Challah Baking with a Person-Centered, Trauma-Informed Approach

March 16, 2020 by Zalman Kotzen

Many Holocaust survivors need assistance leaving their homes due to illness and frailty. Recently, a sizeable number of survivors have become afraid to leave their homes due to a spate of antisemitic assaults on Jews in Brooklyn, New York. The murders which took place in Jersey City, New Jersey also struck close to home as the people living there were all raised in Williamsburg, New York.
In response to these challenges, Pesach Tikvah, using Person-Centered Trauma-Informed (PCTI) practices, arranged several mini-socialization groups for homebound survivors in local parks or in private houses, for between four and six attendees per group. The Holocaust survivors appreciate the small intimate groups that are close to home and offer socialization, projects, relaxation and a fun afternoon.
Recently, one of our staff members noticed a comment from one of our regulars who reminisced about the hundreds of occasions where she braided beautiful “Challahs” (loaves of bread) for the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. In the predominantly Orthodox Jewish enclave of Williamsburg, Brooklyn hundreds of women bake their own bread. Unfortunately, for these women, baking challah has become a pleasure of the past, as it is too much of an undertaking at this point.
For most of these women, challah baking is a very personal matter. They take pride in their work, share recipes and tips, and they take pleasure in the camaraderie and compliments received at the festive Shabbos and holiday table. Feeding their families is for them an expression of love and devotion. Challah baking is also accompanied by a special blessing, reserved only for this occasion, where women have the opportunity ask God to bestow health and happiness to their families, and thank Him for their bounty and continued sustenance.
One woman graciously offered her home and oven. Our staff members prepared the dough and brought it along with them. The women recited the Bracha (blessing), and continued to braid the dough, each sharing her unique style. The delicious smell of freshly baked challah wafted from the small apartments and the women waited to take the challah out of the oven, and home to their own apartments, to enhance their Shabbos table.
PCTI principles guided us to choose a group activity that would not just be helpful for these women, but that would be meaningful and spiritual as well. The timing of the activity was providential given that this community has just experienced a number of random, unprovoked physical assaults on vulnerable Orthodox elderly men who had left their homes in the early morning to attend prayer services. Baking challahs again provided meaning and restored their sense of normalcy and security in the community.
Zalman Kotzen, LCSW is the Director of Pesach Tikvah’s Geriatric Services in Brooklyn, New York. He oversees home-based and clinic-based geriatric mental health services, the distribution of emergency funds on behalf of the Claims Conference, and the activities of a network of volunteers..