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How a small challah-baking business is building Jewish community in Astoria, Queens

(New York Jewish Week) — Cody Butler was 25 years old when he first tasted challah, the braided bread traditionally eaten by Jews on the Sabbath. As an Irish Catholic growing up in Astoria, Queens, he had had his fair share of bagels. But challah? Never.

Six years later, Butler is now an Orthodox Jew who bakes challah for himself and the Western Queens community under the name Bread of Idleness. Each week, he bakes between 10 and 15 loaves that he sells to Astorians who have pre-ordered a challah or two; on Thursday evenings, he sits on his stoop and personally hands off the lovingly packaged loaves. Many of his customers see Butler’s challah as a key ingredient in helping to build a Jewish community in the diverse neighborhood.

“It was a way for me to get into Shabbat,” Butler told the New York Jewish Week, explaining how he got his start as a challah baker. “The process of making challah extends Shabbat another day for me.”

But increased spirituality wasn’t his only motivator. “We don’t have good challah here in Astoria,” Butler said. “I wanted to have something special.”

Butler, 31, became a lover of challah — and Judaism —  following a long spiritual search. After attending Catholic school through high school, he enrolled in CUNY’s Hunter College where he initially majored in philosophy before switching to classical philology. Through his studies, he was introduced to the writings of Jewish thinkers like Maimonides, Martin Buber, Simone Weil and Emmanuel Levinas. He also read Torah with traditional commentary and discovered that he loved “the system of thought,” as he told the New York Jewish Week.

One night, while walking the streets of Astoria, in a state of despair over his growing feelings of alienation from Catholicism, he passed the open doors of a Conservative synagogue, the Astoria Center of Israel. He ventured in, and he was warmly greeted by Rabbi Jonathan Pearl, the congregation’s rabbi at the time. Pearl told Butler that Shabbat services were about to begin downstairs, followed by dinner, and he invited Butler to stay.

Butler said he loved the prayers and the music. As he sat there, “I felt my wounds beginning to knit themselves shut,” he said. At the dinner that followed, Butler had that first bite of challah and immediately liked it. “For me, at that point, all challah was good challah,” he said.

The following morning, Butler returned to the synagogue for the Saturday morning Shacharit service. He kept coming back, week after week and, said Butler, it “pretty rapidly became the centerpiece of my week.” He became a regular at Astoria Center of Israel.

As the pandemic took root in the spring of 2020, Butler continued to pray and to study, albeit alone at home. During the long months of social distancing, he explored Orthodox Judaism and discovered he was drawn to a commitment of a religiously observant Jewish life.

Like many stuck-at-home folks across the globe, Butler also decided to try his hand at baking — not sourdough bread, but challah. “My early attempts were disastrous,” Butler said. “The dough wouldn’t rise, or it rose so much the braiding disappeared, or the challah was pale or burnt,” he said. “But I worked through it one problem at a time.”

By trial and error, he found a recipe — a vegan one, at that — that worked, and he learned to braid challah by watching videos online.

Meanwhile, in August 2022, Rabbi Pearl left the Astoria Center of Israel to found a new pluralistic, unaffiliated Jewish community, Ashreynu, with his daughter, Ayelet Pearl, and Stephanie Luxenberg. “Ashreynu was created out of a desire to grow an energized, intra-connected Jewish community in Astoria,“ Luxenberg and Ayelet Pearl told Queens Scene in December 2022. “It came out of a longstanding goal of Rabbi Pearl, to create his own pluralistic, musical, Jewish community, and to offer a new model for how community can thrive, supporting clergy, creativity, and growth.”

For Butler, having Pearl as his spiritual leader was a huge draw for him to join the nascent community. Once Ashreynu began holding Shabbat services, Butler became a regular. “I attended their first service and every one since,” he said. He would bring his challahs to services and to the homes of people he met there.

“Cody started bringing challah to shul for kiddush, and everyone was excited,” Luxenberg told the New York Jewish Week. “He tried out different flavors. For Purim he did a sprinkle challah and the kids loved it. We didn’t know what to expect each week.”

At Luxenberg’s and Ayelet Pearl’s urging, Butler began selling his challah to community members. The enterprise, they said, would help “strengthen the feeling of the neighborhood.”

