STAMFORD - Twelve-year-old Hannah Zucker didn't hesitate to thrust her hands in the warm, sticky mess.
Her mixture of flour, water, sugar, egg, oil, salt and yeast had just the right consistency, and it was time to knead. So she happily pressed the dough until it was a fluffy, white ball.
"It's fun because it's nice and messy," Hannah said of the challah dough stuck to her fingers. "And it tastes good at the end."
Hannah wasn't alone Monday night in making challah, the traditional bread eaten by many Jewish families as part of the weekly Shabbat meal. She was joined by her mother, grandmother and more than 200 other women at Chabad of Stamford for what the congregation called "the world's largest challah baking event."
But no actual baking was involved - after shaping their dough, women were encouraged to bake their bread at home. But the event was planned for months as a way for local Jewish women to learn more about the spiritual aspects of challah making, sad Leah Shemtov, the congregation's director of community programming. But two violent events on the world stage, the December terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, and the new war in Gaza in the Mideast, gave the event special significance, she said.
"We are told that when a woman is engaged in lighting candles, or baking challah, the gates of heaven are open for personal prayer," Shemtov said. "So it was very appropriate for us to hope for peace while baking the bread.
"We hope there can be peace for everybody. It's really a hope for world peace - that there will be no more pain and suffering."
Chabad of Stamford dedicated the event in memory of Rivkah Holtzberg, the wife of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg. With her husband and six others, Rivkah Holtzberg was killed in an attack on the Mumbai Chabad house last month.
"She was a great, modern Jewish woman who really exemplified the ideals of Jewish womanhood," Shemtov said. "She maximized every day and did not allow life's obstacles to get in her way."
In the Shabbat tradition, women made two loaves of bread, one to share with family and one to give away. Alexandra Cahr, 10, of Springdale, said she made a special dough with raisins, cinnamon, sugar and poppy seeds she hoped to give to the homeless.
In sheer numbers, the event was a resounding success. The more than 200 women and girls filled a cavernous room at the Chabad temple. Outside, cars spilled out of the parking lot onto nearby streets as drivers struggled to find a parking space.
Most of the women came from Stamford and nearby towns, but at least one family was visiting from as far as Argentina, Shemtov said. Each had her own personal reason to attend.
Regina Weisel, 32, said she wanted to learn to make challah. As a young mother of a 2-year-old, she saw the event as an opportunity to learn while taking a break from being in the house.
"I thought it would be a fun thing to do together with a whole bunch of women," Weisel said. "Down the road, it will be something fun to do with my daughter."
Lined up at long tables outfitted with aprons, ingredients and bowls, the women chattered and laughed, nearly drowning out the instructions piped over a loudspeaker. But quiet fell when Shemtov uttered a blessing and prayer for "our brothers and sisters in Israel, those on the front lines, those in harms way, and those who are put by their own people in harm's way."
She raised a fistful of challah dough as an offering, admonishing, "And the world be filled with peace."