Jewish Pittsburgh plans for a safe Purim — online and in person

Jewish Pittsburgh plans for a safe Purim — online and in person

Nearly a year after shuttering, some congregations providing limited in-person Purim activities

Adat Shalom Religious School students perform a Purim shpiel in 2018 entitled, “The Muppets Take Shushan,” directed by teacher Fran Conway. Photo courtesy of Adat Shalom
Adat Shalom Religious School students perform a Purim shpiel in 2018 entitled, “The Muppets Take Shushan,” directed by teacher Fran Conway. Photo courtesy of Adat Shalom

Sending gifts to others is one of Purim’s sweetest traditions. Between stuffing bags with fruit and baked goods, and delivering those packages to friends and family, the Purim practice of mishloach manot builds camaraderie by reminding both the giver and recipient of communal bonds. It’s for that reason Ken Turkewitz, interim executive director of Congregation Beth Shalom, is looking forward to overseeing a Purim basket drive with nearly 650 participants.

“Community building is a really important part of this for us,” said Turkewitz.

Over the course of two Sundays, Turkewitz and volunteers will bag and deliver pre-packaged, individually wrapped items across the city. First, on Feb. 14, during one of four two-hour slots, registered teams of no more than four people will pack contents at one of several designated stations inside Beth Shalom’s ballroom. Then, on Feb. 21, volunteers will drop off the treats.

Masking and social distancing will be in place throughout.

“We’ve planned it all out to keep it as safe as possible,” said Turkewitz.

Purim 2021 marks almost a year since many congregants have seen each other in person. People are looking forward to just being together, even in a limited and distanced capacity,
added Turkewitz.

Purim 2020 fell on March 9. Approximately one week later, shutdowns began across Pennsylvania. Congregation B’nai Abraham was slated to hold its Purim spiel on March 13 — the Butler-area congregation marks the holiday on the Friday closest to its Hebrew date — but once lockdowns were in place, the spiel was shelved.

“We were supposed to be doing ‘The Jewish Princess Bride,’” said Cantor Michal Gray-Schaffer, spiritual leader of B’nai Abraham. “It was going to be our biggest one yet.”

The skit called for heroes, villains, a princess, pirate, witch, wizard and of course a giant. There were going to be sword fights, rodents and even a poison game. Rehearsals had been held for months, but one day prior to the March 13 performance B’nai Abraham tabled the program.

Now, nearly a year later, the Butler-area congregation will resurrect “The Jewish Princess Bride” through Zoom.

The virtual show will include 10-12 performers and has been revised to work online, said Gray- Schaffer.

Teen volunteers Gabi Naveh and Abby Blank with Maya Aaronson at the 2018 Purim Carnival on Sunday, Feb. 25. Photo courtesy of Rodef Shalom Congregation

Throughout the past year, numerous congregations have turned to screens to foster connections. With congregants located in Sewickley, Moon, Beaver and Aliquippa, Beth Samuel Jewish Center, heavily relied on Zoom. In addition to services, the Ambridge-area congregation held online movie nights, author events and culinary parties.

With 11 months of virtual programming under its belt, Beth Samuel plans on continuing the format this Purim: In lieu of its regular in-person carnival, children can download and use GooseChase, a scavenger hunt app, for a day of home-based, Jewish-related fun.

At Temple David in Monroeville, virtual and in-person Purim activities will be combined through a pre-recorded online sing-a-long, megillah reading and interviews of “behind-the scenes Purim characters,” as well as collecting cans of food for distribution at Crossroads Presbyterian Church.

Gathering food for donation to a local pantry is a holiday tradition the congregation holds dear, said Rabbi Barbara Symons — along with sending mishloach manot and reading the megillah, distributing matanot l’evyonim (gifts to the poor) is one of the principle ways to mark Purim.

Consistent with its mission of enriching Jewish life on campus, Hillel JUC plans on reaching students through a pre-Purim online costume ball as well as an in-person opportunity for spreading holiday joy, said Dan Marcus, Hillel JUC’s CEO and executive director.

“We are providing the material for individuals to make mishloach manot in their own space,” said Marcus. In addition to providing contactless delivery between students, Hillel JUC also will mail Purim packages to students who have not returned to Pittsburgh because of the pandemic.

On Feb. 2, the Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America released “Purim Guidance for Shuls and Communities.” The manuscript begins by recognizing the “sobering milestone of a year since the arrival of the pandemic on these shores” and encourages readers to follow public health guidelines.

Regarding mishloach manot, the Orthodox groups cite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisement that “cooking or preparing food and delivering it to someone, with a mask and proper social distancing, is a very low-risk activity,” and instruct readers that when delivering or receiving mishloach manot to “visit and greet guests outside the home and leave the package on the front porch or outside the apartment door.”

As for megillah readings and Purim prayer, the document notes that congregations should hold in-person services “only with proper masking and social distancing, in accordance with local regulations and guidelines.”

Young Israel of Pittsburgh, an Orthodox congregation in Squirrel Hill, hasn’t determined logistics regarding Purim activities yet, said Rabbi Shimon Silver. He expects, though, megillah readings will occur in person, as the holiday-related mitzvah cannot be fulfilled online unless one has a kosher scroll and reads along.

Uh, oh, look who showed up for Purim in 2018. Photo by Barry Werber

At this point, after nearly a year of a global pandemic, the Purim narrative, as it is related in the megillah, is ever more relevant, said Yael Eads, Rodef Shalom Congregation’s director of informal Jewish life.

“The story of Purim is a story of hope,” she said. “We’re looking forward to this year being different than last year, and looking forward to more opportunities and experiences for people to get outside again and see others.”

To that end, Rodef Shalom and Beth Shalom have scheduled a combined in-person fully outdoor Purim carnival on Feb. 21. Open only to members of either congregation, the two-hour event will bring 100 registrants together for a safe and largely familiar holiday event.

“There will be games, entertainment and prizes,” said Eads. “You will see a lot of the same things you’re used to seeing at a Purim carnival, just in a different way.”

Prior to the pandemic, Purim carnivals were typically loud, densely packed and somewhat chaotic family events. With recognition of a need to social distance and sanitize, this carnival will reflect safe practices, Eads explained. “Every group, or family, will have a guide or group leader taking them from station to station.”

As people wait to migrate between areas, or a station to be cleaned, performers will keep families entertained. Masks will be required at all times. Finally, before participants leave, there will be Purim treats available, but they are the “absolutely last thing,” said Eads. “They’ll be sealed to go. We are not encouraging any eating or drinking in the Rodef parking lot.”

With Purim 2021 marking nearly a year since shutdowns began, a Purim carnival — albeit altered — represents, in a small way, “resilience and the ability to overcome the challenges that are out there,” said Eads. “Purim carnivals are a fun joyous experience that kids look forward to every year. They’re a highlight for most kids, so I think it’s nice that we can do this in a safe way for families.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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