Purim brings hope and a yearning for normalcy


Purim is not just another holiday to add to the list of what’s been transformed by the pandemic.

For many, it is the last holiday to be touched by COVID-19 and marks a full year of postponed celebrations, Zoom calls and face masks.

At this time on the Jewish calendar last year, some Purim celebrations had been canceled, but many went on as planned. Just a few days later, schools were closed and workers started figuring out how to do their jobs from home.

To get a sense of how this year’s Purim compares to last, the JT spoke with people across the Baltimore Jewish community, at different synagogues, schools and organizations. Community members expressed sadness and wistfulness, but with the vaccine rollout underway, there is also a sense of hope.

Hamantashen (Randi Leshin)

The Shul at the Lubavitch Center in Baltimore

At this time last year, Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan and his wife had plans to spend Purim in Monsey, N.Y., with their family.

“On Thursday, we left to be with our children in Monsey,” recalled Kaplan, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of the Maryland Region and spiritual leader of The Shul at the Lubavitch Center in Baltimore. “At the time, Monsey became the epicenter of transmission, but we didn’t fully understand what was going on. We arrived in Monsey, then came home on Friday because my wife was not comfortable.”

Last year, the shul held a dress-up contest, but that won’t happen this year. “We don’t have many children in the synagogue to begin with,” Kaplan said. “Usually, children go around delivering mishloach manot — gifts of food — to different homes, friends, neighbors, all over. This year it will have to be limited.”

Purim celebrations wound up contributing to the spread of coronavirus last year, Kaplan noted.

This year, the shul has taken precautions to ensure social distancing, air circulation and mask wearing. Kaplan has had the first dose of the Moderna vaccine and is looking forward to the second dose in a few weeks.

“This is a worldwide pandemic,” Kaplan said. “Everyone has suffered.”

Baltimore Hebrew Congregation Purim party
Attendees at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s adults-only Purim party last year (DJ Edgar, David Castine)

Baltimore Hebrew Congregation

“Purim is, at its essence, a story about resilience and adaptation to changing circumstances.”

That’s how Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen, of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, described the holiday. Perhaps that message resonates more than usual now.

BHC marked Purim last year the way it usually does, with a celebration that included a Purim carnival and a spiel. “Our Purim spiel was an homage to the 1980s because of the Jewish year 5780,” Sachs-Kohen said. “We’ll be missing the way we have done things in the past.”

Last year, BHC also held an adults-only Purim party.

“It’s hard to believe this was just a year ago, such a wonderful memory for all who attended,” BHC’s Director of Engagement Jill Manko said. “It’s wild to think Purim was the last in-person event for so many of us. So much has changed this year, yet our relationships to each other and the fun we have while celebrating Jewish holidays remains. We can’t wait to get back to celebrating in person together.”

This year, the synagogue is going to be prerecording some Purim spiel pieces based on the musical, “Hamilton.” They will also be having a Purim “In-Car-nival.”

“The folks doing the planning are getting very creative about how families will participate in their cars around our parking lot,” Sachs-Kohen said. “While different, it should be a lot of fun.”

Marty Rochlin is chair of this year’s Purim celebration. He’s the full-time director of Camp Airy and has been a member of BHC for 12 years, along with his wife, Pamela, and 17-year-old daughter, Lilly.

Life with COVID-19 is a mixed bag, he said. “This is for the kids, who have wanted to do regular things, like school, sports, camps, graduations, bar mitzvahs, college, and everything has been so disjointed, so we want to organize something that gives a sense of normalcy,” he said.

“We can’t change Purim on the calendar so weather might be an issue. We’ll start small with Purim and build towards something bigger down the road. There’s hope.”

Beth Tfiloh Congregation & Community School

Beth Tfiloh Congregation Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg was philosophical when he reflected on life pre-COVID-19 and the many adjustments and compromises people have had to make.

“Last year we had some, this year we’ll have more, next year we’ll have many,” he said. “For now we’re making it possible for one and all to rejoice safely, whether in person or virtually.”

Beth Tfiloh plans to have both indoor, socially distanced Megillah readings and outdoor Megillah readings, as well as their annual women’s Megillah reading and other activities, such as an opportunity for preschoolers to parade across their outdoor stage in costumes.

“We tried to provide an exciting, joyful and safe Purim experience for everyone in our community, and the response has been incredible,” Wohlberg said.

Stephanie Holen Whippo at Purim
Stephanie Holen Whippo at Purim (Naomi Hafter, courtesy of Chevrei Tzedek Congregation)

Chevrei Tzedek Congregation

Amit Golding has been a member of Chevrei Tzedek Congregation for seven years, along with his wife, Sharon, and their two teenage sons, Natan, 14, and Eli, 19.

One of the last things he helped organize before the shutdown last year was a Purim spiel. “We like to have the kids be front and center with the Purim play,” Golding said. “Last year and in previous years, the teens write and create the script, with some adults helping to organize, help practice and make sure everyone is being included. We keep the Purim story, giving it a Broadway musical bent.”

This year, the synagogue is having a virtual Purim play and Megillah reading, as well as a mishloach manot and canned food drop-off for charity.

“Having been doing this close to a year, we are used to it,” Golding said. “Although we miss being in person, we are kind of used to doing things via Zoom.”

Natan Golding, a ninth grader, was involved in writing and performing in the Purim spiel last year.

“It’s hard for things to be as lively when they can’t be in person,” he said, “but it’s great that we are still able to have a fun celebration this year.”

Randi Leshin with Ilan and Landon
Randi Leshin with Ilan and Landon (Eric McCormick)

Jewish Federation of Howard County

Last year, about 800 people attended Purim Palooza 2020, the 28th annual Purim celebration held by the Jewish Federation of Howard County. “There were carnival-style games for all ages, an Israel breakout room, face painting and delicious food and hamantaschen for purchase,” Program Director Shauna Leavey recalled.

This year, the Federation is looking forward to a socially distant, mask-wearing drive-thru celebration on Feb. 21, which will take place at five interconnecting parking lots along Columbia Gateway Drive. Event sponsors, Jewish congregations and schools will participate. Activities will include games, a costume contest and a donation collection for the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center.

Randi Leshin, who has served as chair of the Purim Palooza committee, has attended past Purim celebrations with her husband, Ricky, and two children, Landon, 8, and Ilan, 2.

“As a family, we usually bake hamantaschen,” Leshin said. “Last year I was able to take Ilan to Shabbat tots with PJ Library where they dressed up in costumes and had a little parade.

“This year for Purim, I am still chairing Purim Palooza, but it looks a little different,” she continued. “We are hosting a drive-thru event where families will be able to pick up prepackaged ingredients to make hamantaschen together on a Zoom call later in the afternoon. We have about 100 families signed up.”

Leshin echoed the sentiments shared by others over the loss of traditional family gatherings and celebrations.

“Over the last year, we have all had to just cancel so many things,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that the kids didn’t have to cancel Purim also. I hope that by having the drive-thru where kids and families will get to briefly and safely get to wave to teachers and rabbis, they will still get a feeling of joy. Even though we are going to log onto yet another Zoom call, I hope that by engaging in something as a community, everyone will still feel that they are celebrating Purim together.”

Clarification (2/24/2021): This story was updated to provide clarification on Chevrei Tzedek Congregation’s Purim programming.

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