Congregation Kol Ami

The Jewish Food Festival at Congregation Kol Ami in Elmira is a culmination of months of preparation and lifetimes of cooking traditions. Community members have contributed recipes for chopped liver, chicken soup, kugel, mushroom barley soup, challah, babka, hamantaschen, mandelbrot, macaroons, latkes, blintzes, carrot salad and much more. Served to over 800 people who attend the event, held each spring since 2009, these foods pass on memories of Jewish kitchens to new generations and share them with the larger community.

Started in 2009 by members of the Sisterhoods of Congregation B’Nai Israel and Congregation Shomray Hadath. This food festival is a community event that surpasses its function as a fundraiser, creating a bond of identity between members of the Jewish community, and providing an opportunity for the larger population of Elmira and the region to interact with Jewish heritage.


Volunteers from the synagogue spend months planning and preparing the food for the event, filling freezers with challah and babka, and ordering pounds and pounds of kosher smoked meats to serve at the deli. The social hall of the synagogue is transformed into a scene from Hester Street on New York City’s Lower East Side at the turn of the twentieth century. Attendees can purchase Jewish fare from a number of individual stalls, each run by its own dedicated crew, including a bakery, deli, soup, Israeli food, fish and dairy, and egg creams.

“I think it’s really a way to represent the Jewish Community. I think that’s it. I feel pride in that. Pride that we share it with everybody. And that so many of the community supports it and comes. They come with lists, you know. I’ll take three challahs and two babkas, and can I get six of this, and the soup, and the deli. It’s like – It’s so wonderful to see so many people. And it’s really – when I can look up and really see people, and not just wrapping – it’s so nice to see friends in the community.”

– Suzanne Hesselson, interview with Maria Kennedy 08-05-2016

The Jewish Food Festival itself was a catalyst for the merger of the two Jewish congregations in Elmira, which were both declining in membership. Working together on the Food Festival, the sisterhoods found common ground, which helped them see a way forward for the Jewish community as whole”

“We really saw that we really are for the same thing. And that we really can work together beautifully. And although we have differences in philosophies or different things, we can come together. And that is definitely, definitely part of the strength that brought us together.”

– Suzanne Hesselson, interview with Maria Kennedy 08-05-2016

The foods featured at the Jewish food festival are foods that resonate with people’s memories of food they ate at home, in their neighborhoods, with their grandparents. It is not fancy, but it is Jewish:

“It’s not special. It’s typical household Jewish Food. It’s not restaurant food. I mean the deli stuff looks like restaurant food. Because the delis make what you would have at home. For dinner you would have a corned beef sandwich, and they’d probably just make it much bigger than you would probably eat at home, but I’m sure some people probably would eat it that big. But yes, it is regular Jewish food.”

– Marcus Kantz, interview with Maria Kennedy 02-12-2017

Not only is much of the food made from scratch by members of the community, but many of the recipes themselves are drawn from the repertoires, memories, and cookbooks of community members. Perfected by years of practice, or handed down from one generation to the next, or taken from cookbooks or magazines and modified to suit individual tastes and situations, the recipes reproduced for the food festival represent the lived Jewish culinary experience of people at Congregation Kol Ami.

“Every recipe is brought by some individual in the community. That’s what’s really special about the food festival, is that each of the foods that is prepared here comes from that individual’s family tradition or memory”

-Lisa Goldberg

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