“I freaked out! ” admits Eli Winkelman when, in 2007 she saw an email purportedly from the White House. “In fact, I closed my laptop because I thought it was a hoax.”
Skyping from her native Austin, Texas, the vivacious redhead is reminiscing about how baking challah as a teen with her Mom, snowballed into the creation of a successful non-profit organized by Jewish college students. Expanding internationally, it’s about to reach the million dollar mark in support of hunger and advocacy.
“When I arrived at Scripps College near LA in 2004, I didn’t exactly know what to do with myself. So I started baking challah, using the Hillel kitchen, ” explains Winkelman, a vegan now 30. “Friends started turning up week after week and I began to think this was a great opportunity to do some tzedek (charity) work.“ We were a group looking for a cause. At the same time, attention to the crisis in Darfur was just beginning and I knew that I wanted to get involved in student activism. When fellow student, Melinda Koster suggested Darfur as a great recipient, Challah for Hunger seemed the perfect fit.”
Serendipitously, former President Bill Clinton spoke at Winkelman’s campus in her senior year. Afterwards, with her combination of entrepreneurial zeal and sheer chutzpah, Winkelman presented him with a challah. “Our Dean and he were friends and she described to President Clinton how Challah for Hunger was really trying to make a difference both on campus, the community and for world hunger,” Winkelman explains.
Then the email arrived from the Clinton Foundation. “President Clinton wanted to interview me by phone for a book he was writing called Give. It’s hard to explain how exciting and nerve-wracking it was when someone at his office called and said ‘please hold for the President’! ” Winkelman laughs.
President Clinton not only included Challah for Hunger in his book, but also, through the Clinton Foundation, wrote a huge check that enabled Winkelman to register Challah for Hunger as a non-profit charitable organization and take it nation-wide. There are now 78 chapters across the U.S.; one in Montreal, Canada, Sydney and Melbourne, Australia and three in London, England. The organization has 3,000 volunteers who bake at least once a week or more, with all money raised donated to each chapter’s local charities and to MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.
“In my life there have been many magical things that have happened to me through Challah for Hunger,” says Winkelman. “We have been family friends for ages with Gabby (Gabrielle) Giffords – (the U.S. former member of the House of Representatives from Arizona who survived an assassination attempt in 2011 and is married to former astronaut, Mark Kelly.) She’s like a big sister to me. Gabby loves U2 and always had a photo of Bono on her desk at her office and Mark put it beside her bed in the hospital. Out of the blue, Bono called to see how she was doing when he saw it on the news! Much later, Gabby invited me to a luncheon she was hosting and Bono was a guest. I actually made challah bread pudding for him,” giggles Winkelman.
Never missing an opportunity, “We got permission to set up a “Challah for Hunger table when Eli Wiesel spoke at my synagogue in Austin.”
After 8 years as CEO of Challah for Hunger, Winkelman has stepped down to pursue new ventures and speaking engagements. The new CEO is Philadelphia-based, Carly Zimmerman, but Winkelman remains on the board. She’s opened Craft, a DIY art store for adults in Austin and was recently in Poland, part of a youth leadership for diplomacy group, sponsored by the U.S. State Department.
“I just got back from a 3-week archeological dig in Israel,“ says Winkelman excitedly, “and you’ll never guess what I found? A 2,500 -year-old baking tray! Now that was really significant to me!”
TOP PHOTO: (l-r) Challah for Hunger founder, Eli Winkelman, former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Marc Winkelman, Eli’s father who is on the boards of many Jewish charitable organizations including the Elie Wiesel Foundation.