The ballroom buzzed with commotion and the warm smell of fried potatoes wafted through the air at the Staenberg-Loup Jewish Community Center this past Sunday. The JCC, which is celebrating its 100th year in Denver, hosted its first annual Latkes and Lights celebration to mark the first night of Hanukkah.
The sold out event included clay dreidel making, representatives from different children’s programs and camps around Denver, and a fiercely competitive latke-making contest. Attendees filled their bellies with samples from each entrant, but the final verdict was passed down by a panel of judges.
Kipper Carter, a first-time latke-making contest entrant, won the citizen category with help from her friend, Piper. Her secret to latke victory is simple:
“Make them with love.”
In the local business category of the latke-making contest, Joshua Pollack and Enrique Socarras of Denver’s famous Rosenberg’s Bagels and Delicatessen prevailed against Safta Restaurant and Zaidy’s Deli and Bakery. Latkes made using the same winning recipe will be available at both Rosenberg’s locations while supplies last.
Daniel Siegel took to the stage sporting a t-shirt that read “LOL (lots of latkes)” to announce the results and give the winning teams golden, 3D-printed trophies depicting four hands holding up a platter of latkes.
Although Siegel, who works as the JCC’s engagement program manager, grew up in a conservative Jewish household, his relationship with his faith is rooted in community rather than religious doctrine.
“For me, it’s more from a culture and peoplehood lens,” he said.
Both Siegel and Jamie Winter, a PR representative for JCC Denver, want the JCC to be a place where everyone can find community and expand their horizons, regardless of their faith.
“It’s a space where anyone can feel comfortable and know that it’s also a safe space for the Jewish community,” Siegel said.
Winter recalls a time that she brought a non-Jewish friend along for a babka-making class. Her friend had never even had babka, let alone made it.
“She was like, ‘Oh my god, that was amazing,’” Winter said.
It’s no secret that there has been a rise in highly publicized antisemitism in the news recently, which President Joe Biden addressed at the White House menorah lighting on the second night of Hanukkah this past Monday.
According to Siegel, this rise in hate speech toward Jewish people hasn’t changed how he does his job. Instead, he says, it’s caused an uptick in curiosity “and a little bit more importance to some of the work that we’re doing as people come through our doors in a good way and just kind of are curious and supportive.”
Maggie Osburn and Eddie Quartin started coming to the JCC during COVID. Quartin grew up going to a JCC in Miami, so it was a natural way to find community through outdoor social events. When Osburn found out that they were hiring preschool teachers at an event the JCC hosted in conjunction with Denver Pride, she seized the opportunity, and the couple has been involved ever since.
While the JCC’s programming is mostly geared towards young families, Osburn’s favorite event is their annual Purim Drag Queen Bingo.
“It should be the funnest thing of the year,” she said.
Osburn and Quartin decided not to enter the latke-making contest this year – they found the task of making 50 latkes to be too daunting – but Osburn recommends using a cheesecloth to squeeze extra moisture out of your latkes to get the perfect balance of soft on the inside and extra crispy on the outside.
“She has a seasoning mixture that we unfortunately cannot say because we’ll probably be doing this next year,” Quartin said.
Siegel got his game-changer latke-making secret from a woman who was cooking alongside him in the JCC’s kitchen for last year’s Hanukkah celebration.
“She’s like, ‘Oh, when I make latkes I put a big slice of carrot in the pan with it,’” he said. “I was like, ‘What are you doing?!’”
As any seasoned latke-master knows, you typically have to change the oil in the pan a couple of times or your later latkes won’t come out as crispy and golden as your first couple of rounds. When Siegel tried this new method, all of the little impurities and bits of potato that would normally burn and spoil the oil clung to the carrot chunk.
“And I have never looked back,” Siegel said.