Vanessa Harper, 29


What you do:

I’m entering my last year of rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where I am also in the school of education. As part of that training, I am serving as the rabbinic intern at Congregation Rodeph Sholom. Much of my work there is teaching children and adult learners, in addition to leading a variety of worship experiences. In my free time, I work on my interpretive challah-shaping project, @lechlechallah (a pun on the Torah portion Lech Lecha). I also teach live workshops in interpretive challah-shaping around NYC and beyond, with the goal of empowering people to approach Torah with new lenses and respond in their own creative ways.

How you got here:

I’ve always loved to bake, but I rarely made bread until three years ago, when I decided to learn by making challah every week for Shabbat. I made a rainbow challah to bring to a class retreat, which happened to fall on the Shabbat when we read the story of Noah. One of my teachers asked, “Do you always match your challah to the weekly Torah portion?” Instead of answering “no,” I immediately thought of the most challenging Torah portion I know, Tazria/Metzorah, and tried to think of a challah that would fit the theme. When a marzipan-filled, almond slice-covered challah came quickly to mind, I responded with foolhardy confidence, “I do now!” Weeks later, I was already kicking myself for taking on the project of coming up with a new challah design every week, but I noticed how much this creative challenge was opening up Torah study to me in a totally new way. When I saw how people started following me for the challah and staying for the Torah, I realized that I had landed on something more significant than I could have anticipated. 

What do you consider unique or innovative about what you do?

I am part of a growing cadre of the many amazing teachers in the Jewish community who are working to open up new access points to Jewish learning for children and adults.

Best advice you received:

When I was in my senior year of college and trying to figure out what to do once I graduated, my professor and mentor advised me not to jump right into a Ph.D. program but to take a year to work in the world. “You’ve been a student for your whole life,” he said, “and you’re good at it. But try being good at something else first. Find the work that you’re meant to do. Then when you’re ready to come back to school, you’ll have a purpose for doing so.”

Follow me: @lechlechallah