Secular Israeli Women Looking for God at Challah Ceremonies

Dough-offering events attracting thousands of women looking for marriage, babies and health. It’s just New Age nonsense, say critics.

Tomer Appelbaum

The diary pages of women holding challah (or dough-offering) ceremonies were overflowing during the month of Elul, leading up to the Jewish New Year. This is traditionally a time of prayer and repentance, and many women who are completely secular all-year-round use it to look for a direct channel to the Almighty.

The challah ceremony is considered particularly auspicious, an occasion when prayers are answered; a time to seek blessings for health, livelihood, “finding a decent match” or “being fertilized with holy and sustainable seed,” to use the prevailing jargon.

The dough offering (“challah”) is one of the three commandments a Jewish woman must fulfill, along with lighting Shabbat candles (“nerot”) and observing abstinence during menstruation (“niddah”). This edict was originally meant to be followed in the privacy of one’s home, where women baked large quantities of dough, a handful of which was intended as an offering to the priests at the Temple.

In recent years, though, a new tradition has emerged – especially among secular women: This involves well-attended public ceremonies at which a challah is baked, as fulfillment of this commandment.

The trend peaked recently with the holding of a mass dough-offering at the old Roman amphitheater in Caesarea, in a ceremony attended by thousands of women.

These challah ceremonies look like a cross between stand-up gigs and gatherings of people seeking to return to the religious fold. In addition to numerology tricks, participants are told of miracles that happened to dough-offering women: One such woman became pregnant after years without success; another was cured after illness; a third found a match. In recent years, such ceremonies have been used in order to provide Jewish content at Bat Mitzvah celebrations, bachelorette parties, prenatal events, or post-illness.

“I can give countless blessings, but unsigned cheques will bounce. What is the equivalent of signing that cheque? Your amens!” explains Miri Or to guests attending a challah ceremony in Rishon Letzion, held in honor of a woman in her 38th week of pregnancy. “May the Holy One bless you with a birth as easy as a chicken’s!” shouted Or. The guests dutifully respond “Amen!” “A safe and sound baby!” continues Or. “Amen!” they reply. “By the grace of God, tonight we will open the gates of health, find matches and have babies!” “Amen! Amen! Amen!”

Chanting “Amen” in a group is considered particularly potent, and “Amen-reciting” meals in which different foods are blessed have become an almost inseparable part of challah ceremonies.

Faith, not religion

Or embarked on a string of jokes about men, women and different Jewish communities, continuing with a recitation of miracles that happened to her and her female family members after dough offerings: A granddaughter who survived a placenta dysfunction; a daughter who was cured of epilepsy; Or herself, who recovered from a rare form of cancer after doctors told her to say goodbye to her children.

Tomer Appelbaum

Each of these stories is met with amazement in the room. “I don’t perform magic,” Or explains. “Even if you receive some salvation, it’s because of you and your dough offering.” She then gets the women to sing and dance, ending with suggestions that they buy her CDs (all proceeds going to cancer-stricken children, she promises). On other occasions, women are persuaded to sign standing bank orders for payments to various nonprofit groups.

What attracts essentially secular women to a religious ceremony? One of the participants, Rochale Tavor, describes herself as a believing secular woman, and says this is the first time she’s attended such an event. “I kept hearing about it and I was curious,” she admits, adding, “It was very moving, you’re sucked in. Something opened up in my soul.” After the ceremony, Tavor and others approached Or. “I went to receive her blessing, obviously,” Tavor says, smiling, even though Or stated she “wasn’t a rabbi.”

“It has to do with prayer; it’s not necessarily religion – it’s faith” explains Orly Segev from Herzliya, also attending the ceremony. “It gives me strength, just like in the movie ‘Eat Pray Love.’” Segev says she didn’t connect to it so much this time around, but that “on another occasion, I cried the whole night. It’s the location, the soul, the subconscious evoking certain things,” she says.

“Women with a certain affinity for tradition have always searched for religious excitement, because ultimately we’re all human beings with problems and we’d like some shortcuts,” says sociologist Dr. Nissim Leon, from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan. “That’s what led to secular people attending revivalist gatherings – looking for significance or identity after undergoing a crisis, looking for excitement, trying to find solutions in religious practices.”

“Most secular people don’t have a secular mind-set,” adds Dr. Iris Yaniv, a Biblical Studies lecturer at Oranim Academic College of Education. She was ordained as a “secular rabbi” by Tmura – the Antidiscrimination Legal Center. “Secularism isn’t an ideology for these women. There is no secular credo, and this void is filled with a powerful experience – usually led by a charismatic, Orthodox female rabbi, who sweeps them along. This is psychological sublimation. Women collapse, cry, share, give blessings – things they wouldn’t dare do in the company of men – and it gives them a lot of power,” adds Yaniv.

Filling the void

Dr. Hagar Lahav is from the Department of Communications at Sapir College, Sderot. She’s studied secular people who hold religious beliefs, and notes that their Jewishness is very important to them. “The big question is how to connect being secular to being Jewish, and there aren’t many examples of how to do this,” she says, adding, “There is a void there, which is filled with customs such as listening to the ‘Kol Nidre’ prayer and the shofar on Yom Kippur; building a sukkah; or participating in study sessions at Shavuot. In the course of searching for a Jewish-spiritual experience that doesn’t impose long dresses and a women’s section during prayers, the dough-offering trend developed. This gives a sense of feminine solidarity, spirituality, a way of identifying with one’s great-grandparents – even though they never attended a challah ceremony.”

“It looks like a baby!” a woman cries out to Sima Torashi, who is hosting a challah ceremony at a Petah Tikva synagogue for women wishing to become pregnant. The women gather around the dough, looking for the shape of a baby. It isn’t the first time Torashi has witnessed this phenomenon – social media sites are full of such images.

Earlier that evening, she had distributed printed prayers to the group – a gift from the Efrat anti-abortion group. Before the ceremony, she stated that she doesn’t try to convince women to return to religion. But as the evening progressed, she said, she saw that the participating women were religious or leaning that way, so she allowed herself to do so. She inquired what the women would “take on” in return for fulfillment of their wishes: Covering their heads on Shabbat? Modest dress? Ceremonial handwashing before meals? It turns out that one must negotiate with God.

The women related their stories, some of them tearfully, and emotions ran high. “You have to work hard to reach the Creator!” Torashi told one of them. And how does one do that? By saying the “Shema” prayer every evening, of course.

According to Lahav, “Secular women arrive at these ceremonies knowing very little about Judaism, they are very uncritical. And then it all sounds so romantic, such Yiddishkeit. Questions such as the significance of the challah ceremony in a cultural context that doesn’t allow women to study Torah never come up. Prostration on tombs of righteous men and pilgrimages to Rachel’s Tomb are part of the same trend. It’s a bit ‘New Agey’ – you set aside the theoretical or theological underpinnings and let the experience sweep you away.”

“It is crazy New Age” actions, agrees Dr. Rivka Neria Ben Shachar, also from the Department of Communications at Sapir College. “It’s part of a checklist that completely secular women have, including highly educated ones. They’ll do anything to get married or have babies, including getting blessed by rabbis, going to the Western Wall or wearing red threads on their wrists.”

Lahav, meanwhile, believes that “after a century of Jewish secularism, we don’t know how to have both Judaism and secularism, so we cling to all kinds of external symbols,” citing Passover Haggadah books used by kibbutzim.

She concludes that the challah ceremonies are simply a way of looking for a quick fix. “To me, secularism came with the responsibility of examining what they tell you, and to ask yourself about the implications of it all. But we don’t want to take responsibility for ourselves.”