Eli Winkelman (photo from Eli Winkelman)
Eli Winkelman was just looking for a way to fit in at college. But her quest for a niche resulted in an international philanthropic phenomenon.
Winkelman’s passion for making challah caught fire with fellow students and she ended up founding one of the most familiar – and foodie-friendly – philanthropic endeavors in the Jewish community today.
Challah for Hunger is now known to thousands of students on campuses throughout Canada, the United States, Australia and elsewhere. Volunteers gather to make the irresistible braided loaves, then sell them to fellow students and divide the profits between a local charity and a designated national cause.
Winkelman, who founded the international movement, will be one of four speakers at FEDtalks, marking the launch of the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver’s annual campaign Sept. 17. She will speak on Chesed (Loving-kindness).
Winkelman’s expertise in challah came, as it has for centuries of women, through her mother. But where some recent generations have let the challah thread drop – who has time to knead, braid, bake? – Winkelman’s choice to become vegan sort of changed history.
“I decided to become vegan in high school and [her mother] said, ‘OK, but you’re making your own challah,’” she recalled.
When she arrived at the Claremont Colleges outside Los Angeles in 2004, Winkelman started baking challah for Shabbat dinners at Hillel.
“People heard that I was baking and they showed up to learn from me randomly,” she said. “And every week they came back and they complained that all their friends were eating their challah. So, I saw that there was demand for bread and demand for the activity of making the bread and I thought that we should scale up and do it for a good cause.”
Within two or three months of starting school, Winkelman had launched Challah for Hunger, selling 15 loaves. Her group started out baking in the dorm kitchen, then moved into the kitchen of the campus interfaith centre. They eventually got permission to use the dining hall kitchen.
The national charity is MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. Local chapters can determine the cause to which they want to allocate the other 50% of profits. Some chapters, like at Emory University in Atlanta, have been supporting the same cause for years (in Emory’s case, a refugee assistance agency). Other campuses operate differently. At Stanford, for example, the chapter partners with other clubs every week and they choose a different designated recipient each time.
“Different chapters approach it differently, which I really love because they are figuring out how they want to be givers,” she said.
Winkelman is no longer operating the organization’s day-to-day activities – she’s started a business in Austin, Tex. – but she is on the board of directors and closely follows the progress. There are now more than 70 chapters worldwide, each baking 30 to 300 loaves, usually weekly. Sometimes they defy tradition and add chocolate chips, cinnamon sugar, sun-dried tomato or other innovations. Canada’s sole chapter is in Montreal.
Baking and sharing bread is an ancient, symbolic and ritualized process. Challah for Hunger makes it social in a way that may be particularly suited to undergrads finding their place and new friends.
“Part of how I define Challah for Hunger is doing it together and doing it on a regular basis so that it becomes a community,” she said. “For me, that is core to the organization. That’s how people learn and grow, by interacting with each other. Especially when you’re baking bread, your hands are engaged in something so you’re busy and that means that you can have a conversation or not have a conversation or have whatever kind of conversation you want with the person next to you. It really doesn’t leave any awkward quiet time.”
For more information about and tickets to FEDtalks, visit jewishvancouver.com. Interviews with fellow speakers Irwin Cotler and Dafna Lifshitz appeared in previous issues of the Independent, and Rabbi David Wolpe will be featured next.