When Barb Neren turned 69 years old last year, she made a vow that she would try and complete 70 new projects on her way to 70. She didn’t know what it was going to look like at the time, but she wanted one of those to be something of kindness and compassion in the Jewish community that she would do with others.
The result came out of the oven last weekend. Neren and a group of friends and volunteers from Beth Jacob Congregation, Mount Zion Temple, Upper Midwest Hadassah, Jewish Family Service of St. Paul, the St. Paul Jewish Community Center, and NCJEW Minnesota baked 125 loaves of challah that will be distributed to those in need across the Twin Cities Jewish Community.
“I love making challah. I just love it,” Neren said. “I thought everybody seems to like challah, and it certainly doesn’t have to be anything other than maybe getting a group of people together to make challah and bring it to people who really would benefit.”
Neren and her group of volunteers worked in two shifts to get all the challah made. Barbie Levine, the Adult Services director for the St. Paul JCC, said that Meals On Wheels participants will get a loaf delivered with their Friday meal.
“They do get a couple of slices of challah, but they’re going to get a full loaf,” she said. “It may happen once a quarter, but I think it’ll be something very special for them. And there’s nice stickers on the bag that say Shabbat Shalom from the Twin Cities Jewish Community.”
Neren’s friend Jamie Shacter, who is on the board of JFS St. Paul (although not representing the agency), said the it was great to see people representing so many different agencies and synagogues involved.
“It was really a lovely day,” she said. “I think they will be well used. As someone who has gone through illness in our family in the last couple years, if you’re in the hospital for weeks on end and get a good meal prepared for (by a friend), this would be part. It makes all the difference. Barb did that for us. That’s the way she is and she wanted to do it on a large scale. It says a lot about Barb that she got so many involved and buy-in from all.”
Part of what enabled Neren’s project to go off without a hitch was the involvement of Michel Rouache, the CEO of National Choice Bakery in South St. Paul, which makes fresh and refrigerated bagels that are sold nationwide. The secret to speeding up the process of the dough rising is Rouache’s yeast – he makes his own and uses live yeast rather than the typical dried yeast that would be purchased.
“We had a trial run to see what how long does it really take to much a bunch of challah,” she said. “It took only two hours to make 18 loaves. It was unbelievable. You know there are other options where you can make the dough ahead of time, but it seemed like the fun part is making it all together and braiding it.”
For Rouache, the process was not an especially difficult one, but he was thrilled to be involved in the process.
“In four hours we finished 120 challah loaves. I’m running an operation that produces 30,000 bagels per hour!” he said. “Everyone had this curiosity and asking a lot of questions. I would love to do it again. I love engagement and really love that kind of environment with those people. I would find the time for this again.”
Neren plans on debriefing with her volunteers, and is hoping to be able to do this again soon.
“I just feel like I’m the catalyst to help make it happen and I’d love to see groups of people come together and make it happen for other places,” Neren said. “You can freeze them and then bring them when rabbis do visits to people that need a little lift.”