Shul, was one of the several women that Rebbetzin Taubes contacted for help with planning the challah bake. “If I told you about all of the logistics and the organizing that went into this, you wouldn’t believe it,” Steinreich said. “We really wanted an upscale event that would provide a bonding opportunity for the community, and to bring people together. That’s why we did all of it.”
Steinreich also emphasized the importance of involving cancer organizations like Sharsheret and Natera in community-wide events like this one. “Each shul, and each part of the community, usually does their own thing. But when we can come together to raise funds for breast cancer, it doesn’t get better than that.”
Attendees of the challah bake were presented with an opportunity to be screened for genes that indicate a possibility of cancer, thanks to Natera and its representatives at the event. Alexandria Markase, genetic counselor and medical science liaison for Natera, explained that Ashkenazi Jewish women in particular are at a higher risk for carrying the BRCA gene, which can cause breast and ovarian cancers.
“The benefit of genetic testing is that it also tells us whether that person would benefit from other types of screenings, treatments, or medications.” Markase explained. “For those of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, there is a one in 40 chance they are BRCA carriers … so here, in the Jewish community, testing is especially important.”
And one of those unlucky BRCA carriers, Mount Sinai member Shoshana Polakoff, shared her story during the challah bake, emphasizing her gratitude for the care and concern she received from Sharsheret. In an emotional speech, Polakoff described her battle with breast cancer—and how representatives from Sharsheret would reach out to her and send her care packages when she felt quite alone. She thanked the participants at the challah bake not only for supporting her as a community, but also for paying it forward with that evening’s donation to Sharsheret.
Despite a heavy theme, all of the challah bake organizers expressed their hope for positive takeaways. “We’re all trying to make Washington Heights a great place to live,” said Schreir.
“My hope is that the women who attend feel a love for each other and for the community,” Rebbetzin Taubes shared. “Having over 100 women here reminds people that they are a part of a larger community, and I hope that people see that these events come from the ground up, and that they’ll say to themselves, ‘This is my home, my community, and I want to make things happen.’”