On some mornings, when the smells were too delectable, Rabbi Rachael Jackson had to shut her office door. Down the hall, in the kitchen of Agudas Israel Synagogue, a handful of Jackson’s congregants were making homemade chicken soup with matzoh balls or pastry cookies with cheery apricot filling called hamantashen.
Food preparation for the Mountain Jewish Festival has been going on for months, and it’s been hard for Jackson to work on occasion. “I can’t tell you how amazing the synagogue smelled each day,” she says.
This year’s Mountain Jewish Festival is the second for Agudas Israel, the only synagogue in Henderson County, with a congregation founded in 1922. Each month, a different food item has been made by in-house culinary experts so they can avoid a situation similar to last year, when the delicacies disappeared too fast. Organizers only planned for 600 guests and more than 1,500 people showed up — a great success for the inaugural event, if you don’t count the food crisis.
This year, Jackson says, they are prepared for 1,800 attendees, which means congregants have baked more than 2,500 rugelach pastries. Six or seven people have occupied the kitchen four days a week to prepare items, which also include potato latkes, mandelbread (like an almond biscotti), chopped liver, corned beef, pastrami, and more.
“It’s such camaraderie for members,” she says. “And it’s really inspiring that we can share these wonderful foods during the festival with everyone.”
That’s the main draw, but the festival isn’t just about eating. There’s information about Jewish holidays (including Passover, Purim, Rosh Hashanah, and Hanukkah) and religious traditions, a table where one’s name can be written in Hebrew, and a scholar available to answer questions.
Jackson, who just finished her first full year as Rabbi, will also offer insight behind Jewish life-cycle events. “We realize that people may not have ever been to or seen a Jewish wedding. How is that different?” she remarks. “So I will be demonstrating that during two sessions.”
She’ll also clear up the meaning behind rituals that are widely recognized — but perhaps poorly understood, such as the coming-of-age ceremonies for boys and girls, respectively Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. “It’s more than the $10,000 grand party that you see on TV,” notes Jackson. “So I’ll be demonstrating that, as well as a baby-naming [ceremony]. We want to highlight the similarities and differences of a different culture.”
While introducing non-Jewish residents to their religion, congregants also want to show guests around their synagogue. “We want to expose people, specifically, to Agudas Israel, so it’s a place where people can say, ‘Oh, I’ve walked in there before’ — and when we host another event in the community, there isn’t this anxiety about coming.”
The Mountain Jewish Festival happens at Agudas Israel (505 Glasgow Lane, Hendersonville) on Sunday, August 21, 11am-4pm. Visit agudasisraelsynagogue.org or call 828-693-9838.