This year, Beth David Reform Congregation wanted to ring in the new year a little differently than with just apples and honey.
Last week, members of the Gladwyne synagogue made and canned 300 jars of Tunisian pumpkin jam, a spin on a Sephardi dish, to be distributed to congregants. The project used 75 pounds of pumpkin.
Originally, synagogue leadership wanted to give the nonedible gift of a can opener to congregants within their High Holidays gift bags — a representation of the reopening of society after COVID restrictions and the opening of one’s heart during the month of Elul.
But now equipped with can openers, congregants then needed cans to open. Rabbi Beth Kalisch tapped synagogue Vice President Jane Horwitz, an experienced canner, to conjure up an additional sweet treat to the requisite honey.
Along with Cantor Lauren Goodlev and Educational Director Rabbi Elisa Koppel, Kalisch and Horwitz decided on pumpkin jam, also called ma’jun kra, which uses ingredients common in North Africa and Sephardic cooking. In addition to representing a sweet new year, the jam would be an opportunity for the synagogue to expose congregants to different types of Judaism beyond the Ashkenazi default.
“In our effort to stay connected and do things together, why buy something when we can sort of have an activity and get people connected in making the jam together?” Goodlev said.
Horwitz got to work. First came the recipe selection and testing. Using butternut squash from her garden, Horwitz tweaked recipes, adding orange juice to acidify it, which would enhance the flavor of the sweet and smooth pumpkin, and apple, which is high in pectin, the natural thickening agent that adds glossiness and mouthfeel.
As she did the math on how much jam she would need to make, it was clear that the squash from Horwitz’s garden wasn’t going to cut it. She picked up crates of pumpkins. She bought additional ingredients, too: 50 pounds of sugar, vanilla bean paste — different from extract — and rose essence to perfume the jam.
Next came the spreadsheet, a meticulous timeline and delegation of tasks for those who signed up to help Horwitz, a group of nine, many of whom had previous canning experience. The jammers showed up at Horwitz’s house with canning pots in tow; many had been passed down for generations.
Over the next five days, the team churned out four batches of jam a day, with some peeling and chopping pumpkins, others stirring jam pots, others still boiling and sealing jars and Horwitz’s husband dutifully cleaning the kitchen each night.
“There was jam schmutz all over my kitchen!” Horwitz said. “Jam was everywhere … the sweetest thing is there’s no more sweetness on the walls of my kitchen.”
It wasn’t all about the destination, however. Jam-making is a meditative and reflective process. Sometimes, you don’t have a choice but to stand over a pot and stir for hours.
“It made me slow down and focus,” Horwitz said. “Doing this preservation of food on such a huge scale was, for me, the closure to the year.”
Ending an arduous project has its rewards, too. After distributing the jam jars to congregants, Horwitz planned to donate leftover jam to Bethel AME Church in Ardmore, hoping it will lead to other opportunities for partnership.
Horwitz isn’t interested in another large-scale jam-making project for a while, but the activity laid the blueprint for congregants to reconvene after a couple of years of distance and be creative in programming moving forward to accommodate a diverse community.
“If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s the metaphor of throwing spaghetti on the wall and seeing what sticks,” Goodlev said. “I guess if you throw jam on the wall, a lot of that is going to stick, too.