COVID-fatigued communities prepare for a distanced Purim

For non-Orthodox synagogues, that means a Zoom production that builds on a year of expertise.

A BRILLIANT future: Purim masks on sale at Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda marke (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A BRILLIANT future: Purim masks on sale at Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda marke
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
In any other year, the mask-decorating party planned for later this month at Congregation Beth El Ner Tamid in Broomall, Pennsylvania, would make perfect sense: Costumes are part of the ritual for festive Jewish holiday of Purim, which begins Feb. 25.
This year, though, the masks being decorated aren’t meant for a carnival — they’ll be appropriate to use as personal protective equipment as long as the coronavirus pandemic lasts. The gathering, and the subsequent synagogue-wide celebration, will take place on Zoom. 
The party represents Beth El Ner Tamid’s effort to preserve the spirit of the holiday, even as its very celebration offers a cruel reminder that an entire year has elapsed since COVID-19 turned life upside down, seemingly overnight.
“There’s a lot of grief in the fact that we’ve lost almost an entire year of synagogue life and our personal lives,” said Rabbi Janine Jankovitz of Beth El Ner Tamid. “I know people are tired and sad, and we’re trying to bring them just a little bit of joy.”
In 2020, Purim began on the evening of March 9, just before the country shut down to stop the spread of the coronavirus. For some Jewish communities, the holiday was the first celebrated over Zoom. In others, the typical parties gave way to more somber, hand sanitizer-soaked services, stripped of the raucousness that characterizes the holiday. By the following Shabbat, they had canceled in-person services, too.
But in other communities, traditional Purim celebrations appear to have turbocharged the spread of the virus, resulting in a brutal toll in the following weeks.
A year later, the holiday is symbolic of one thing for everyone: an entire Jewish calendar year in which the holidays, the Shabbats and all the rituals in between have been adapted under the burden of the pandemic and its restrictions.
For non-Orthodox synagogues, that means a Zoom production that builds on a year of expertise. 
Temple De Hirsch Sinai, a Reform congregation in Seattle, Washington, located near an early outbreak, canceled last year’s “Star Wars”-themed Purim programming but vowed that its annual Purim spiel would be “back next year, bigger and better than ever.” This year, its schedule boasts multiple online events, including a spiel inspired by the viral video app TikTok.
But some elements of the celebration — including the reading of the Megillah, the scroll containing the Purim story — do not lend themselves to the practicalities of pandemic broadcasting. Listeners typically use groggers, small noisemakers, to cancel out the name of Haman, the villain who tries to destroy the Jews, whenever it’s mentioned in the story.
“How do you do the groggers on Zoom?” Jankovitz wondered, bemoaning the fact that the experience for little kids, for whom the silliness on Purim is a special treat, won’t be the same. “The sense that we’re going to have to mute people in between really does take away from the joy and festivity of Purim.”
At the Orangetown Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation in Rockland County, just north of New York City, this year’s Purim costume parade will be replaced by a car parade through the town, with congregants decorating their cars for the occasion and the fire department leading the way. For the Megillah reading, congregants will gather in the parking lot to hear the story on their car radios.
While the synagogue did host its services in person last year, the crowd that assembled for that Megillah reading was smaller than usual as the coronavirus was spreading in nearby Westchester County. The very next day, the synagogue notified its members that someone who attended that service had tested positive for the coronavirus.
This year, with congregants able to safely distance from one another in their cars, Rabbi Craig Scheff hopes the setup will be an opportunity to feel connected as a community while staying safely distanced.
“We’ve been playing with the idea of drive-in movie-style programming of some kind where people could be in their cars but safely apart,” Scheff said, noting the Jewish legal issues with a drive-in service on Shabbat. “Purim seemed like the perfect opportunity.”
The Leffell School, a Jewish day school in Westchester County, an early epicenter of the pandemic in New York state, had already switched to online learning by Purim last year. 
“Because everything was so new on Zoom, there was this excitement of what Purim would look like online,” Rabbi Yael Buechler of the lower school recalled.
This year the school, like many other Jewish day schools, has operated in person since September, so Purim celebrations will morph yet again. Students will listen to a streamed Megillah reading from their classrooms. But they won’t be able to sing or shout — behaviors that add risk by propelling air particles more forcefully — and there will be no all-school assembly.
“This whole year has been a bit of a ‘v’nahafoch hu’ experience,” Buechler said, using a Hebrew phrase from the Megillah meaning “it will be turned upside down” that symbolizes the topsy-turvy nature of the Purim story.
For Rabbi Shaanan Gelman, this Purim will in some ways be more normal than last year.
Gelman, who leads the Modern Orthodox Kehilat Chovevei Tzion in Skokie, Illinois, attended last year’s AIPAC convention in Washington, D.C., where he came in contact with someone who later tested positive for the coronavirus. So while his congregation met in person, he was in quarantine at home and listened into the synagogue’s phone line to hear the Megillah reading while reading along from a scroll on Purim night. 
The next morning, a colleague read the Megillah for him from outside his house while he listened from his bedroom upstairs in a scene that played out across the Orthodox world, where it is considered preferable to hear the Megillah read in person, even though Purim is the rare holiday where technology is permitted.
This year, Gelman’s synagogue will host multiple services and provide a livestream option for those who are not able to attend, though Gelman stressed that the streaming option is not an ideal way to fulfill the obligation to hear the Megillah. Depending on the weather, the synagogue may even host an outdoor service in a tent where they have held Shabbat services for months.
“A lot of what has become synonymous with Purim is not going to be happening this year,” Gelman said. “Hopefully next year we’ll get back to the bigger celebration of Purim.”
While Gelman noted the fatigue that had set in around continued pandemic restrictions on daily life, he said being able to attend services in person this year should not be taken for granted.
“I am appreciative that I can, God willing, come to shul and hear the Megillah live,” Gelman said. “I think we’ve all become grateful for the little things.”