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Financing Rabbinical School, One Kiddush at a Time

Image by Emily Barton

A few years ago, while discussing my rabbinical school application with my rabbi, I lamented that all the money that my parents spent on culinary school and the years I worked in the food industry had been a waste. Especially now that I was going to be a rabbi. She said to me – one of her many pearls of wisdom during the process and beyond – “I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss that part of you. You never know when those skills are going to come in handy as a rabbi.” And, every time I’m at shul late on a Thursday night scooping chocolate chip cookie dough, or boiling noodles for kugel, I’m reminded how right she was.

I’m the rabbinic intern for a small synagogue in Manhattan, but they also employ me as their kiddush caterer. I can be found leading services on Shabbat but I also have made sufganiyot with families for Hanukkah. I may have left the professional food industry behind, however food, particularly Jewish food, is still a big part of my life and will continue to be integral to my rabbinate.

As a kid, I never expected to be either a rabbi or a chef. Upon entering college, I thought my life path was as a corporate attorney. There was one big problem with that plan: I did not like business school. In my spare time, I was not dreaming of Wall Street, rather I was trying the most difficult recipes in my cookbooks. I had a minimum of six pounds of butter in my fridge at any given time, just in case a baking emergency was called for. A turning point came my third year, when while I was supposed to be studying for an International Business Law final, books all out on the couch, I was in the kitchen, trying to sort out the structural intricacies of a wedding cake I was making for fun. I realized perhaps I needed a new career path. After graduation, off to the Culinary Institute of America I went.

I worked all facets of food: in cafes, a large hotel, fine dining and at Whole Foods, for about 7 years. I learned a lot, but most importantly, I learned that I loved working with food, but my soul and my body did not love the industry. I was also becoming more dedicated to my spiritual and religious life. One day, I sat at the computer and thought deeply about what my dream career would be. I knew it had to involve 3 things: teaching and studying religious texts, using music as often as possible, if not daily, and building community. I was dumbfounded. That sounded like what a rabbi did. Me? A rabbi? Yeah, right.

I made some drastic life changes, including a year and a half stint as a hospital chaplain, and now we fast forward to present day. I am almost two years into rabbinical school at JTS and my internship. And, though my body still doesn’t always like the long hours on my feet, my soul has rekindled a different, but wiser relationship with cooking. Sometimes my classes frustrate me with their esoteric qualities: I can sit with a daf of Talmud for an hour and feel like I’m getting nowhere. In the kitchen, I can make 12 dozen chocolate chip cookies in an hour, and I have something to hold, and eat when I’m done.

I have moved across the country twice. The first time, it was to Seattle, to work as a chef. I followed along the Oregon Trail, conjuring up my childhood dreams of being a pioneer, setting my life on a path that has been at times heartbreaking, but also beyond my wildest dreams. I came back to the East Coast, as a different traveler: a more spiritually connected one. But, like all those pioneers before me, I carried recipes scratched on looseleaf paper, in my computer, in my head, back and forth. Recipes from my childhood, from my friends, from my career. And, each time I make one for a Saturday morning kiddush, I’m reminded of my rabbi’s words. I remember connections that I’ve made because of food: when I received the recipes, and today when I make them for the community I serve. Food, an integral component of Judaism, is very much a part of my relationship to G-d and the Jewish people, and clearly will remain central to my career.

Here is a recipe that traveled with me from Seattle to New York, inherited from a dear friend. It is now a staple at many of my kiddushes.

Judith’s Kugel
Makes 1 9×13 pan (easily doubled or tripled, etc.)


1 bag (12 oz.) egg noodles
1 stick of butter
2 c. whole milk ricotta cheese (or 1-15 oz. container)
1/2 c. granulated sugar
1 c. sour cream
2 c. heavy cream
4 eggs
1/2 c. dried fruit (optional. I rarely use it, but suggestions are dried cranberries or chopped dried apricots)
cinnamon sugar (1 T. cinnamon mixed with 1/4 c. granulated sugar)

1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Use butter or cooking spray (like PAM) to grease all sides of 9×13 baking dish.
2) Fill a large pot half-way with water. Bring water to a boil, add egg noodles. Cook until tender. Drain and set aside.
3) In a large bowl, whisk together ricotta cheese, granulated sugar, sour cream and eggs until mixture is smooth. Whisk in heavy cream. Melt butter and whisk into heavy cream-cheese mixture (the melted butter may chunk up slightly when it meets the cold dairy mixture. This is okay.).
4) Add drained egg noodles (and fruit if using) to heavy cream-cheese mixture. Mix well.
5) Pour mixture into greased 9×13 pan. Sprinkle top liberally with cinnamon sugar. Bake in oven for 45 minutes or until set (if the pan is shaken slightly, the center is NOT jiggly or liquidy).
6) Serve warm or at room temperature.

Emily Barton is a 2nd year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she is also pursuing a Masters in Sacred Music. Among other things, she is currently the rabbinic intern and kiddush caterer at Congregation Shaare Zedek in Manhattan, where she is also known as “The Cookie Lady”.

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