The walls of Germantown Jewish Centre bear the remnants of last year’s Purim celebration.
“We still have signs in our building that say, ‘Extra hand washing station behind the bar’ because we were trying to encourage people to take the steps we thought at that time were going to help to contain the pandemic,” Rabbi Adam Zeff said.
For many synagogues, Purim was the last Jewish holiday celebrated in person. On March 9, 2020, news of the pandemic was making people uneasy, but widespread shutdowns and research about the dangers of gatherings had yet to fully take hold. Many political leaders and health experts were still recommending hand washing as the main preventative measure against COVID-19’s spread. Some shuls canceled events, while others held them cautiously: no shared food, no handshakes.
One Jewish calendar year later, leaders and congregants find themselves planning virtual and socially distanced celebrations yet again as the pandemic rages.
At Temple Sholom in Broomall, Cantor Jamie Marx is busy adapting Purim spiels for Zoom. His company, The Spiel Guy, writes and sells scripts to synagogues across North America and the United Kingdom.
He is adapting two previous scripts by changing ensemble songs and duets into solos (group singing is difficult on Zoom because of delays) and altering stage directions. Instead of writing “Vashti exits stage left,” think “Vashti turns off camera.” He’s also working with a graphic designer to create Purim-themed backgrounds.
One of the skits has a timely twist.
“I wrote a new spiel called ‘Pandemic in Persia,’ which is a lot of pandemic humor. So for synagogues that really wanted a timely, pandemic-themed spiel, which a lot of people seem to want, it tells a story of the Book of Esther, but as if there was a pandemic in Persia,” Marx said.
Congregation B’nai Israel Ohev Zedek plans to hold some in-person activities with precautions. Rabbi Yehoshua Yeamans said the synagogue will hold several staggered megillah readings to accommodate social distancing, and participants will be required to wear masks. He is also planning a Zoom celebration that will take place a few days before the holiday and an ice cream truck rental to provide outdoor entertainment for younger congregation members.
“The fact that it’s a holiday doesn’t change the imperative to continue to be as strict as we have been with those protocols. At the same time, that does not preclude the opportunity to fulfill the commandments and the obligations of the day,” Yeamans said.
His congregation held an in-person Purim celebration last year during which people were discouraged from touching hands. Two days later, he called an emergency board meeting, and members decided to close the synagogue.
Kehillah of Old York Road will host its Purim CARnival on Feb. 21 at Perelman Jewish Day School’s Mandell Education Campus. The event will consist of activities and performances that families can enjoy from their cars, including a clown performance, groggers and change-throwing booth with proceeds going to charity. Nearly 20 local Jewish organizations will participate.
This is the first car-based event the KOYR community has organized, and Director Kim Decker said having access to a large outdoor space was a game-changer.
“I feel really blessed that we can try to do something that’s not on Zoom,” she said. “We can have something a little different to look forward to.”
The most recent in-person event she organized was last year’s Purim carnival.
“We got a huge donation of hand sanitizer that we used as a raffle item,” she recalled.
Germantown Jewish Centre typically holds a joint celebration among its multiple minyans during Purim, and this year it plans to hold it on Zoom.
“One of the things we’re planning is to have a sort of retrospective. We have wonderful video going back more than 15 years from celebrations past and so we’re going to create a sort of greatest hits reel of celebrations, to allow people to feel some of that joy,” Zeff said.
He added that this year of altered ritual life has taught him to embrace a different definition of participation. With in-person celebrations, there’s an expectation that attendees need to participate in the same way for it to count. On Zoom, however, the options are endless, from typing in the chat box to dressing up to dancing.
“There’s a lot of ways for people to give feedback, other than being the one who’s speaking and has all eyes,” he said.
Marx said the pandemic has taught him the importance of virtual services in keeping far-flung community members engaged. Whereas streamed services were once considered an occasional project, the synagogue now realizes their potential for allowing college students, people with limited mobility and people in rehabilitation facilities to feel connected. In other words, they’re essential.
“This technology has enabled us to reach all of them and we have heard such an outpouring of gratitude and love and support from our community,” he said.
For Yeamans, this year has been a reminder that serving God can look different.
“God draws the picture of our lives and our job is just to color it in. We cannot draw the picture. And when the picture changes, all that means is that our mindset has changed. We have tried to identify, ‘OK, what does God want from us now?’” he said.
“Maybe in the past we were emphasizing certain parts of Judaism, but now that those are harder to do or unsafe, what are our priorities? What does God want from us now? And that can change in anyone’s life, anytime, but the goal is the same.”