Temple Beth El of Somerset Keeps an Almost 50-year Tradition Alive
A week or two before Purim, long tables are laid end to end in the social hall at Temple Beth El of Somerset. Two large round tables are set up in a corner of the room near the entrance to the kitchen. Early on a Sunday morning, a few members of the temple’s Sisterhood, and maybe a husband, come in to set the tables and turn on the ovens. But the tables are not set with colorful tablecloths. The place settings are not pretty plastic plates and those plastic utensils that look like silver. The long tables are covered in plastic, taped tightly under the table top. The round tables are covered in aluminum foil. The place settings on each long table consist of six large red Solo cups full of jam in three different flavors, with two plastic spoons in each cup; two cups of flour; two empty glasses, and two rolling pins.
The annual hamantaschen baking is about to begin.
Dozens of women, a few men, and sometimes their children or grandchildren start streaming into the room. Recently some students from Rutgers Prep have joined the group, to earn community service credit. There is happy chatter and the sound of chairs being pushed to tables. It’s a tradition that has been ongoing for almost 50 years, unbroken until Covid came along. This year, for the first time in three years, it is back. Two women, Joan Kelter and her daughter Robin Connell, have been the mainstays for this program for more than 20 years. Janet Goldstein has been the oven tending mavin for almost as long.
Robin presides over the dough-making, on the Thursday night before the main event. Using the secret Sisterhood recipe which originated with Sylvia Schlussel (of blessed memory), the wife of the temple’s rabbi at the time, Robin goes shopping. She buys the dough ingredients, but Joan gets the prune, apricot and raspberry fillings. It’s a difficult task, because they must be kosher, the raspberry must be seedless to accommodate those with digestion issues, and there must be enough for about a thousand hamantaschen. Robin’s job is not easy, either: the margarine (these hamantaschen are parve) must be Fleischmann’s unsalted.
“I need one box for every two batches of dough,” Robin said, “and most stores do not usually have that much in stock so I need to go to several stores over a number of days. I remember one year I used some leftover margarine that was in the temple refrigerator, and the salt in the margarine made the dough really hard and was not able to be rolled out. We had to trash it after the first few batches and go get the Fleischmann’s.”
The Thursday evening before the baking, a group of women show up to make the dough. “In the beginning these were friends of my mom and they really taught me how to make the dough,” Robin recalled. “As the years passed, many now leave for warmer places during the winter so we have only five or six. One year it was just my family and my brother-in-law. They were all going out to eat together while I made the dough, and when nobody showed up I called home and they turned around and came to help. It was funny watching my brother-in-law, who has never baked, making dough!”
The dough is made by hand because this recipe is too stiff for an electric mixer. After each batch is made, it is covered in plastic wrap and stacked in the refrigerator, waiting for Sunday.
That morning the fillings are put into the Solo cups, and the packages of dough are handed out. Rolling, cutting, filling and shaping begin, each person doing it in her own way so some cookies have a thin crust and some a thicker one, some a little more filling, some a little less (the Rutgers Prep students are known for their precise triangles, the very young kids for their cookies that don’t stay pinched together.
Each pair of people puts their hamantaschen on a commercial-size cookie sheet and brings it into the kitchen, where Janet is in charge. Janet arranges the sheets in the kitchen’s large convection oven and keeps her eyes focused on its glass doors to make sure the hamantaschen come out at exactly the perfect moment. When the sheets are cool enough to handle, other volunteers take them out to Joan, and empty the sheets onto the foil-covered tables.
What happens to these hundreds of fabulous cookies? They are put into Ziplock bags, and then three different places await them, although in the end they all face the same fate for which they were created—helping to celebrate Purim in a most delicious way.
1. Each year the temple’s Sisterhood organizes a mishloach manot project, in which baskets of goodies are distributed. Members and friends of the temple have the opportunity to send these baskets to their friends and neighbors, fulfilling the mitzvah of giving gifts of food and wine as well as supporting the temple’s fundraising efforts. These hamantaschen are in every basket.
2. As part of the temple’s College Outreach program, a package of goodies (age-appropriate—no wine here!) is sent to each student whose parents are temple members. Hamantaschen are part of these packages as well.
3. Purim services without food? Not here! This is the third component of where the hamantaschen go.
Since the fillings must be purchased in large bulk amounts, some is always left after the baking. These are put into the Solo cups and sold inexpensively to those who are making their own hamantaschen at home and are seeking kosher parve fillings.
Looking forward to starting in-person baking again after three years, Robin reminisced about her early days making hamantaschen. “Somewhere along the line I helped make dough one night, and the next year they asked me if I could take over but they would be there to support me,” she remembered. “Why I stay is because my parents are Joan and Lou Kelter. We have always been a family that takes care of what needs to be taken care of.”
Phyllis Miller is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine.