Toms River, NJ - Seeds of contention and mistrust that have been blooming in the greater Lakewood area as Orthodox Jews continue relocating in large numbers to Ocean County were countered Tuesday night as a diverse group of women from all walks of life spent several hours building relationships and enjoying each other’s company at a Toms River challah making event.

140 women gathered at the Ramada Hotel and Suites on Route 9 to dig their hands into flour, water, eggs, oil, salt, sugar and yeast as part of the #KneadKindness challah bake.  Toms River resident Tova Herskovitz, one of the event’s organizers, said that participants included just over two dozen Orthodox Jewish women.

“The mix was amazing,” Herskovitz told VIN News.  “We had women of all ages; black women, white women, Hispanic women.  We had the director of Head Start for Ocean County, several public school teachers, doctors, nurses and so many others.  We really wanted a big mix of people and everyone just went crazy for it and wanted to know when we were planning another event.”

The free get-together opened with several women singing G-d Bless America and was sponsored by Toms River resident Scott Gartner in honor of his wife Jessica’s 56th birthday. 

Gartner, who founded the Love Thy Neighbor USA Facebook group to promote communal harmony, also donated the #KneadKindness aprons that the women wore as they spent the night finding common ground while mixing, kneading and shaping their loaves. 

In addition to their breadmaking, participants also enjoyed several boutiques, homemade cookies, fresh fruit and sushi platters.

Reaction to the challah bake was extremely positive said Herskovitz.

“Absolutely beautiful event making new friends and spreading kindness,” posted Brick Township resident Maureen Casey on Facebook, amid pictures of herself at #KneadKindness and two pans of challah baking in her home oven.

Those thoughts were echoed by Toms River Ward 3 Councilwoman Laurie Huryk who posted on Facebook, “What a wonderful event bringing people together, supporting kindness in our community!”

#KneadKindness was an offshoot of multiple meetings that have had residents of all faiths and cultures of Lakewood, Toms River and Jackson getting to know each other as a way of bringing unity to an area that has been plagued by divisiveness.

Herskovitz said that she attended a meeting at the Toms River library in November, where she spoke with several people who wanted to better understand their Orthodox neighbors.

“They asked me questions about my life, my family and my friends, wanting to know what my husband does, where I shop and if I use social media,” Herskovitz told VIN News.  “They were so happy to have someone who was willing to answer their questions.”

Herskovitz said that the people she met were surprised to hear that she is the founder of Boss Brands, a digital design and social media agency, while her husband works remotely for a major Silicon Valley software development company.

“My answers didn’t fit the stereotypes that they had heard,” said the 29 year old mother of four.  “They asked me about my friends and their husbands also and I told them that everyone I know works really, really hard. I went to college and almost all of my friends have a masters. It was a real eye opener for them.”

After that initial meeting, Herskovitz hosted several discussion groups with a goal of breaking stigmas that have been perpetuated about the Orthodox Jewish community.  As the number of participants grew at each meeting, Herskovitz and several others began planning something that would attract an even larger audience.

“One of my friends who loves to cook and is a recipe developer said that food always brings people together and that she has taught people to bake challah and they love it,” said Herskovitz.  “Someone suggested a challah bake and while I had been thinking of something less Jewish-focused and more neutral, everyone was very excited about the idea.”

Pastor Colin Lewis, a Lakewood activist, introduced Herskovitz and several others to a handful of women from his church. The group banded together to plan the event, which was advertised on social media and on flyers distributed by Lewis’ church.

The event was extremely successful, observed Herskovitz.

“I feel like people have this representation of the Jewish community based on the two percent they hear about from the media while the other 98 percent are good, quiet people who don’t make the news,” said Herskovitz. “We are working on our perceptions and building bridges and we look forward to continuing in a positive direction.”