NISKAYUNA -- Thousands of people descended onto the grounds of Congregation Agudat Achim on Sunday for its 41st annual Carrot Festival, proving that what started out as a small event more than four decades ago has grown into a much-loved community event.
Each September, the congregation opens its doors, and its lawn, to vendors, families, musicians and other local organizations to participate in the day-long festival. The combination of activities and performances for patrons of all ages paired with an extensive kosher food and dessert menu are the key elements to this event, which not only serves as the congregation's largest annual fundraiser, but also as an event that local families look forward to attending.
The congregation's first Carrot Festival took place in 1978, when its members were searching for a way to cover the costs of paving the parking lot.
At the time, Paul and Rose Westheimer, who owned The Carrot Barn at Schoharie Valley Farms, which produced and packaged 1,400 tons of carrots a year, helped the congregation host the first fundraiser by selling their vegetable and vegetable products to attendees.
While the Westheimers no longer own The Carrot Barn, they still play an active role in the annual festival by not only serving on the planning committee, but by continuing to sell their produce on site during the event.
The festival is staffed by congregation volunteers who work as food servers, cooks, or parking attendants to herd the hundreds of vehicles that show up.
Congregation President Jackie Rowen was volunteering at the busy drink tent on Sunday. She confirmed that while the event falls on a different weekend each year depending on the date of Rosh Hashanah, it will guarantee thousands of visitors each year, the majority of whom reside nearby but are not necessarily members of Congregation Agudat Achim.
"It's such a big community event," Rowen said. Between the vendors whose wares ranged from jewelry, kitchen supplies, pottery, cosmetics and clothing, to the various local theater and musical acts, featuring recent "American Idol" alumna Madison VanDenburg as headliner, there were at least 100 community organizations present on Sunday, she said.
Another popular aspect to the festival is the large offering of Kosher food. Often, Rowen said, it's impossible for people who keep Kosher to go out to eat, and the festival offers them the chance to do just that, with volunteers starting the cooking process as early as June.
"It gives them a chance to get outside, and go out to eat. It's really nice to see the community come together in that way," she said.
"We are known for this," said Hillary Fink, the Carrot Festival's chairperson, noting that the festival had become even larger this year, with a total of 76 vendors and other participants vying to take part.
Behind the scenes in the synagogue's kitchen, dozens of volunteers were handling massive trays of food, placing some into ovens and refrigerators, while taking others out of them and handling them off to food tent volunteers to keep up with the demand for items outside.
According to Fink, two months after the congregation calculates what it raised from the event, planning gets underway for the following year's festival.
Rabbi Rafi Spitzer, who took over as the congregation's spiritual leader in early August, stood in the kitchen, watching the controlled chaos for a few moments during the festival.
"Rosh Hashanah is coming, so there's not time to rest yet," he said.
Fink added that while the congregation is grateful for the community's ongoing support of the festival, the part she enjoys most about the annual event is that it's an all-hands-on-deck affair for congregation members that gives them the opportunity to work together and get to know each other better.
"Just bringing everybody together. That alone makes me happy. It's a time where everybody pitches in," she said.