For Rabbi Dovie Shapiro, co-director of Chabad of Flagstaff, Ariz., Purim is extra-special every year. It was the first event that he and his wife, co-director Chaya Shapiro, hosted when they moved there some eight years ago, just two weeks after they arrived.
Needless to say, their following has grown substantially since then, and this year, their party drew about 80 guests. Their “Royal Purim” celebration – last year the theme was Africa, and the year before, the Wild West – featured a well-decorated room, a photo backdrop where people dressed up and posed on a throne, a juggling jester and a harpist who played music on a 6-foot, 100-year-old instrument, and it was all followed by a festive meal ending with, of course, hamantashen, reported Shapiro.
Purim, which commemorates the Jewish nation’s close escape from genocide in ancient Persia 2,369 years ago, presented an opportunity last weekend for Jews around the world to embrace the holiday traditions.
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At hundreds of Chabad centers around the U.S, tens of thousands of men, women and children gathered after Shabbat to take part in well-orchestrated Chabad-Lubavitch emissary-run celebrations and megillah readings, where they were inspired to fulfill the mitzvot of delivering gifts of food to friends, distributing charity to the poor, hearing the reading of the megillah and partaking in a festive meal.
In Flagstaff, guests seated under balloon chandeliers assembled by Chabad’s Northern Arizona University students also exchanged golden shalach manos gift boxes.
According to Shapiro, the community is starting to learn more about Purim and adding it to the annual mix. “There are people in the community who have celebrated it, but not since they were much younger,” he said. “They had good memories about it, but hadn’t done it in a long time.”
Beyond the event itself, he said the goal was to help people see the spiritual messages in the megillah: “The story itself is fascinating, as are the messages of the megillah, which focus on finding those miracles in our day-to-day lives – and appreciating those miracles.”
Children learn that preparing gifts can be almost as much fun as receiving them.
Nechama Laber, co-director of the Chabad-Lubavitch of Southern Rensselaer County in Troy, N.Y., originally dreamed up a “Purim in Paris” celebration; after all, she said, her mother is from Paris. Then a friend, Chana Cotter, came back from traveling with a new fascination for marionettes and began making a theater’s worth of them for a Purim spectacular.
That meant that over Purim, 100 participants were treated to a homemade theater with curtains, a script prepared by Laber, and puppet performances by community members and the Chabad’s own “Bat Mitzvah club.” A violinist set the mood for each scene, and Rabbi Avrohom Laber narrated and acted as Mordechai during the 50-minute show. “People were spellbound,” she said. “Even adults said they’d never experienced the Purim story like this.”
The “Hidden Hand Theater” also reminded viewers that the hand of G-d guides them, explained Laber, who added that they’ve already had requests to hold the show again next year.
Laber recalled one parent saying the show brought Purim to life for her daughter in a whole new way – “a way she couldn’t visualize until now.” And that response was for a project pulled together in less than two weeks, she said. “What was amazing was the idea that so many people were involved, and that people felt so much a part of it.”
At the Chabad of University of California Irvine, Rabbi Zevi Tenenbaum welcomed 80 students for a party and megillah readings on Saturday night; another reading on Sunday, complete with a meal; and opportunities for giving gifts and visiting the elderly.
He said he sees Purim as a good representation of what yiddishkeit, Judaism, is all about: It offers time in the synagogue and then the rest of the day living life “as a Jew.” This kind of combination, he said, is attractive to students; it’s “what students appreciate.”
Meanwhile, Rabbi Pesach Burston, co-director of Chabad of Orange County in New York counted more than 220 people at his “Big Apple”-themed celebration of Purim. “It was a fantastic party,” he said. With cleverly named food stations – “Snacks in SoHo,” “Chinese in Chinatown,” “Linguini in Little Italy” – and “Times Square”-style performances by area locals, guests took part in a memorable evening, set against cardboard cut-outs of the city’s famous skyscrapers.
“I think it’s important to emphasize the joys of Judaism,” said Burston. “My hopes are that it doesn’t end with the Purim party, but inspires them to try Friday-night services or send their children to Hebrew school.”