In April, Butler began baking and selling challah under the name Bread of Idleness. “It comes from the words of ‘Eshet Chayil,’ [Woman of Valor] the poem we read on Friday nights,” Butler said. “The idea is you get to be idle —  you pick up the homemade challah — because someone else is making it. But then, of course, textually it connects to sitting around the Shabbat table with family and friends.”

Butler isn’t afraid to experiment with his bread. In May, in honor of local Queens Jewish icons Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, Butler made a “Scarborough Fair” challah, flavored with — you guessed it — parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. And in June, to celebrate New York’s most iconic carbohydrate, the bagel, he made an everything bagel-flavored challah. (In addition to Trader Joe’s Everything But the Bagel seasoning, Butler incorporates barley malt syrup into the dough, which is “the secret essential ingredient for that bagel taste,” he said.)

Anastasia Nevin, a 38-year old dietician, yoga teacher and mother of two small children, is a regular customer. ”The challah gives us more connection to the Ashreynu community,” Nevin told the New York Jewish Week, adding that she often runs into people she knows at pickup. “There is something nice about eating something that is not store bought but made with love by someone you know.”

Butler sells the challah for $12 each, although members of Ashreynu get the preferential rate of $10. As a bonus, he also makes babka from the challah dough, in flavors ranging from chocolate hazelnut to peach and sweet cheese or savory babka stuffed with caramelized onions and sundried tomatoes.

His bread has a growing number of fans in Astoria. Butler said that, in recent weeks, his customers have extended beyond the Ashreynu community. “I get people who I hadn’t seen at any of the shuls in the area,” he said. “Yet they are getting challah which makes me so happy because I know that they are getting a little piece of Shabbat for themselves.”

Astoria is home to Ashreynu, Astoria Center of Israel and Congregation Sons of Israel, a small Modern Orthodox congregation.

And yet, “Astoria feels a little bit like a Jewish desert,” Ayelet Pearl said. “Some things that we take for granted in living in New York, like being able to get a challah on Friday or a pomegranate before Rosh Hashanah, don’t exist. Getting challah isn’t an option [here] outside of what Cody is doing.”

Thanks to Butler’s challah, the neighborhood now feels “more Jewish,” she added. In fact, Pearl and Luxemberg, who were named to the New York Jewish Week’s “36 to Watch” list this year, named “when we ran into all our friends picking up challah from Bread of Idleness” as their “best experience” as Jewish New Yorkers.

“This is all about giving people a little bit of Shabbat that they might not otherwise have,” Butler said. “It is a taste of home. It is building community. I have parents who come with their children.”

Butler has converted to Judaism twice. His first, a Conservative conversion, was overseen by Rabbi Pearl. His second, which he completed this past May, was an Orthodox one presided over by Rabbi Adam Mintz. the rabbi of Kehilat Rayim Ahuvim, a Modern Orthodox community he founded on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

For now, Butler is keeping his “day job” as a Latin teacher at a charter school in Brooklyn. But he has already begun scouting out commercial ovens in the area to rent, once he can no longer satisfy demand for the challahs which he bakes at home. “I would love to provide challah to more people,” he said.

He is also considering creating a “Shabbat in a Box,” which would include challah, candles and spices as a way to bring Shabbat into more people’s homes. “For me, as a convert, I was amazed by the feeling of Shabbat and its palpable holiness, energy and community,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t live without it. “

The post How a small challah-baking business is building Jewish community in Astoria, Queens appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Former ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ Star Patricia Heaton: Every Human Being Should Be Against Antisemitism

One of the billboards erected in partnership between JewBelong and O7C. Photo: Instagram

Emmy Award-winning actress Patricia Heaton said this week that following the deadly Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel, it should be a “natural” reaction among all humans to want to combat antisemitism, as well as support the Jewish people and Israel’s right to exist.

The “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “The Middle” star, who is a devout Catholic, made the comments during her guest appearance on the NewsNation show “CUOMO,” where she also advocated for Christians to voice solidarity with Jews and Israel after Hamas terrorists murdered 1,200 people and took 250 hostages during their Oct. 7 onslaught. Heaton began by telling host Chris Cuomo that after the Oct. 7 atrocities, she was “confused by the lack of outcry from the churches.”

