The Message in the Cookie

Jewish cultural festival starts in the kitchen

L-R: Bonnie Cooper, Karen Murray, and Randye Unsell have been baking for months.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

Agudas Israel Synagogue’s Balabusta Bakers have been rolling out treats for months straight, filling freezers across Hendersonville. This is all in preparation for the third iteration of the Mountain Jewish Festival, happening June 23. Randye Unsell, co-chair of the festival, explains that “balabusta” is a Yiddish term meaning a hard worker. She says, “you usually think of a balabusta as a strong woman,” but also notes that
everyone in their congregation has been invited to bake, and men have joined in as well.

Bonnie Cooper, president of the congregation, says that “almost everybody [in the synagogue] has had their hand in it, baking four days a week since January” to supply festival attendees. Cooper adds that everyone was welcomed, whether they love baking family recipes or are new to the kitchen. They even had a retired rabbi come to offer challah-making and braiding lessons. 

Visitors can expect jam-filled rugelach, triangular hamantashen, sweet kugels, and Mandel Bread, which the women describe as a Jewish version of biscotti. Both Cooper and Unsell say their favorite to make is the Mandel Bread. Unsell taste-tested different versions of the hard cookie on friends to perfect her version. Cooper says she remembers her mother and grandmother making the cookies almost weekly, “so it’s kind of in my blood.”

The foods offered, says Cooper, are a way of celebrating faith and fostering community: “We do Shabbat dinners here quarterly, where the congregants come and we share a meal together. So the festival is kind of an extension of that.”  Unsell and Cooper are expecting as many as 1,800 visitors from as far away as Greenville, SC, and Asheville. They say they’re grateful for the support of the Hendersonville community, and they both feel that excitement throughout town
is building.

Agudas Israel has been a cornerstone in the city since the first Jewish merchants banded together to worship in 1898. For many years, it occupied the Salvation Army building on King Street, before moving to its current location on Glasgow Lane. 

In addition to the Balabusta Bakers’ sweet treats, visitors can expect an array of savory food, including latkes, pastrami and corned-beef sandwiches, and matzoh-ball soup; a perennial deli favorite, egg-cream sodas; and a market with jewelry and other goods imported from Israel — all to the sounds of live Klezmer music.

 The synagogue’s rabbi, Rachael Jackson, will also offer opportunities for visitors to learn more about Judaism, unrolling Torahs for viewing and even hosting two Jewish weddings, including a ceremony for Bonnie Cooper and her husband Alan, who are publicly renewing their vows to celebrate their 50th anniversary.

Unsell says it’s about inviting Hendersonville to learn more about all that Agudas Israel has built. “Bringing in the community and having them experience something like this,” she says, “educates people about our traditions.” 

But first: the food. 

The Mountain Jewish Festival happens Sunday, June 23, 12-4pm, at Agudas Israel Congregation (505 Glasgow Lane, Hendersonville). Shuttle service will run from local church parking lots, as well as from the Laurel Park Shopping Center. For more information, call 828-693-9838 or see

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