Past the chattering voices that ring through the hallways, the Lehigh University Center kitchen walls echo the music and discussions of students in fellowship after a long day of classes.
The volunteers bask in the glow of the oven, which warms the atmosphere as they watch the rising dough. Egg shells trail along the floor. Baking soda and flour powder the tables like fallen snow.
The sweet aroma of challah bread teases the room.
This braided baked bread with its abundance of flavors will soon find itself in the homes and bellies of the Lehigh community, and its proceeds will be donated to charity.
The connection between baking and philanthropy lies within the national organization, Challah for Hunger, founded in 2004 by a Scripps College student. A decade and a half later, the efforts persist on Lehigh’s campus, led by Ryan Gogerty, ‘22, the Lehigh chapter’s president. The organization continues to combine students’ interests in social justice and the Jewish community.
In partnership with Dining Services, Challah for Hunger identifies its objectives through the Campus Hunger Project, which supports college students who are unable to afford meals.
“The purpose of that is to end campus food insecurity and the whole goal is to not have anyone have to choose between food or their education, so that’s kind of the main driving force,” Gogerty said.
The money collected from fundraising is divided in half, and then sent to two organizations: MAZON, a charity dedicated to fighting hunger founded on Jewish beliefs and ideals and the Lehigh Valley branch of Meals on Wheels.
These groups within the Campus Hunger Project work to decrease student hunger and to increase awareness surrounding the issue.
Gogerty said after two full semesters of remote interaction and Zoom baking sessions, he hopes to rekindle the once bright flame that brought students together towards a common goal. The club’s objectives are to increase its reach and to get more people involved.
“Even if we don’t reach our selling goal but we get more people, then at least more people are involved in helping our cause and spreading the word,” Gogerty said.
Though they welcome members and volunteers of any faith, the origins of Challah for Hunger were influenced by Jewish tradition of baking challah. Treasurer Max Colen, ‘24, said he is inspired by his family and memories with them, as he has been around challah for much of his life.
“Whenever I have challah, I’m reminded of them and the traditions I had within my religion,” Colen said. “I think the biggest thing is community and the environment itself. So for Challah for Hunger, that’s what I want to do with them.”
The executive board members of the club expressed their desires to cultivate stronger seeds of community within the group after a year of remote events eroded the enthusiasm and close bonds the organization had previously cultivated. The nature of Zoom fatigue and the feeling of disconnection discouraged many members from active participation.
Taylor McEvoy, ‘23, manages communication between the board and other members through social media and Zoom, as part of her responsibilities as marketing officer. She said maintaining engagement is difficult, but expressed the importance of upholding the club’s goals of raising money and awareness.
“The (executive) board is a large part of what makes our club successful,” McEvoy said. “We had giveaways and raffles to make it more engaging over Zoom.”
The board also tried hosting different forms of fundraisers last year, such as selling bracelets. However, they found that the most effective way to raise money was through what they had always done.
Gogerty said the club was able to run smoothly and cohesively due to the full contribution of each group member. Then the challah took care of itself. People looked forward to trying the delicious, fluffy bread produced from a simple recipe.
It was not just a tumultuous year for the organization, but also for the greater Bethlehem community.
During the previous year of intense COVID-19 restrictions, Gogerty said that the board realized the importance of sticking to the core and model of Challah for Hunger, which was to get people excited about challah and its traditions. This became their catalyst for actual fundraising.
“We want people to know that there’s fantastic bread, understand what it’s about, the purpose behind it and how it drives our fighting hunger goals,” Gogerty said.
Colen has served a major role in bridging the goals of the club and the interests of other Jewish organizations around campus, such as Hillel and Friends of Israel. In an effort to build community and stronger relationships, he has taken on executive board roles in those clubs as he hopes to unify them for future events through common goals: awareness of campus hunger, community, and bread.
On the UC lawn, students strolling around between classes are greeted by tables holding up piles of loaves baked the day before. The large signs and beaming faces of the volunteers, finally able to sell in person again, stand out from among the crowd. The sugar and cinnamon painted dough is twisted to reach as long as an arm.
It’s only $5 a loaf. Or more. Or less. They accept what they receive.
The large loaf of bread, designed to be shared with others, captures the heart of what drives Challah for Hunger: raising money and awareness in service to their community, brothers and sisters.