“I even posted on Instagram, ‘Did you ever have that thought that if you were in Germany during World War II, you hoped that you would be that good German that helped to hide your Jewish neighbors? Well, today you have that opportunity,’” she added.

Following the Oct. 7 attacks, Heaton founded a nonprofit called the Oct. 7 Coalition (O7C) to urge Christians to be visibly outspoken against antisemitism, and in support of Jews and Israel’s right to exist. Heaton’s O7C has since teamed up with the nonprofit JewBelong to launch a nationwide billboard campaign to raise awareness about antisemitism in the US.

Talking about why she wanted to get involved in rallying support for Israel and Jewish communities facing a rise in antisemitism in the US since the Oct. 7 attacks, Heaton said, “I think if you’re a human being, that should be your natural response to what we saw.” When asked about how people in the entertainment industry have reacted to her avid pro-Israel stance, she said Jewish friends in the business have called her “brave and courageous.”

“[But] I just think this is just a normal human reaction,” she said. “I have heard ‘We have projects we have to promote. We don’t want to bring politics into it.’ I guess if someone spent 50 or 100 million on a movie, they don’t want to introduce this subject matter and I guess you can understand that. But generally speaking I think Hollywood could do more to support our Jewish community.”

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‘Encampment Has Crossed a Line’: California State LA President Condemns Pro-Hamas Rioters

Protesters at California State University, Los Angeles, attempted to take over a second spot on the CSULA campus in Los Angeles, United States, on June 12, 2024. Photo: Shay Horse/Reuters Connect

The president of California State University, Los Angeles has issued a searing condemnation of a pro-Hamas riot that broke out on campus on Wednesday night and resulted in her being trapped inside her office for hours after activists led by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) illegally occupied an administrative building.

“Last night, those involved with the encampment chose violence and destruction,” Berenecea Johnson Eanes wrote on Thursday in a note to the campus community. “The significant damage to [the Student Services Building] will affect student-facing services: including admissions, records, accessible technology, basic needs, new student and family engagement, Dreamer resources and educational opportunity programs. It will take time to restore all those spaces and divert significant resources that would otherwise go to academics.”

Eanes added, “I am saddened, and I am angry … I cannot and would not protect anyone who is directly identified as having participated in last night’s illegal activities from being held accountable. The encampment has crossed a line. Those in the encampment must leave.”

According to Eanes, as well as various local media outlets, a night of destruction unlike any in the school’s history began on Wednesday when a mob of students stormed the campus, overturning cars, vandalizing school property, and assaulting students and staff. They proceeded to take over the Students Services Building (SSB), which they barricaded with numerous objects they amassed from across campus, including — according to The Los Angeles Times — bikes, tables, umbrellas, and rope. They even used their own bodies, “chaining” themselves to various access points.

The mob’s takeover of SSB was sudden and swift, forcing the school to issue a “shelter in place” order which trapped Eanes and dozens of other administrative staff in their office. Four people, including one student, were assaulted during the attack on the building. When it cleared, police essentially quarantined the area, reportedly declaring it a crime scene.

Footage of the riot shows scenes unlike any that have taken place on US college campuses since earlier this year when pro-Hamas rioters began commandeering sections of school property and refusing to leave unless administrators agree to adopt the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel — an initiative aimed at isolating Israel from the international community as the first step towards its eventual elimination. Broken glass carpeted the building’s floor, the result of the students smashing through door glazings with blunt objects. Meanwhile, red paint stained its tiles, and graffiti displaying anarchist symbols and saying “Free Palestine” covered its interior walls.

“Campus community: Know that we will recover from this, but also know that I am committed to doing everything we can to ensure this will never be allowed to repeat,” Eanes said in Thursday’s statement. “A trust we had in the encampment to practice non-violence has been violated. Trust is a hard thing to restore, but we will do the work together.”

Meanwhile, Students for Justice in Palestine has hinted that more destruction is forthcoming, and the latest local reporting indicates that no one has been arrested.

“We will not back down!” the group said in a social media post. “We will remain steadfast for Palestine!”

