Challah baking on frat row: a new kind of Jewish experience

Posted on October 9, 2011 by


Photo Credits – Andrew Rosenstein

Walking up the steps into the JAM (Jewish Awareness Movement) house on fraternity row, you are immediately overcome by the sights and smells of family and home. While not many living rooms can boast ten lime green armchairs, two couches, several dozen folding chairs, and a family of two rabbis and their wives, six children, and 20 to 40 UCLA students and friends every week, this one certainly does.

One side of the room is lined with marble counter-tops covered in flour, where students knead and braid dough to their liking, embellishing their handiwork with chocolate chips, raisins, cinnamon, sugar and sprinkles. In the corner an oven is nestled between cabinets, students, and more counter space. In the center of the room, a disarray of chairs mingle, with students perched at every angle. Towards the opposite end of the room, a pool table draws a crowd, while outside Rabbi Jacob Rupp is busy flipping kosher burgers in his burgundy polo shirt. And off to the side, Rabbi Dovy Sales is in the midst of setting up a chocolate fountain for dessert.

Every Wednesday night, Rabbi Sales, Rabbi Rupp, and their families welcome UCLA students with varying degrees of Jewish upbringing into their homes for an evening of challah baking and socializing. Rabbis Rupp and Sales met at UC San Diego, where Rabbi Sales was acting as JAM rabbi while the Rupps were still enrolled as students. Four years later the quad—plus children—moved to Los Angeles to begin their work together at UCLA.

Looking around him, Rabbi Sales remembers, “The challah baking event started at San Diego in 2004, and the truth is that the event itself evolved. It became a very good place for students to come and interact in a way that didn’t involve peer pressure. It takes place in a home, and it’s a relaxed environment. The attraction is that it’s informal and people come and go as they please. They’re not committing to anything – just coming and having a good time.”

After being briefly interrupted by returning students greeting Rabbi Sales, he continues musingly, “If you had asked me, would a challah baking event appeal to the students with social lives, it would have been hard to imagine.”

Yet, in fact, it does.

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“The challah is delicious. Mimi and Rabbi Sales and the Rupps are great, they have lots of great programs and you get to meet lots of Jews,” second year Elisabeth Hodara commented while waiting to put her challah in the oven.

More than just a student-run club, JAM provides a community that students can easily relate to. “In general, I’m very much into understanding the world and getting as much experience as possible. Because JAM offers a number of outside campus experiences it’s a magnet for all different people in the community,” second year and JAM Recruiting Chair Jacob Ashendorf notes. “We get students who have graduated and come back, AEPi members, and it’s a melting pot of experience. That’s why I like JAM.”

While JAM is primarily a club for UCLA students, it welcomes any and all who are interested in coming and sharing an evening together. Recent UCSD graduate Eyal Ben David motions toward his UCLA friend deep in conversation beside him, responding to my curiosity as to what brought him here. Upon being asked why he likes JAM or Jewish events in general, he responds with the following. “I think it’s Israel. I’m Israeli, I was born there, celebrated every holiday since I came out of the womb and when I’m in my niche I feel happy.”

In fact, a general feeling of ease and lightheartedness permeates the room. Julie Rupp laughs in conversation while her husband grills hot dogs next to her. After a while Julie excuses herself, sniffing the air and noticing: “I’m burning my chocolate chips!”

Everything that happens is authentic. There is no façade of social perfection; everyone just comes to be themselves.

“It usually takes place in a home, and that is appealing. Students might be intimidated since it’s someone else’s house,” Rabbi Sales remarks, “but when you’re away at school, giving the students a home environment is something we are very privileged to provide.”

When asked about the role that JAM plays in his life, a smile creeps across his face and he relates it back to his children. “Pretty much every Friday when I pick up my kids from school they ask me how many students are coming for Shabbat, and if, for any reason, the number is below their expectation, they are very disappointed. When they come home Friday, and the table is set for Shabbat company it, makes their day.”

JAM is a student-run, privately funded club that welcomes students into its family every Wednesday at 8:30 for challah baking and every Friday at 7-7:30 for Shabbat dinner, depending on when the sun sets. As we welcome in the new year and reflect on what to change in our lives and the environment around us, I am grateful to have had the chance to become a part of a new type of Jewish family at JAM.

After most people have trickled out the door, a few remain in a semi-circle around Rabbi Rupp, speaking candidly and questioning him about various Jewish customs.

“Across the Jewish world there is a crisis…apathy. As we add more stuff onto our plates, we forget who we are and what we want,” Rabbi Rupp laments. “Unfortunately, the society we live in favors people who jump through hoops for jobs, money, and ‘success’. Judaism sees very little value in that if you’re not growing as a human being and striving toward your potential. Life should be inherently exciting! Judaism is a relationship, and as such should be a deeply rewarding experience. JAM is very much about creating an atmosphere in which  Judaism is both intellectually stimulating and relevant, as well as friendly and warm. I think what we do is just speak from the heart and say what’s true. We do social and we do trips and we do education and through that we see people find what’s missing.”

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