June 16, 2024
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Purim in the Pandemic: Shuls Plan Safe Celebrations

COVID-19 is not yet in our rearview mirror. How can we observe Purim according to halacha while following safety protocols? “A year ago, we were in the epicenter of the disease,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, morah d’asrah of Englewood’s Congregation Shomrei Emunah and CEO of kashrus for the Orthodox Union. “We have to be very careful.”

With many losses behind us, and cautious optimism as we begin to get vaccinated, the restrictions we have been following all year are still in place. Shuls are holding additional Megillah readings so all can hear while being socially distant. Guidelines from the Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America (see accompanying sidebar) state that if someone must remain at home, listening to a live recitation of the Megillah electronically while following with a kosher Megillah is acceptable. Rabbi Zev Goldberg, president of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, said the RCBC was sending out a general letter to the community advising everyone to follow established COVID-19 safety protocols during Purim and the guidelines of their shul rabbi.

Two other aspects of Purim are different this year. Rabbi Genack said that with Purim falling on Erev Shabbat, the seudah, preferably fleishig, should be essentially an enhanced breakfast or brunch and include bread for Birkat Hamazon. “It is important to finish the meal early enough on Friday, preferably by midday, so you still eat the Shabbat meal with an appetite,” he said. The seudah should not include guests outside your immediate household. Mishloach Manos should also be limited this year. The minimum requirement is that each person should give to one other and leave it at the door. “More focus should be on matanot l’evyonim, charity for the poor,” said Rabbi Genack. This can be handled through third parties, through the mail or online.

Congregation AABJ&D of West Orange surveyed members of the congregation to get a real feel for their comfort level in coming to shul to hear the Megillah. Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler said that not surprisingly, the survey revealed that many are still uncomfortable about being inside the building. The congregation has been holding several minyanim indoors, Ashkenazic and Sephardic, as well as an outdoor minyan every Shabbat, and there has been at least one backyard minyan in the community. He is asking people to register for their preferred Megillah reading and then the shul will decide how many minyanim of each kind to arrange. He emphasized that a Zoom Megillah reading is only for those who are at high risk, ill or in quarantine. “We need to maintain our fidelity to halacha while finding the gray area so those in a difficult predicament can fulfill the mitzvah in some form.”

Rabbi Chaim Poupko said Englewood’s Congregation Ahavath Torah will be providing several minyanim, indoors and outdoors, with the main Megillah reading a hybrid. The congregation has a large ballroom opening onto an outdoor patio enabling both options at once. “We want to bring people together safely with a minyan that has some festivity and some energy,” he said. He urged caution in delivering mishloach manot. “Delivering packages to other homes is fine, but you must maintain social distance,” he said. “Our ability to connect with others enhances our holiday. We’ve had a year to learn how to connect with people in new ways and celebrate in a way that we are still mindful of the pandemic.”

Purim has always been a children’s holiday with friends, food and festivities. The youth department of Ahavath Torah is planning a drive-by costume contest Thursday evening before Megillah reading to give children some of the fun associated with the holiday. “It won’t be a regular chagigah, but it will still feel like we’re doing something together,” said Estee Balk, co-youth director along with her husband, Rabbi Willie Balk. “Willie and I are so excited to see everyone in costume since we missed it so much last year.” A stage will be set up where each child who wants to participate can come out and have a picture taken. In addition to a grand prize for the winner, every child who is driven by will get a bag with treats and giveaways.

Rivki Rosenthal, youth director of Teaneck’s Congregation Keter Torah, said the shul holds a show for children every Purim that coordinates with the Megillah reading, and similar activities are planned this year with modifications for COVID-19 safety. “The kids have lost so much over the year, we are doing everything possible to give them an exciting Purim as always,” she said. To ensure safety, there will be two shows, held outdoors in their large parking lot, and two coordinating Megillah readings. All participants are required to wear masks. Children below first grade must be accompanied by an adult, but with two shows, she said parents can take turns. Families are registering with the exact number of seats they need, so groups can be arranged together and distanced from each other. The space allows the stage to be surrounded on three sides. Rosenthal is very enthusiastic about the show this year—a fire show with juggling, ropes and tricks. She is not worried about children running around with each other, which would be a violation of safety protocols. “They are interested in the show, so they will sit quietly and watch without much down time.” After the show, they will be picked up by their parents to return home.

Rosenthal said she has a theme for her family’s costumes and the mishloach manot treats for the kids in shul, as she has done in the past. “We are trying to keep everything as close to normal as we can,” she said. “At Keter Torah, our goal will be to bring extra happiness and simcha to the day.”

By Bracha Schwartz

 

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