Kosher bakery’s mission goes well beyond ‘legendary’ challah

Photo of Brian Koonz

Becca Nissim wears the joy of her job with an easy smile and wispy badges of flour decorating her chef’s coat.

A few steps away, Kathryn Campbell rolls balls of chocolate into a bowl of powdered sugar, each confection an aspiring chocolate crinkle. Across the table, Hillary Lipper gently presses balls of cinnamon-sprinkled dough into future snickerdoodles, each one a handmade promise awaiting fulfillment.

This is the magic recipe of Crumb Together Bakery, a new job training and social engagement program for adults with special needs. The kosher bakery is run by Circle of Friends, a Norwalk nonprofit that provides inclusive programs for children and adults with special needs.

“Regardless of their role, every single person in the bakery feels a sense of accomplishment and purpose,” says Freida Hecht, executive director of Circle of Friends. “That’s not a ‘special need.’ It’s an ‘everyone need.’ We all want to feel like we’re contributing and making a difference. It’s part of the human condition.”

It’s this humanity that drew Nissim, a culinary graduate of Johnson & Wales University, to Crumb Together Bakery. After spending the last decade working as a line cook, pastry chef, kitchen manager and baker at several local restaurants, Nissim wanted more. She found it as executive baker and instructor at Crumb Together Bakery.

As Nissim oversees the creation of these transformative cookies, she teaches, encourages and connects. Most of all, Nissim flashes that easy smile, the one that reflexively makes everyone else smile, too.

Part of Nissim’s job is to make sure Campbell, Lipper and the other employees understand how to follow the recipes at the bakery, which operates out of the kitchen at Beth Israel Chabad, 40 King St., Norwalk. Consistency and uniformity are essential to quality, she explains.

“Everything is a lot of repetition, but it’s so amazing to watch everyone when they get it,” says Nissim, 26, a Fairfield resident. “When someone has been struggling with something — but they keep working at it and working at it, and then you see a light bulb go off — that’s the best part.”

On this particular morning, the white paper taped to the wall near the refrigerator shows a robust production schedule for 136 chocolate crinkles, 125 snickerdoodles and six “legendary” challahs as Hecht calls the braided bread made here. The staff has two shifts to complete the job.

For now, Crumb Together only accepts telephone orders and online orders at for pickup. A batch of cookies or a one-pound challah costs $9. A six-week challah membership is available for $100 that includes two challahs per week.

“Everyone loves to bake because everyone loves to taste,” Hecht said. “We know parents often wonder what’s going to happen to their children once they age-out of services as young adults: What will they do? What can they do?”

Crumb Together answers those questions each time Nissim turns on the oven. A few weeks ago, more than 100 people from Norwalk, Fairfield and other communities attended a grand opening to see — and taste — for themselves.

Hecht, the wife of Bethel Israel Chabad Rabbi Yehoshua Hecht, refers to an especially poignant quote by the Jewish philosopher Maimonides: “The highest form of giving is giving someone the means to support themselves.”

For Lipper, who lives in Westport and turned 23 on Thanksgiving, a white apron and a hair net are so much greater than the sum of their parts. They represent a uniform of pride and purpose.

“I’m making new friends and I’m making delicious things,” she says. “I like to come here and bake.”

For the 26-year-old Campbell, a Weston resident, the bakery is an extension of the culinary arts courses she took at nearby Staples High School.

“This is a baking class. Please write that down in your notebook,” Campbell instructs a visitor. “We make chocolate crinkles and snickerdoodles. I enjoy it very much, thank you.”

The workers can also earn their ServSafe certification from the National Restaurant Association by following protocols for safety, hygiene and other best practices. The teachable moments are everywhere, even for Sacred Heart University seniors Melissa Weaver and Teresa Salzillo, who act as job coaches.

“I had never worked at a bakery before, so I’m learning right alongside everyone,” Weaver says. “I love the interaction and conversations.”

Campbell, Lipper and the other employees with special needs are in the minority. According to U.S. Department of Labor figures, 75 percent of adults with special needs are unemployed.

“I’d like to see every community center and every house of worship have a Circle of Friends and a Crumb Together Bakery,” says Hecht, adding that Bill and Andrea Pecoriello of Westport have been vital to the organization’s success. “How do you judge a country? By how it treats its most vulnerable.”

The tagline for Crumb Together Bakery is “Always Rising.” One look around the kitchen here confirms it.

“Bread is always rising,” Hecht says. “People are always rising, too.”

Brian Koonz is a freelance writer.