Here’s the thing about cooking classes: they’re often expensive, and while they can be great as a one-time event, they’re not always a good place to continue to gain cooking skills and/or meet people.

The World Zionist Organization, Department for Diaspora Activities’ (WZO-DDA) Cooking Up In Hebrew program was “cooked up” in a Bay Area, California, kitchen three years ago, as Dana Greitzer Gotlieb, WZO-DDA’s San Francisco and Bay Area Regional Director of Community Engagement, and Dalit Gvirtsman, an educator, writer and foodie, discussed how food brings people together and identified an opportunity to use it to create community locally.

With the support of the head shaliach (emissary) in North America, Rotem Malach, and Gusti Yehoshua Braverman, the head of WZO-DDA, they launched their first version of the program, Mevashlim b’Ivrit (the same name, but in Hebrew), as a pilot in Berkeley, with a focus on Israelis in the Bay Area, to bring them together on a regular basis to celebrate and connect with their Jewish and Israeli culture and with each other.

After successful runs in Hebrew, Gotlieb and Gvirtsman, along with Einat Partin, a chef and educator, who joined as the program manager and recipe developer, developed an English-language version of the program, which consists of an expansive curriculum for nine gatherings over the course of a year.

Here’s how it works: Cooking Up In Hebrew invites foodies (not necessarily chefs or individuals in food professions) to become “hosts.” Then WZO helps them form a group of nine to 13 food-loving people in their area to gather regularly, either at the host’s house or elsewhere.

Each session has a theme relating to Jewish holidays and heritage and/or Israeli culture. Past sessions have included “Israeli Autumn, or Deep Orange Evening,” “Hear, Hear, Haman’s Ear” and “White Night – Dishes for Shavuot.”

Gotlieb, Gvirtsman and Partin provide a beautiful booklet for each session, which contains Hebrew songs or poems (with their English translations, courtesy of Michelle Shabtai), excerpts from Jewish texts and discussion questions, recipes relating to the topic (often with interesting stories or commentary from the program creators) and a list of Hebrew vocabulary words with their transliterations and translations.

Participants register for the yearlong program, paying a highly subsidized fee that offsets program expenses and ingredients. At the gatherings, each participant receives the session booklet. They discuss the upcoming Jewish holidays, review Hebrew vocabulary from the previous session, listen to an Israeli song and work together, led by the host and that session’s chef/cooking instructor, to prepare the dishes, as well as learn the relevant Hebrew words for that session. At the end, the whole group sits down to enjoy the fruits of their labor and engage in inspiring conversation. Because they gather regularly, friendships are formed, too.

While the curriculum provides a comprehensive program and experience, it’s just as important to Gotlieb, Gvirtsman and Partin to give hosts and groups the opportunity to make the sessions their own. They are invited to put their own personal touches on the program, whether that means sharing additional songs or texts or swapping out recipes in favor of others. Hosts are part of a special Facebook group, where they share photos, recipes and tips between sessions.

The program now consists of 19 groups around the US and the world, including South Africa, Poland and Canada, and shows no signs of stopping. Gotlieb speaks proudly about the diversity that has been achieved in the groups—couples and singles, Israeli and not, observant Jews and secular; in one group, there is a Muslim woman, while another includes a participant whose mother was Jewish, but who grew up not practicing at all and is embarrassed to say that she is Jewish herself.

With more groups slated for 2018, a delicious future is brewing—or, should we say, being cooked up.

For updates on Cooking Up In Hebrew and inspiring photos and recipes, like the program’s Facebook page. Interested in forming your own Cooking Up In Hebrew group in your area? Contact Einat Partin at [email protected]

All photos courtesy of Cooking Up In Hebrew.