Jewish cookbook project wins national prize

A cookbook that started as a pay-it-forward project has won first place — and a $5,000 prize — in a national contest for one local Jewish women’s group.

“Try It, You’ll Like It” is a cookbook by the Jewish Women’s Initiative (JWI), a division of Aish Los Angeles, featuring more than 400 traditional and modern kosher Jewish recipes. Last month, it won the annual Morris Press Community Cookbooks contest, the biggest cookbook competition in the United States. It was chosen out of 251 entrants for the top prize. 

So far, about 1,000 copies of the book — which includes recipes for everything from Meira’s Famous Challah to Spiced Candied Walnuts — have been sold. Contest winnings included, it has helped the group raise nearly $24,000. 

“We feel really blessed that we’ve gotten so much attention and won first place, but it’s really about giving back,” said Sheri Levy, who initiated the project. 

JWI, which is based in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, encourages women of different affiliations to join one another in learning about and celebrating their backgrounds. Through funding from Aish LA ( and the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (, more than 120 women have taken subsidized trips to Israel since 2010 to educate themselves about their roots. 

Levy went on the 2012 trip, and was inspired to raise money for the next round of women making the journey. 

“I was absolutely on my last gallon of gas in my Judaism tank before the trip,” she said. “Going to Israel reawakened me.”

When Levy returned home, she was determined to show her appreciation for JWI and contribute to its continuation. With fellow member Phyllis Shinbane, who also coordinated the cookbook project, she helped collect recipes from more than 160 other women and self-published “Try It, You’ll Like It,” which was released in spring 2013 as a fundraiser. 

The women then entered the book into the cookbooks contest and found out it had won. 

 “We like to see when organizations think outside the box and make something different, as opposed to just going with the cookie-cutter traditional look for a cookbook,” said Kaylee Troyer, a copywriter at Morris Press Cookbooks who sat on the judges panel for the first round of the contest. “We were impressed with the time and effort that went into creating this cookbook.”

Judges commented on the elegance of the food photography, the book’s easy-to-prepare recipes and the ethnic/cultural influence in the recipes.

Other groups of women from JWI are coming back from trips to Israel inspired to give back, just like Levy was. One group held a silent auction, and another is now crafting a jewelry line.

Rabbi Aryeh Markman, who runs Aish LA, said, “We envision the women creating a whole spectrum of projects. It is our tradition that the women will redeem the Jewish people. We just need to give them the tools and the knowledge, and they will come up with answers [for] how to unify us, which is what we are missing and waiting for.”

JWI’s accomplishments motivated Aish LA’s leaders to start the Jewish Men’s Initiative last year, which now sends men to Israel, too. 

“My husband had the opportunity to go on that trip,” Levy said. “We’re on a full tank of Judaism in my family. Not only have I changed, but my husband has had this experience, and he’s become a better man for it.”

Chana Heller, the founder and director of JWI, said the organization allows an ever-increasing number of women and men to reconnect to their birthright.

“It’s created a tremendous amount of interest in people who want to explore their heritage for themselves and their families in a deeper way.”

Although her first project is completed, Levy said she’s not done yet. 

“We’re talking about making a second edition [of the cookbook] with the next group of women that come back. There is a tremendous feeling of gratitude when you come back, and you’re so thankful for the experience of a subsidized trip that you never would have taken before. You just want to give back.”