Focus on mitzvas

Focus on mitzvas

SAN FRANCISCO — Purim is about costumes, outrageous Purim spiels and drinking until you can’t tell the difference between Mordechai and Haman, the hero and villain of the Purim story.

Or is it?

A number of American synagogues and Jewish organizations are eschewing, or at least downplaying, the drunken revelry to focus more on the socially conscious aspects of the holiday, which begins on Saturday night.

“I’ve always hated the drunken side of Purim,” said rabbinical student Ilan Glazer, spiritual leader of Conservative Temple Beth El of North Bergen, N.J., which will hold an alcohol-free Jewish comedy festival this year on Purim afternoon. “It seems counter to what we try to teach our children about the Jewish tradition.”

The most widespread alternatives involve “mishloach manot,” the mitzvah of giving food baskets to friends, and “matanot l’evyonim,” the mitzvah of giving to the needy.

In New York, the Israeli Consulate is teaming up with City Meals on Wheels and the Netanya Foundation to deliver meals to the homebound elderly, complete with “Happy Purim” cards decorated by children in Netanya, Israel.

Ahavat Olam, a progressive synagogue in Vancouver, British Columbia, is joining with local Muslims to prepare a meal for 300 to 500 hungry and homeless people as part of its ongoing Muslim-Jewish Feed the Hungry Project.

In Philadelphia, the Reconstructionist Dorshei Derekh Minyan at the Conservative Germantown Jewish Center raises money for collective mishloach manot baskets that are assembled at the synagogue building. Minyan attendees each get one basket of goodies instead of one for each purchased, so the bulk of the funds, about $1,200 a year, goes to local nonprofits. Other synagogues use the same method to raise funds for themselves or other causes.

The Jewish Renewal Congregation Nevei Kodesh in Boulder, Colo., is among the many synagogues nationwide that ask worshipers to use boxes of dried beans, cereal or pasta as noisemakers instead of plastic “groggers” during the reading of the Megillah, or Scroll of Esther. Afterward, the food is donated to food pantries.

“While we still have a party, we don’t do much drinking, and we use all compostable goods so that there is no real waste,” said the synagogue’s executive director, Dena Gitterman.

UJA-Federation of New York used Purim this year to focus attention on the nutritional needs of the city’s low-income residents. In tandem with AmeriCorps, the federation partnered with more than 50 synagogues, day schools and other Jewish institutions in the New York area to put together healthy, nutritious food packages for local needy families. As of early this week, they had prepared more than 1,500 packages.

Alex Roth-Kahn, the federation’s Caring Commission planning manager, says the project was inspired by the mandate that each Purim food basket contain at least two different food items from two different food groups.

“Embedded in that is the idea that a festive meal is balanced and well-apportioned, which is not an everyday occurrence for low-income families,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity to talk to kids about healthy eating, and to show them that a shalach manot basket is more than wine, cookies and jelly beans.”

Some congregations go beyond collecting food.

The Reform movement’s Religious Action Center has an online social action guide to Purim that takes the holiday’s theme of turning things upside-down and depicts Purim as a time to overturn social inequalities through tzedakah projects.

In keeping with that idea, Reform Temple Beth El in Huntington, N.Y. held a Purim baby-clothing drive this year, asking congregants to bring new or gently used clothing and accessories, including strollers and car seats, for a “Purim baby boutique” held Sunday at the temple.

IKAR, an independent minyan in Los Angeles, is one of several congregations across the United States that puts on a Purim Justice Carnival. The minyan decorates the room and runs games focused on the work of local service and advocacy groups, such as “bowling to end hunger and homelessness,” where people win “tzedakah coins” that are put toward an anti-hunger agency.

“The deepest message of Purim is that life is capricious and everything can turn on its head in an instant,” said IKAR’s rabbi, Sharon Brous. “The only response to the uncertainty of life is to give love and do justice.”

At Tikkun Leil Shabbat, a 6-year-old independent minyan in Washington, volunteer organizer Joelle Novey says Purim “is very much focused on activism as opposed to drunken revelry.”

Its participants use beans and pasta boxes instead of noisemakers. They collect money for local service and advocacy groups. They fulfill “machatsit hashekel,” the Purim tithing custom, by inviting people to donate at least 50 cents to direct-service agencies. During the Megillah reading, a PowerPoint presentation highlights 18 local organizations supported by the congregation, linking their work to themes in the Purim story.

But is anyone having any fun?

That’s a problem, admits congregant Tikkun Leil Shabbat member Leah Staub. That’s why this year the congregation is adding a dance party with a DJ.

“People wanted a lighter atmosphere,” she said.

Some synagogues have abolished alcohol.

In Phoenix, Ariz., Rabbi Darren Kleinberg used to run “dry Purims” at KiDMA, his Modern Orthodox congregation. He told congregants to take a nap instead of drinking, relying on rabbinical authorities who say the mitzvah of achieving the state of unconsciousness of not differentiating between Haman and Mordechai can be fulfilled by sleeping instead of getting drunk.

Most congregations don’t want to give up the party entirely.

This year, Reform Temple Micah in Washington is buying boxes of macaroni and cheese for worshipers to shake instead of plastic groggers. Like elsewhere, the food will be donated afterward. But assistant Rabbi Esther Lederman says they’ll also have the drinking and the costume party.

“So many of our holidays are so serious,” Lederman said. “I don’t think Purim should turn into public drunkenness. But we want people to be able to let go in a way that’s safe. This is our one time to be ridiculous, to let down our guard, and there’s something to be said for that.”