Students for Justice in Palestine, which has resorted to intimidation, harassment, and even physical violence to pressure universities into severing ties with Israel, defended their actions in a press release issued on Wednesday. Noting that its members had camped on campus for 40 days, the group said that Eanes, whom they summoned to a meeting after blocking all of SSB’s exits, ran out of time to accede to their demands.

“This direct action is in response to the failure of President Eanes to continue to negotiate in good faith with the Popular University for Gaza Solidarity Encampment on campus,” SJP said. “She has refused to continue negotiations or make meaningful progress toward meeting the demands of the student body. Delaying negotiations past the end of spring semester at a commuter campus shows clear bad faith and an attempt to wait out students instead of actively working to reach an agreement.”

In a chilling statement which acknowledged the intentionality of their behavior, SJP said administrators who had been trapped inside SSB could only exit with “escorts.”

“We will not back down and we will rise again just like our comrades in Palestine,” SJP said after law enforcement reclaimed the campus, suggesting there will be violence next time rather than peaceful protests. “We will remain steadfast in our mission for disclosure, divestment, boycott, and for our university to call for the end of the occupation and bombardment of Gaza.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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Judge Allows ‘Mandalorian’ Actress to Proceed With Disney Lawsuit After Being Fired for Nazi Germany Comments

Gina Carano as Cara Dune in “The Mandalorian” season two, exclusively on Disney+. Photo: Disney+

A US federal judge ruled on Wednesday that actress Gina Carano can proceed with her lawsuit against the Walt Disney Company and Lucasfilm, which fired her from the Disney+ television series “The Mandalorian” because of a social media post that compared political differences in the US to what Jews experienced in Nazi Germany.

“I look forward to this case moving forward and proving Disney’s blatant discriminatory actions,” Carano said after leaving court in Los Angeles on Wednesday.

“Disney should not have carte blanch authority to fire any actor just because Disney disagrees with something they say outside of work,” she added. “No actor would be free to have a voice if that were true.”

US District Judge Sherilyn Peace Garnett in Los Angeles ignored efforts by Disney lawyer Daniel Petrocelli to dismiss the lawsuit. Petrocelli claimed Disney has the “right not to associate with a high-profile performer on a high-profile show who’s imbuing” the Star Wars-based series with “views it disagrees with,” which could result in fans turning away from the show. He argued that Disney has the First Amendment right to sever ties with an employee who does not share the company’s values, even if the move violates state anti-discrimination laws. Disney purchased Lucasfilm, started by “Star Wars” creator George Lucas, in 2012.

“I’m not convinced there are no disputed facts,” Judge Garnett said in response to Petrocelli’s argument. The judge referred to allegations made by Carano that she was fired in 2021 to draw attention away from some of the controversies Disney was involved in at the time, including its contract dispute with actress Scarlett Johansson and critique of Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act.

Carano starred as bounty hunter Cara Dune in the first two seasons of “The Mandalorian.” She was not under contract to appear in the third season of the show, according to court records.The actress claims in her lawsuit, which has received funding from X/Twitter and Tesla owner Elon Musk, that she was wrongfully terminated and discriminated against when she was fired from “The Mandalorian” in 2021 for expressing personal views on social media that Disney did not support.

Lucasfilms, which co-produces “The Mandalorian,” announced Carano’s firing after the former mixed martial arts fighter shared a post on social media that said: “Jews were beaten in the streets, not by Nazi soldiers but by their neighbors … even by children. Because history is edited, most people today don’t realize that to get to the point where Nazi soldiers could easily round up thousands of Jews, the government first made their own neighbors hate them simply for being Jews. How is that any different from hating someone for their political views?”

Disney argued that the state cannot force employers engaged in “expressive activity,” like Disney and LucasFilms, to work with someone who allegedly hinders its ability to properly express its values. Petrocelli claimed that the First Amendment entitles Disney to take action to make sure “The Mandalorian” is not associated with views that it and many viewers might find offensive and contrary to the company’s message.

“The messenger is part of the message,” Petrocelli said. “Imagine she made comments that she hates Jews or that there was no Holocaust.”

A final ruling in the lawsuit has not been made yet. Disney has not publicly commented on Garnett’s decision on Wednesday not to dismiss the lawsuit.

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