It is a cold gray morning in West Bloomfield, Mich., but the aroma of bread baking tinges the air outside of the Dakota Bread Company with warmth and a radiant cheeriness. A line quickly forms outside as more and more customers arrive to buy fresh loaves of challah, traditionally eaten by Jews during Shabbat meals. Inside, the customers—all spaced six feet apart and wearing masks—are vastly outnumbered by the braided loaves hot out of the oven, and by the plump muffins and oversized cookies joyfully crowded together in a way many humans haven’t been since the pandemic began.

For two decades, the Dakota Bread Company has been the region’s most popular and lauded challah purveyor. Over the years, many have tried desperately to get their famous recipe. And while he won’t give away the recipe, Rabbi Levi Shemtov is happy to share the secret. “The atmosphere and the love and the camaraderie make this challah great,” he says. “Everything is done by hand—a group of people standing around a table making challah together. It’s really, really beautiful.”

Rabbi Shemtov and his wife, Bassie—Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries and co-founders of the Friendship Circle—the current owner of Dakota, have made revealing the magic of friendship, togetherness and community the core of their work in life.

Inspired by the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—the Shemtovs came to southeastern Michigan in 1994 ready to dedicate their lives to serving other Jews and the Jewish people. They began by helping young Jews struggling with substance abuse disorders, many of whom felt isolated and alone. The Shemtovs soon realized that connections, both individual friendships and within communities, were the key to helping people thrive. The rabbi wondered: Who else would benefit from “being seen for who they really are?” So, he started asking around: Who else is being isolated? The response was quick and decisive: kids with special needs.

It’s About Essence, Not Labels

As they began helping facilitate diverse friendships, says Shemtov, they realized everyone likes to be seen “for their essence and not for all the labels attached to them. And that’s been the driving success of the Friendship Circle; we bring together all people who want to be seen for who they really are. When we bring someone from isolation into the community, we’re not only helping the person with special needs, we’re helping the entire community.”

Jacob Gross puts the finishing touch on each challah before baking them.
Jacob Gross puts the finishing touch on each challah before baking them.

For more than 20 years now, the Shemtovs and their colleagues at Friendship Circle have been connecting people—people with special needs and people for whom the built environment serves, Jews and people with other identities—to build strong, spiritually nourishing friendships and supportive, loving communities. And part of building those communities means addressing functional and educational needs that weren’t being addressed elsewhere.

Buoyed by community support, dedicated volunteers and energized donors, Friendship Circle has expanded to multiple campuses that “provide recreational, social, educational and vocational programming for over 3,000 people with special needs and their families.” One particular program, which ran from 2014 to 2016, was the Friendship Bakery. It taught young adults who had outgrown other Friendship Circle programming to bake and help manage the kitchen, in addition to the sales of kosher challahs every Friday. The success of that program led Shemtov to dream. “We set as a long-term goal that one day we were going to make a bakery,” he says.

Long-term turned out to be much shorter than expected.

Fresh-baked muffins
Fresh-baked muffins

Adjunct to Farber Soul Center

It was only four years ago that the Friendship Circle took on an incredibly ambitious project—opening the Farber Soul Center, a stylish kosher cafe and art studio. Both provide education and employment for adults with special needs. And yet, the rabbi observed, not everyone who had been successful at the Friendship Bakery had skills compatible for working at the Soul Cafe.

“All of a sudden, out of the blue, we get this opportunity to buy a bakery—and not only is it a bakery, it’s a bakery that’s known in the community for challah ... ,” Shemtov recalls about first hearing Dakota’s owners wanted to retire and sell the business. “We feel that having Yiddishkeit in a person’s life is something that’s very important and also helpful, so we’re always looking out to bring traditional Jewish content (like challah-baking) into our programs.”

For the Shemtovs, it was a clear example of Divine providence. “The way it came together with the seller being ready to sell and the donors ready to sponsor and the community excitement around it,” Shemtov says, “it became clear that this was the perfect program and really meant for us at this time.”

Rabbi Levi and Bassie Shemtov at Dakota's grand re-opening event
Rabbi Levi and Bassie Shemtov at Dakota's grand re-opening event

‘Burn the Dairy Out of It’

The sale was official on Oct. 15. On Friday, the shop closed for the weekend; the bakery which had not previously had kosher certification was going to be transformed from the inside out.

“Everything had to be removed, cauterized, kosherized, cleaned, blown-out and replaced,” says Sue Rodriguez, a longtime employee of the Dakota Bread Company. “They even tore down walls, which is great, because now there’s more room.”

The biggest surprise for Rodriguez, however, was the blowtorches. In order to make the bakery’s products parve (permissible to be eaten with either a dairy or meat meal according to Jewish dietary laws), “everything had to be burned,” she says. “You had to burn the dairy out of it.” She made sure to stay out of the building while the rabbis, who are experts in Jewish dietary laws, blowtorched all the surfaces.

