Challah for Hunger through the Eyes of a Transitioning Founder

EliKitchenby Eli Winkelman

As the founding executive of Challah for Hunger transitioning my primary affiliation to a Board role, I wanted to bring you into the world as I see it at this point.

Back in 2004, during my first year at Scripps College, I began baking challah with friends, just for fun. Others joined in, and week after week people came back, complaining that “their friends ate all their challah.” Something clicked: people liked learning to bake challah; others wanted to buy the loaves. And so the first chapter of Challah for Hunger was born.

Since then, we’ve grown, purely by word of mouth, to more than 60 chapters in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Australia. Our volunteers bake creatively flavored challah, sell it, and donate the profits to social justice organizations. Chapters give half their proceeds to one shared cause, and each chapter’s volunteers act as a giving circle to allocate the other half. Over the past nine years, we’ve raised nearly half a million dollars for organizations including American Jewish World Service, the Blue Mountain Humane Society, Sharsheret, and Projecto Jardin.

For the last nine years, I’ve had the privilege to serve as Challah Enthusiasm Officer. Many nonprofits declare a vision to put themselves “out of business.” Challah for Hunger is not one of them. Our volunteers practice teamwork, hone skills (from kitchen navigation to tzedakah allocation), build bridges within the Jewish community and beyond, and most importantly to me at this time, make meaningful connections.  Why would we ever want to go “out of business”?

Since our earliest days in the Scripps kitchen, we have worked to create a structure and culture of mutual support. I’ve always been proud of our network. But until this year, I never really knew how important the human connection outcome of our work is.

Transition, tragedy, and tzimtzum

Last year, with the firm belief that Challah for Hunger would continue in this spirit, I told the Board of Directors that it was time for me to transition out of my full-time role – that I owed it to Challah and to myself to change things up. And so we began the search for a new Director.

Months passed. We couldn’t find the right candidate. I fluctuated between feeling ready to go, and reluctant to let go.

Then, on March 13, 2013, the love of my life unexpectedly passed away.

Many of you knew Travis. He was by my side at Challah for Hunger’s three Leadership Summits, coordinating meals to ensure that each participant was well-nourished. He donated generously to the organization even while in grad school. He was a champion of our work.

In the days and weeks after he died, I was astounded by the outpouring of support from the Challah for Hunger community, and the heartening and humbling ways our network stepped up to continue the work. I received cards and flowers, as well as virtual and real-life hugs from alumni around the world. As small as a card seems in the face of an infinite tragedy like losing a love, this support sustained me. Thank you.

As I paused my day-to-day involvement with Challah, the alumni and chapters drew together. An ad hoc team of nationally dispersed volunteers came forward to keep everything running. Supported by this team, chapters and volunteers kept right on baking and selling and giving and connecting and supporting each other.

The interim team amped up the hiring process anew, further publicizing the role, involving chapter alumni, and attracting 70 applicants. This June, the Board extended an offer to a candidate with leadership savvy and baking cred: Carly Zimmerman, who started our chapter at University of Pittsburgh. I’m thrilled that she accepted.

Isaac Luria teaches about tzimtzum: when God created the world, God first had to create the space for the world. This was quite a process because at the time, God took up all the space. Just as God had to restrict Godself to free up room for the rest of us, so I – okay, maybe this wasn’t exactly the same. But I’ve been thinking about tzimtzum a lot lately. Without even meaning to, founders and leaders with large personalities can take up all the space in an organization. We must recognize when our ventures need to outgrow us and prepare our successors to thrive. My time spent mourning Travis was a forced constricting of my role in Challah, and it has freed up space for others to lead.

From the earliest days at Scripps College, I’ve always envisioned Challah for Hunger as a network whose participants feel a sense of ownership and positive obligation within an interconnected community. I’ve never been more moved to see that network in action than I have been this spring, when that community ensured both the continuity of the organization – and my own survival.

What’s next

Challah for Hunger will thrive under Carly’s leadership. Her experience is impressive, her enthusiasm is genuine, and she gets to work with our current 60 chapters, 20 additional groups that have expressed interest in forming chapters, and thousands of connected and passionate alumni. I have no doubt that this year Challah for Hunger will involve more volunteers, sell more loaves, bring more students to our Leadership Summit, and donate more money than ever.

As for me, I look forward to serving on the Challah for Hunger Board. Since regaining a bit of my balance these past few weeks, I’ve begun to work on a new project, and as a “serial entrepreneur,” it’s very, very rejuvenating.

I couldn’t do this without all of you who’ve supported me on this journey. I’m so grateful: for the entrepreneurs who’ve started Challah chapters; the students who’ve baked and sold challah and the customers who enjoyed it; the institutions that have shared their kitchens; our Board members, especially past and current Chairs; our Interim Director and our Chapter Advisors; and our volunteers and donors.

Most of all, I want to thank Travis, my love. Thank you for supporting Challah for Hunger – and for believing in all my dreams. Your memory is my blessing, and I will do my best to honor it.

To honor this transition, Challah for Hunger is crowdsourcing a compendium of memorable Challah moments to be presented at a celebration on October 26, 2013 in Austin, TX. For further information as it becomes available, subscribe to Challah for Hunger’s newsletter at challah.org/connect.