NISKAYUNA -- Carrots -- and culture -- are always part of autumn at Niskayuna's Congregation Agudat Achim.
Thousands are expected to celebrate the season on Sunday, at the congregation's 40th annual Carrot Festival.
"It's a wonderful community awareness of who we are, and then there's the bigger picture of Jewish food, Jewish culture and the festival that creates something special for Niskayuna every year," said town resident Rise Routenberg, who runs the kitchen and has volunteered at carrot time for the past 30 years.
"It's good for the community, and not just Niskayuna people come," Routenberg added. "People come from Albany, from Massachusetts, and every year more and more people come."
The festival, held on the congregation grounds at 2117 Union St., will run from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. This year's attractions include:
- The festival's star dessert, the "signature" carrot cake.
- Hot beef brisket sandwiches -- with onions, garlic, carrots and mushrooms -- served with a half-sour pickle.
- Tzimmes, a traditional dish of root vegetables that includes sweet potatoes, carrots and butternut squash.
- Potato latkes and potato knishes.
- Hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill.
- Fifty arts and crafts vendors, and 20 community service organizations.
- A farmers market with carrots and other produce from Schoharie County.
- Pony rides and a petting zoo.
- A pet adoption clinic.
- Entertainment by The Accents, Die Shaine Maidelach und Die Schmendriks, the School of Rock House Band and members of Schenectady Light Opera Company's production of "Grease."
- Voter registration conducted by the League of Women Voters.
- A "Touch a Truck" attraction, that will allow children and adults to touch and explore an ambulance, a bus, a firetruck, a snow plow and an airplane -- the latter coming from the Empire State Aerosciences Museum.
"For the 40th anniversary, the committee wanted to do something special to expand the Carrot Festival," said Hillary Fink, who has chaired the festival for the past 13 years, referring to the voter registration and truck displays. "These two additions continue our tradition of offering something for everyone, and we are excited to have these, along with all of our other traditions."
The first festival in 1978 came with a construction job. Members of the congregation knew they had to pave the synagogue's parking lot, and carrots sprouted -- figuratively speaking -- during a brainstorming session. Agudat Achim members Paul and Rose Westheimer owned the Carrot Barn at Schoharie Valley Farms and knew their vegetables -- they produced and packaged 1,400 tons of carrots each year.
Fresh carrot juice and pony rides were part of the first carrot party, which has grown year by year. Over time, the festival's "signature" carrot cake has emerged as one of the party's most popular items.
"It's a two-layer carrot cake filled with a praline filling and a cream cheese frosting which is then topped with a sprinkle of toasted coconut," Routenberg said. "We make more and more every year. It usually sells out easily by 2, 2:30 in the afternoon, and then we make more the following year. It's what people line up for before the festival starts."
The "signature" cake will be available by the piece, or 4-piece family packs. Congregation chefs began baking in July, and will have 1,400 pieces for sale.
Other cakes, cookies and desserts also will be available.
Anita Merims, who has volunteered at the festival since the first gathering, said the party is more than just carrots.
"To the congregation, it steadily has become one of our most important fundraisers," said Merims, who lives in Niskayuna. "And additionally, we put ourselves out into the community so the community gets to know what it is here. We show people through the sanctuary. It has grown steadily to become Niskayuna's fall festival. There's nobody else doing anything in the fall."
"I love the way it brings the whole community together," Fink added.
Volunteers keep coming back, Merims believes, because they love their synagogue and the congregation.
"This is a wonderful place," Merims said. "From generation to generation, we look after each other. This is our contribution to our family."
Parking is available on the synagogue grounds and also at Iroquois Middle School.
"The biggest worry is always the weather," Routenberg said. "As we get into fall, who knows in the great Northeast. It's rain or shine, and rain days are not fun. When we have this festival in the rain, it's challenging but not impossible. Everything moves inside; the spirit is still there."
Contact Daily Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 518-395-3124 or at [email protected].