Bassie and Rabbi Levi Shemtov in the Friendship Circle
Bassie and Rabbi Levi Shemtov in the Friendship Circle

Now, Rodriguez says, “everything is brand-new: every pan, the speed racks. Everything is sparkling.” She also notes that even the old pans and speed racks were put to good use; they were donated to Meals-on-Wheels.

By Monday morning, Dakota was ready to reopen. That morning, Shemtov says, “we did the mitzvah of hafrashat (separating) challah, and we made bread that was certified kosher for the community.” On Oct. 25, they even hosted a socially distant drive-through grand reopening, where scores of excited customers were gifted with an assortment of treats (handed in via their car window) and challah dough, and invited to a challah cooking class over Zoom later that day.

In addition to what they sell in the bakery, Dakota currently sells their challah in multiple local grocery stores. Now that it is certified kosher, they can reach an even broader market.

Expanding the Family’

Shemtov has pledged to keep all the current employees; “they’re a beautiful group of people, he says. “We’re like a family to each other, and these people are looking forward to expanding their family to include people with special needs.”

Since making family out of strangers is the secret to Friendship Circle and the Dakota Bread Company’s success, let us introduce you to a few members of the “family”:

Sue Rodriguez in front of the Dakota Bread Company
Sue Rodriguez in front of the Dakota Bread Company

Sue Rodriguez

She never dreamed of being a baker. But one upon a time, when a friend mentioned that Sunshine Treats, a Jewish bakery, needed help for the holidays, she thought it might be a nice way to make a little extra money. In her first days at Sunshine, someone told her: “If you learn to make the seven-layer cakes and the hamantaschen and the mandel bread, you’ll always have a job in the Jewish community.” Rodriguez chuckles. “And it’s true. I’ve been [in the business] for over 26 years”—13 with Sunshine and 13 with Dakota.

There’s a lot that Rodriguez has come to love about baking and working at Dakota, but most of all, she loves how the food she makes makes people feel. “Everybody loves to eat,” she says. “And it makes most people happy from the inside out. It makes me happy to see people eat.”

Jacob Gross

Jacob Gross making chocolate babka
Jacob Gross making chocolate babka

He doesn’t do anything halfway. When the West Bloomfield native—now 23 years old—couldn’t find a prayerbook that worked for him, Gross and his father made one that did. And then, he spent almost a decade pushing and prodding to have such a traditional prayerbook printed and sold widely so others with similar needs would be able to access one. With his input and advice, the prayerbook he inspired was recently published.

Recently, he has applied that same determination to his passion for baking. “His favorite hobby is baking,” says his father, Ethan Gross. “He’s got a ton of cookbooks, and he bakes all the time.”

When the cookbooks are exhausted, “I use recipes I find on Instagram,” says Jacob Gross.

Gross started working with Milk and Honey, the culinary team behind the Soul Cafe, in June and transitioned over to working full-time at Dakota in October of this year. Gross loves the new location. “Everybody’s so nice,” he says, and the equipment is top-notch. “They have a huge oven that’s 12 feet tall!”

Babka, a rolled sweet bread originally from Eastern Europe, is one his favorite things to make. “We roll ours by hand,” he says proudly. Additionally, Gross has been learning new recipes, including the perennial Detroit Jewish favorite, seven-layer cake, and says he has begun helping to train new staff members.

Norma Dorman

She has been a Dakota customer “since the day it opened.”

“We love it!” she says. “We buy it every Friday. We ship it out of state for all of my children during the holidays.”

When she heard that the Friendship Circle had bought the bakery and made it kosher, she was ecstatic. “It was so exciting for me to be able to share it with friends” who only eat certified-kosher breads, she says.

But despite her excitement, Dorman did retain a little skepticism. Could it possibly be just as good as it was before? On a recent Friday, just before the shop closed for Shabbat, she made her way into Dakota, bought some loaves and brought them home to share with her parents. “We sat down and we said prayers, and we cut the challah,” she says, her voice conveying the mix of excitement and trepidation the family had just before tasting it. “I gave it to my mom and dad, and all three of us said … ‘It’s the same!’ ”

Since then, Dorman has already joined the Challah Club, receiving a challah delivered to their home every week. “We couldn’t be happier for” Friendship Circle and Dakota,” she says, “and we wish them success, health—G‑d willing, all good things.”

At Dakota's grand re-opening: (L-R) Richard Ellias, Ron Hodess, Sue Hodess, Neil Fetter, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Bassie Shemtov, Shari Kaufman, Elliot Baum, David Farber
At Dakota's grand re-opening: (L-R) Richard Ellias, Ron Hodess, Sue Hodess, Neil Fetter, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Bassie Shemtov, Shari Kaufman, Elliot Baum, David Farber