Joe Schneider grabs each edge of his homemade dough, kneading it in between his fingertips. Over and over again, he rolls the dough, until six perfectly formed lines decorate the tray. He slides the edges of these lines together creating a shape reminiscent of a wide-spread lotus flower.
Slowly pulling each strand of dough away and then closer together, he continues to move the dough until it wraps up nicely into a complex six-strand braid. Transferring it over to a baking sheet, Schneider reaches to his left to grab a fresh chunk of dough, ready to do it again.
Since moving back to San Luis Obispo in January, this process has become a weekly occurrence for economics sophomore Joe Schneider.
Every Thursday and Friday morning, Schneider takes five hours out of his day to bake challah (pronounced ha–luh). Translating to “a loaf of bread” in Hebrew, the food is a traditional Jewish delicacy often baked in celebration of the Jewish holiday Shabbat, which takes place every Friday at sundown until Saturday at sundown. On this day, those of the Jewish faith take a day of rest and often celebrate by baking, eating and saying a blessing over challah – a treat in which one combines dough, an egg wash and multiple seasonings to create a sweet and buttery baked good.
After starting his challah Instagram page, @challah_at_joe, Schneider decided to take his passion for challah beyond his own kitchen table.
From his Instagram, San Luis Obispo residents can place a customized order for “Joe’s hand-baked challah.” The cost? Nothing for Schneider, but instead a donation, made out to a non-profit organization that Schneider hand selects each week.
“I was giving these things out for free,” Schneider said, “I just want to use this challah to help the most people possible.”
The process is simple — at around 9:30 a.m. Schneider will head to his kitchen to start preparing the dough, a concoction of flour, water, yeast and salt. He washes his hands and puts on his “hairnet” — a white bucket hat that is adorned with pineapples.
After letting the dough rise for an hour, he sets it against a flour doused sheet, kneading it carefully until it can be carved into equal chunks to create a singular challah. Separated and carefully kneaded, Schneider references a sheet of paper to his side, an order form that tells him what type of braid he will be making and what type of seasoning will be added to the treat. After baking for thirty minutes and being covered with an egg wash, the challahs are ready to be decorated a full hour later.
Some of the challahs are sweet, with milk chocolate chips and a sprinkle of brown sugar, while others are savory, a popular combination being a mix of Za’atar spice and “Everything But the Bagel” seasoning.
Once the half-baked challahs are wrapped in toppings they enter the oven one last time, baking until they are the perfect golden brown.
“I’m totally not a trained baker,” Schneider said. “This is the one recipe I can do, I think I have it down.”
Every Sunday, Schneider uploads a new order form on his page, with a maximum of 11 challahs available to be made and sold each week. Those interested in Schneider’s challah must make a minimum $7 donation to a selected local organization, but many are encouraged to donate more.
“It’s really nice to see that people have been very willing and happy to spend more money because it all ends up going to a great cause,” Schneider said.
One of these organizations that Schneider has donated to is SLO Street Medics, a volunteer-based group of medical professionals who strive to work as first-aid responders for San Luis Obispo residents involved in what the organization calls “high tensions of political action.”
Michele Mansker, a lead medic for SLO Street Medics and Manager of their Instagram page, said that she enjoyed working with Schneider to raise money for their organization.
“I think it’s really awesome,” she said, “He’s very communicative and he tells you exactly, ‘this is what I’m doing, and this is when you can expect it.’ And the challah is really good!”
In one week, Schneider racked up $257 of his challah earnings to pay towards SLO Street medics, with $100 of that coming from a single donor.
“That was the first time I got something that big and I was just shocked by the amount, the generosity,” Schneider said.
Donations are made to Schneider’s Venmo page, with the full-profit totals then being transferred to the organization.
“I feel like a lot of people don’t know really what sort of nonprofits are out there,” Mansker said, “And so with things like Joe’s, it kind of brings awareness to it.”
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In addition to creating awareness for local nonprofits, Schneider has been able to teach others about Jewish tradition.
“A lot of people haven’t met a Jew[ish person] in their life, or they just know nothing about Judaism,” Benjamin Schneider said, Joe’s older brother and economics junior at Cal Poly, “So this is a very small but good step to have people learn about it in a way.”
Theatre arts sophomore Megan Hunt is not Jewish, but has still been able to learn and make donations for challah twice this quarter.
“I honestly didn’t know anything about [challah], didn’t know it was a thing,” Hunt said, “I was like, ‘Oh, he’s selling bread,’ but then I learned it was challah, and that it’s specific, and so I thought it was really cool.”
Schneider’s challahs have become known to members of the San Luis Obispo community by word of mouth and social media, with his @challah_at_joe page racking up more than 300 followers in three months.
“It’s amazing what he’s doing,” his brother, Benjamin Schneider, said. “I think more people need to be like my brother.”
As a full-time college student with one oven, it has become difficult to keep up with growing demand, said Schneider. Despite these challenges, Schneider still intends to carry on baking and donating throughout spring quarter.