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Purim ~ One year after Covid

By Stacey Dresner

Nearly one full year has passed since Covid-19 struck the U.S. last March, just as Jewish communities were getting ready to celebrate Purim. 

“Purim was the last in-person thing we did,” recalled Rabbi Rachel Gurevich of Congregation B’nai Shalom (CBS) in Westborough. 

This year, CBS will celebrate the festival as most other congregations will – via Zoom. The congregation will hold a Mixology & Megillah Zoom party for adults on the first night, Feb. 25. The next evening they will present “Live from Persia – It’s Shushan Night Live,” a shpiel that was written by four religious school students during their winter break (and Rabbi Gurevich) and which will be performed by the students as well. On Sunday, children and families can participate in a “CAR’nival” – dressing up themselves – and their cars – in Purim costumes.

“It seems so small to be able to wave at each other from your car windows but its not – it lifts the spirit when other things aren’t possible, and people really appreciate it…We need these moments of relief and release,” Rabbi Gurevich said. “That does not diminish the suffering and the losses that have happened during this period of time, because all of that is there as well, but we can’t only emotionally be in that place.

“Jews historically have dealt with some of the most challenging experiences as a people with humor and with comedy and so I think there is a place for that,” she added. “I do expect that mixology night — which is going to have a little bit of megillah-connected midrash mixed in with the cocktail making – is going to make us laugh together and have that feeling of connection with each other.”

Purim was also the last in-person event held last year at Temple Israel in Greenfield.

“Even when we made our misholach manot, we were all going, ‘Should we be [handling] these things with tongs?’” recalled Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener. “So, we were aware, but we were just beginning to imagine the adaptation.”

This year Temple Israel will be distributing Purim materials to members’ homes, including hamantaschen; and packages with groggers and other fun for children, courtesy of PJ Library. 

The congregation will begin its Purim celebration at 5:30 p.m. with children-friendly content before segueing into a more “anachronistic, political humor” in the shpiel, co-written by Rabbi Cohen-Kiener and a team of congregants.

“We’re going to start out with a television announcer giving the news report about all the casualties in the Judean war and how many Persians were killed and how much booty was reclaimed…and then just break character, and say, ‘You know what? We’re going to do it differently this year, because the cycle of being the victim and then the avenger is an old, old story, and we’re not the only ones that tell this story,” Rabbi Cohen-Kiener said. “I’ll hand it over to one of the other writers and he’s going to share his impressions – who’s the good guy and the bad guy in our story, and about revenge and about celebrating this bloodthirsty story. We’ll ask people to interact and talk about healing and dealing with hard times, and good and evil. We just decided to go real.”

Rabbi Amy Katz, second from the right, with Temple Beth El members at a pre-covid Purim party.

Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz of Temple Beth El in Springfield said her congregation will have a lighter focus.

“This year, especially, we are keeping it light,” Rabbi Katz said. “People have had enough death in their life. We are going to focus on the light and bringing the community together,” she said.

Last year by Purim, the leaders at TBE were already discussing what to do as Covid-19 began its spread.   

“We had already said, ‘We can’t do this. We had already begun to wind down,” Rabbi Katz said. “We had some doctors who said, ‘Wake up and smell the coffee.’ And so that’s is what we did. And when we woke up and smelled the coffee, we found that we had to close.”

TBE did do Purim on a smaller scare last year. Rabbi Katz estimates that instead of their usual 400 congregants maybe 125 showed up.

“This year, I’m actually very proud of our temple community because we, together with Sinai Temple and the JCC, are going to do a Purim magic show for little ones; then we’re going to do a short service and Noah Aronson, who is a terrific performer, is going to do a concert and chapter five of the Megillah for us. And then we’ll do a full Megillah reading on Friday morning for the people who really want that regular Megillah reading,” she said.

Rabbi Jeremy Master of Sinai Temple has written a Purim shpiel that both his congregation, Temple Beth El and JCC members will be able to experience.

“The shpiel I wrote is making light of some of the challenges of a year of being on Zoom,” Rabbi Master explained. “We are having the characters of the story engaging in the story via Zoom and encountering things like speaking while muted or having a conversation in the background while not realizing you are muted. The last time we were in person last year was Purim so I was really thinking about how to find some humor in the past year of Zooming [because] finding humor in life is what I think Purim is all about.”

While everyone longs for the day when things get back to normal and synagogues open fully, there are some reasons to be thankful for the blessings Zoom has brought to many.

“What we’ve heard from our members more than anything else is how it brings us together, how it does create community, how good it is to have that feeling of celebration together,” said Rabbi Gurevich. “In some ways it’s become easier to reach beyond the walls of the congregation. A lot of congregations have realized that when everything is digital and online, you have a way to reach people and make what your are doing available to other people who don’t have specific congregation affiliation.”

Rabbi Cohen-Kiener agreed that being online has in some cases helped her congregation.

“We’ve had a Tuesday morning minyan for three years now. Before, when we met in the building, we might have had about four people. Now, knock on wood, we get a minyan almost every Tuesday morning,” she said. “Same with services, same with programs.” 

Not all synagogues are going the Zoom route this Purim. Orthodox synagogues, including Springfield Chabad, feel that it is important for their members to hear the Megillah in person.

“We are, as with every thing, trying to figure out how to adapt and be Covid compliant,” said Rabbi Chaim Kosofsky, director of Lubavitcher Yeshiva Academy in Longmeadow. “So this year instead of having one or two large Megillah readings we are going to read the Megillah a number of times in different locations around our building, and with these multiple readings we will make sure that it is safe and that people are socially-distanced.”

The mitzvah of the Megillah, Rabbi Kosofsky said, is “to hear the megillah once by night and once by day, and this should be done live.”

Rabbi Kosofsky says that this comes from the verse (Proverbs 14:28; Mishna Berura 687:5) that “loosely says, ‘the larger the crowd, the more glory for the king.’” 

“The Talmud applies it specifically to the Megillah reading so that although some may read the megillah with a small group or individually, the mitzvah is that it is preferable to read it in a group.”

To keep their Megillah readings safe, Rabbi Kosofsky said, people must make a reservation so that LYA can plan for how to socially distance all who attend — keeping the readings safe.

And they will make house calls. 

“For people who are not comfortable, we will do our best to accommodate them by reading at their home, as long as we have the manpower and the time,” Rabbi Kosofsky said. “Reading the Megillah and hearing the Megillah is a priority for us.”

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