NISKAYUNA – For anyone driving through Niskayuna in the month of August, the giant carrot perched outside Congregation Agudat Achim is difficult to miss. But that’s the point for a faux root veggie with a crucial yearly duty: rolling out the Carrot Festival, an annual fundraising event filled with entertainment, community and — you guessed it — carrots.
This year’s Carrot Festival will be held on Sunday, marking the event’s 44th year. Attendees — of which there are expected to be as many as 3,000 according to festival chair and congregation member Hillary Fink — can expect to find live music from various local musicians like Schenectady Light Opera and Roben Kosek Jazz & Blues, a pool of vendors and even pony rides for the kids. A CDTA bus will also be parked at the event for a Stuff the Bus drive — people are invited to bring donations of non-perishable foods and new or gently used clothing.
But, as always, the star of the show will be the food. With feasts of carrot-related goodies, like the several varieties of carrot cake, there will be no doubts about the “carrot” part of the “Carrot Festival.”
The congregation will also be serving up plenty of traditional Jewish dishes, including brisket sandwiches, potato latkes and chicken shawarma. Many of the foods will have gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan options available.
But although thousands will be coming for their fill — some even traveling to do so — the congregation has made sure that there will be enough food to go around. Volunteers spent the entire month of July and the weeks leading up to the festival baking, cooking and prepping festival record-breaking amounts of food.
“The baking starts in July and people are there in our kitchens virtually all day every day, Monday to Friday,” said Fink, who also noted that the cakes have been frozen so they will be as fresh as the day they were baked.
Risé Routenberg, the congregation’s catering manager, was one of the people whose summer was spent mixing cake batter. For her, the best part of the day is when food lines begin to form even before the festival begins.
“My favorite part of the festival that makes all the hours of preparation during the hot summer worth it is seeing the huge crowds gather, lining up for our food and baked goods with so much enthusiasm,” said Routenberg. “It is very satisfying.”
With all of its conviviality, the Carrot Festival is not only a fun affair for the synagogue, which will be using the raised funds for their general budget, as well as for the community as a whole.
“It’s an opportunity for all the congregation to get back together and even the community at large always looks forward to attending,” said Fink.
The moment is made even more special by the hardships of the past couple of years in the pandemic. Although the Carrot Festival never shut down entirely, the congregation had to alter its operations to follow the health regulations of the time, including no live entertainment and carry-out food services only. Additionally, attendance dropped.
Now, after larger-than-expected attendance numbers last year, the festival is expected to be up and running at pre-pandemic levels.
“I am most excited that after three years — just like everyone else not being able to have a full-fledged festival — that everyone will be able to be together again,” said Fink.
And this year, the community will take an even more central role as the festival falls on the anniversary of September 11th. To commemorate the lives lost and affected on that tragic day 21 years ago, the congregation and the Town of Niskayuna will join together at noon to hold a remembrance ceremony. Speeches will be made by town and congregational leaders and a ceremonial bell ringing will take place. Food services will be paused during this time.
Charlie Friderici, a firefighter and past chief with Niskayuna Fire District 2, will be attending the ceremony and believes that coming together at such a large event will not only serve to educate those who may know less about the events of 9/11 but will also foster a sense of community that so many need on such a tragic anniversary.
“It will be a true community commemoration,” Fink said.
The Carrot Festival will take place at Congregation Agudat Achim on Union Street (Route 7) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.