Maintaining the spirit of Purim

Ethiopian olim celebrate their first Purim in Israel by honoring traditional holiday rituals.

soldiers 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
soldiers 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
While rockets continued to pound Sderot and the western Negev, a unique group of some 200 olim - predominantly from Ethiopia, Russia and Argentina - celebrated their first ever Purim holiday in Israel this week. Aged between 18 and 23, they have all arrived in Israel recently and are living at the Ibim Student Village, located in the Sha'ar HaNegev Regional Council. Ibim was established in 1991 by the Jewish Agency in order to assist the absorption of young people who decide to make aliya before or without their parents. Some 400 new immigrants reside at Ibim at any given time. While the early residents of Ibim were exclusively from the former Soviet Union, Ibim now also houses young people from Ethiopia, Argentina, and other countries. Most of Ibim's residents also study at nearby Sapir College in Sderot with over 8,000 other students from Israel and abroad. In contrast to the image of a gray, rocket-ridden ghost town that first springs to mind when thinking of Sderot, newcomers to the Ibim Student Village are ushered into green, exotic surroundings, full of grassy fields and palm trees. Several months ago, 58 Sudanese refugees, many from the conflict-shattered Darfur area, were also provided shelter at Ibim by the Jewish Agency at the request of the Prime Minister's Office. A very special relationship formed between Ibim's new immigrants and their new Sudanese neighbors. Some of the students would play with the refugee children and assist the families with their daily chores. "We felt as if we were also once refugees. They are in a situation similar to what we Jews were in the past," one student told Metro. In 1998, the village formalized ties with the Jewish community of San Diego, California, which donated $7.5 million to Ibim to be utilized over a 10-year period. The Jewish community of San Diego sought to create personal ties that would strengthen its bond to Israel, as well as allow for joint decision-making and a greater modicum of control over their funding. There was also a groundswell of support in the community for a project that reflected its values - promoting peace and pluralistic Judaism. Aside from supporting the Ibim Friedmann Student Village, the San Diego Jewish Federation helps finance operations of the adjacent Sha'ar Ha Negev Community Center. The facility encourages interaction between the local population and the immigrant students. Project Otzma volunteers from San Diego have stayed at the village while in Israel and participants in summer trips and missions from San Diego visit the premises regularly. "I want to dress up as Mordechai on Purim and pray, like him, for the peace to come," said Aznahu Taspawy, a new immigrant from Ethiopia who arrived in Israel two months ago and now lives at Ibim. In Ethiopia, Purim has only begun to be celebrated in recent years, thanks to shlihim (emissaries from Israel) who came to Ethiopia after its Jews began to emigrate to Israel in increased numbers. Even now, the holiday is only marked in certain regions of that country. Jews in other regions did not celebrate Purim at all, similar to the Samaritans, who only celebrate the three main holidays of Judaism, said Shlomo Balay, director of an educational program in Ibim. "Many olim are very excited about their first experience of dressing up for Purim," he said. "In Ethiopia, it was customary to perform plays for Purim. Everyone would wear white and one of the men who was dressed up as Ahasuerus would choose [an] Esther from among the pretty girls. A doll symbolizing Haman was later hanged on a tree." While in Israel, children wear costumes representing different monsters, pop stars and celebrities, Purim in Ethiopia was celebrated quite differently, one student said. "It was not customary to dress up as things that aren't related to Purim, in order to maintain the purity of the festival," he said. Students told Metro that since in the Ethiopian community, great importance is given to preserving holiday tradition, most of the Ethiopians in Ibim plan to limit their choice of costumes to characters from the Book of Esther, or wear simple white attire. Ibim's residents plan to celebrate Purim with soldiers from nearby IDF bases, strengthening the connection between the "new" and "old" Israelis. The youths at Ibim are very much aware of the volatile political and security situation in Israel. Since they are exposed to Kassam rockets and mortar attacks on a daily basis, they understand that serving in the IDF is crucial, said one of the students. "Integration into Israel... requires fulfilling certain duties. Motivation here at Ibim to join the army is very high," he said. Students told Metro that they often meet with Ibim's older immigrant graduates, many of whom are already studying at university, and most of whom served in army combat units. The new arrivals find a great source of encouragement and moral support in their Ibim predecessors. Kassam attacks and the Color Red sirens, which sound many times a day, were described by the olim as an experience they got "used to." "In the beginning, those who were newer here were quite frightened, but eventually everyone gets used to it and just seeks shelter when the alarms sound. Also, all classrooms here are fortified against rockets," said Ibim director Sony Zinger. In the past seven years, only three students have left Ibim because of the security situation - a negligible number, considering that every class comprises over 300 students, Zinger added. "When the [rocket] attacks began seven years ago, we began to brace for it and we have gradually learned the special demands of this situation. We have received donations from [Jewish communities in the] Diaspora and have recruited psychologists who speak different languages to help the students deal with the stressful situation that prevails in the area today." "We never considered leaving the area. We are part of the State of Israel and as long as we receive instructions from the Home Front Command, we will remain here."