It’s late evening at the Lubavitch Mesivta, a boys’ high school on Chicago’s North Side. A light sprinkle of snow falls outside, while inside, the study hall is half-full of young teens reviewing the day’s lessons alone or in small groups. At this time of year, many of the students are studiously memorizing the Hebrew texts of the book of Esther, which chronicles the miraculous events celebrated on the holiday of Purim.

They carefully take note of the vowelization points and cantillation marks that give each Hebrew word a distinct tune. On Purim, they will read from a handwritten scroll called the Megillah, thus helping community members fulfill the mitzvah to hear it once on Purim night and once again on Purim day.

All throughout the world, yeshivah students and Chabad rabbis will read the Megillah for individuals and groups on Saturday night, March 15, and Sunday, March 16 (or Sunday night and Monday in Jerusalem, as well as in other ancient walled cities that were standing at the time Joshua led the Israelites). Many of the students will be reading for people whom they regularly visit on their “mivtzoyim routes” every Friday, when they bring Torah thoughts, tefillin and Shabbat candles in tow. Others will read at Chabad Centers and private homes.

Fourteen-year-old Dovid Weingrow is all ready for the upcoming holiday. He estimates that it took him six months to learn the Megillah perfectly.

“At first, I listened to a recording of each verse, and reviewed it to myself over and over again until I mastered it,” explains the ninth-grader. “Eventually, I learned the sounds of the cantillation marks on my own and learned directly from the book.”

Every word must be perfectly enunciated in order for the mitzvah to be fulfilled.

Weingrow will read the Megillah at Bais Menachem, a local Chabad center, and plans to accompany Rabbi Baruch Epstein for the duration of the holiday, reading the Megillah for those unable to make it to the synagogue.

He will be reading from his own Megillah, handwritten on parchment, a gift from his father as a reward for having mastered the text. He estimates that 50 of the school’s 100 students have learned to read the Megillah and plan to do so on Purim—many using scrolls borrowed from community members.

‘An Unbelievable Operation’

Most of the students will fan out to Chabad centers in the greater Chicago metropolitan area, helping Chabad rabbis and rebbetzins bring Purim cheer and observance to as many people as possible. Others will be on hand to staff the “Chicago Purim Center,” which offers around-the-clock Megillah readings on the hour—every hour—for the duration of the 24-hour holiday.

Megillah readings around the Chicago area are centrally coordinated.
Megillah readings around the Chicago area are centrally coordinated.

Mendel Weingarten was a senior student last year at the Mesivta. He says the building saw hundreds of people coming for every reading, save for the wee hours of the night. In addition, the students were dispatched to private homes and group residences to read to the homebound.

There are also two other satellite centers: one in the nearby suburb of Skokie, Ill.; and another in downtown Chicago.

“It’s an unbelievable operation serving many thousands of people in a short amount of time,” Weingarten explains. “There is a central dispatching station that coordinates all of the readings, making sure that the readers are all at the right place at the right time. All through the day, there are people calling in with last-minute requests for a woman who just gave birth or others who suddenly find themselves unable to make it to a public reading, and we make sure to help them all.”

The Megillah scroll isn't the only thing that the readers take along with them on Purim.
The Megillah scroll isn't the only thing that the readers take along with them on Purim.

Besides Megillahs, the students are supplied with eco-friendly food packages, known as mishloach manot, which they give to people with the instruction that they pass them on to a friend before nightfall brings the holiday to a close, thus fulfilling another one of the four Purim mitzvahs. (The other two: giving gifts to the poor and having a celebratory feast.)

“I learned how to read the Megillah in ninth grade,” says 16-year-old Menachem Schapiro, a native of Morristown. N.J., who is now in his third year at the Mesivta, “because I wanted to get the skill and be able to help people fulfill the mitzvah. Now it is something I and my friends look forward to every year.”