SCHENECTADY — The Carrot Festival began 38 years ago with a simple premise: to raise enough money to repave the Congregation Agudat Achim parking lot.
Today, it’s an end-of-summer tradition that about 5,000 people come out to support each year.
Now, if you’ve never been to the festival and didn’t grow up in the area, you may be asking “Why build a festival around carrots?”
Paul and Rose Westheimer, the original organizers of the festival, used to own The Carrot Barn at Schoharie Valley Farms. When they heard about the synagogue’s need, they decided to donate what they had to start a fundraising event.
They just happened to have a tremendous amount of carrots.
Although the Westheimers are no longer organizing the festival, the seeds of what they began spread further than the congregation thought and there are now over 100 community members who volunteer for the festival.
And their work starts early.
“We started baking in July,” Sharon Wohl, one of the volunteers, said.
Five hundred pounds of carrots, many of which come from Israel, are shredded and chopped to make the various dishes for the festival.
“We bake everything right here in the synagogue’s kitchen and as soon as it’s done, it all goes right into one of our freezers,” Wohl said.
Volunteers make 525 individual cakes and over 350 cookies for the occasion. While many are a classic carrot cake flavor, they’ve also included a chocolate variety and a few gluten-free options.
“We’re trying to be more conscious this year with what people are eating these days. We made a batch of gluten-free cookies that you wouldn’t even know were gluten-free,” Rise Routenberg said.
Routenberg is a volunteer with the congregation who has a background in baking, so she is often the director in the kitchen.
Anita Merims, a volunteer and one of the key bakers, said that one of the messiest parts of preparing for the Carrot Festival is not the creating the carrot cake, but making the brisket.
“We had over 200 pounds of brisket to make this year,” Merims said. The sauce [which is a secret recipe, although Merims admits that it includes carrots] tends to spill over into the rest of the kitchen.
“The floors are mopped every night in here because of us,” Routenberg said with a laugh.
And that’s only one of the many options on the menu.
Tzimmes, carrot bagels, kosher hot dogs and falafel are some of the other dishes that thousands of attendees enjoy every year.
With Merims, Wohl and Routenberg (among others) working the kitchen, that leaves organizing the festival to Hillary Fink, who has been running the show for the past 11 years.
“It just gets bigger every year,” Fink said.
With Fink’s planning, and with the support of many volunteers, this year’s celebration will bring a few new touches to the traditional festival.
“We have an antique car show with room for at least 20 cars. There will be special prizes given to cars that are from 1978 because it’s the year we started and if there are any orange cars,” Fink said.
As the festival falls on Sept. 11, there will be a ceremony to honor the lives lost in the terror attacks 15 years earlier. Local officials will lead the ceremony, along with a color guard group.
The festival will also feature a pet adoption tent featuring four local agencies — 11th Hour Rescue, Animal Protective Foundation, Capital District Humane Association and Greyhound Rescue of Upstate NY.
Staples like the bouncy house, petting zoo, crafts, pony rides and balloon animals will still be there. But Fink said that miSci will be joining in this festival and a show called Reptile Adventure will also be in there.
Despite the number of activities lined up, Fink knows that the main priority for most attendees will be the cake.
“As soon as they park, families will send out one person to get in line for the cake,” Fink said.
They make over 1,100 portions of their signature cake, but it sells out every year.
Routenberg said they even have people who come into the synagogue after the festival to ask if they’ve baked any more or have some left over.
The secret to its success?
“We put praline, carrots and raisins in the cake and sprinkle a bit of coconut on top. But we also have a gluten-free version this year so we’ll see how that goes,” Routenberg said. She notes that it isn’t the congregation’s recipe; however, after the number of times volunteers have recreated it, they can at least claim that they are carrot cake experts.
CARROT FESTIVAL 2016
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday
Where: Congregation Agudat Achim, 2117 Union St., Schenectady
What: A family festival with crafts, games, pony rides, and other activities for children and plenty of carrot-infused food choices (including the congregation’s beloved carrot cake)
Cost: Free admission
The following entertainment is scheduled on the Phil Rubins Stage during Sunday’s Carrot Festival:
10:15 a.m.: Cast members from SLOC’s “Annie Get Your Gun” and “Footloose” (a preview of songs from the first two shows of SLOC’s 90th season)
11 a.m.: Hamilton Hill Arts Center Dancers
Noon: We remember September 11, 2001
12:30 p.m.: Performance by FLAME (a little bit of everything)
2:30 p.m.: Albany Drum Circle (interactive fun)
3 p.m.: Die Shaine Maidelach und Die Schmendriks (Klezmer)
4 p.m.: C. Jane (a little bit of everything)