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Sunday, September 20, 2020

Rabbi Pamela Gottfried: Challah, High Holy Days and Remembering 9/11

For unaffiliated Jews who find themselves needing rabbinical services or wanting to be part of a Jewish community, it can be a challenge. For those in the Atlanta metro area, Rabbi Pamela Gottfried is taking a novel approach in reaching out to them. 

Your Jewish Bridge is an initiative of Gottfried’s Congregation Bet Haverim that provides outreach to nonaffiliated Jews. It also has been providing a variety of interesting content for anyone who is interested. On Sept.11, Gottfried will be doing a Zoom event that also will be livestreamed on YouTube: “Observance: Ritual of Taking Challah & Prayers for Healing and Remembrance.” 

The Journal caught up with Gottfried to talk about Your Jewish Bridge and ritual challah baking. 

Jewish Journal: How did you first become interested in making challah?

Pamela Gottfried: I was living in New York at the time, working as a teacher. There were several kosher bakeries near me and I could have easily bought challah. But a friend said it wasn’t hard to make and she shared her recipe. I’m a terrible cook but I like to bake. So, I decided it would be something to do together with my [now 25-year-old] daughter, who was a toddler at the time. That summer, we would eat homemade challah every Friday night. And even now, my kids still love it. When my older ones want to come home for dinner, they call and ask if I’m baking challah.

It started as a mom thing, but over time it became almost therapeutic and something spiritual. There’s something about the ritual of “taking challah” and removing a piece of dough as remembrance. I felt connected to many generations of Jewish women and it became a kind of religious act. 

JJ: Why did you decide to do this 9/11 challah-taking event?

PG: When I was thinking of how to mark the occasion this year and saw it was on a Friday, I thought of making challah. That’s what I do on Friday mornings. It struck me as the perfect moment to virtually gather and use that moment of blessing when you “take challah.” It’s considered a prayerful moment, when you take a piece of dough and burn it as a remembrance of the offering in the Temple in Jerusalem. People need healing. People are struggling, grieving, physically ill and exhausted. We’ve all been affected by COVID and impacted by the aftermath of 9/11. So, I thought why not invite people into my kitchen and my community, for whoever feels that need? 

JJ: Does 9/11 have personal meaning for you?

PG: It does. We moved down here [Atlanta] right before 9/11 and we didn’t know anyone. It was devastating. I couldn’t reach anyone in the New York area.  

JJ: What will the happen during the ritual of “taking challah”?

PG: When I take the piece of dough and put it on foil, I’ll pause to invite people to say the names of the people they’re praying for. I’ll have a prayer for healing for those who are sick — for people suffering physically or spiritually. The second prayer will be a prayer of remembrance. It is considered that God hears our prayers in that moment. It’s normally private, but I felt inspired to make it communal during this time.  

JJ: How has it been doing so much of your work online?

PG: The way we’re getting through this is gathering weirdly in little boxes on Zoom and sharing common experiences. With all of these kinds of events, we come to appreciate that this is how we can still gather in community, in the absence of being able to hug.   

JJ: And how has the response been?

PG: At first, people said it’s not meaningful and not the same. The advice we’ve been giving is to let go. Acknowledge and grieve that we can’t be together in person. Acknowledge the loss but then let go and lean into the experience for as much or as little as you want to. 

JJ: Tell us about your hybrid model of membership and Your Jewish Bridge.

PG: We have [High Holy Days] services, Torah study and other programs that are part of our congressional offerings for members. Your Jewish Bridge is a fee-for-service when someone needs rabbinical services. But joining for Shabbat or High Holidays is open to anyone, without a fee. 

JJ: Can you explain the mission of Your Jewish Bridge?

PG: There are all kinds of reasons people choose not to pay a membership at a synagogue. But then life happens and you need Jewish services for a bar/bat mitzvah, a funeral, a wedding or conversion. So, we decided to offer people only the services they need. They can rent our space; they can use our services. We’re breaking the membership-only model and have a hybrid system. It’s been amazing and the premise has proven successful. Many participated in the previous High Holidays, and we have about 1,200 people on our mailing list now. They don’t pay membership dues. Maybe they make a donation, maybe they don’t.

JJ: Do you see the model continuing to grow?

PG: We’ve received a Propel grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and a Restructuring Judaism Innovation grant. We knew there was a need for something like this, but we didn’t realize just how many people were unaffiliated. 

To participate in the Zoom challah baking, visit here.


Allison Futterman is a writer based in North Carolina. 

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