Local | Purim | Religion & Jewish Life

Tucson congregations help others share the joys of Purim

Adina Lytle and Elliya Griver at Congregation Anshei Israel's Hamentaschen for Hunger event on Feb.26. (Yvonne Ethier)

The joy of Purim commemorates the survival of the Jewish people from a plot to annihilate them in ancient Persia, as recorded in the Megillah, the Book of Esther. But the joy goes beyond the events of ancient times. Jews have survived over and over again, in a world where the odds have been against them. At Hamentaschen for Hunger, a new event Congregation Anshei Israel held on Feb. 26, 82 adults and children came together to share the joy of the holiday and also to help those in need. Proceeds from the event fees will be divided among the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, Leket Israel (Israel’s national food bank) and CAI’s youth programs, thereby helping others to survive and encouraging Jewish youth to continue a Jewish life.

Participants rolled out and filled dough to make hamantaschen, traditional tri-cornered Purim pastries, which were taken home to be baked.  Fillings at Anshei Israel included berries, chocolate and lemon. The pastries are named for Haman, the chief villain of the Purim story, and some interpretations say their shape represents his ears or his hat. Participants also decorated shalach manot, gift bags to fill with food for family and friends, and created Purim greeting cards. Anshei Israel’s Rabbi Robert Eisen came up with the event, incorporating several Jewish concepts: Jewish food, tzedakah (charity), family, friends and the traditions of Purim.

“The core of Purim is the theme of survival. We celebrate being Jewish, being the people that we are, and that we have not been overcome,” said Eisen. “We observe the holiday to gain an understanding of the real joy of living Jewishly, and living Jewishly allows us to preserve our identity in a world that prefers we don’t continue to be Jews.” Although parties and costumes are traditional, he says that Purim is not just a children’s holiday. The holiday also addresses a hunger in our souls. “We need to be able to look into our souls, and find the strength to be the Jews we were created to be.”

Ken Morris and his son, Asher,  decorate gift bags for Purim at CAI's Hamentaschen for Hunger event Feb. 26. (Korene Charnofsky Cohen)
Ken Morris and his son, Asher, decorate gift bags for Purim at CAI’s Hamentaschen for Hunger event Feb. 26. (Korene Charnofsky Cohen)

“This is the first year for Hamentaschen for Hunger and I am thrilled with the turnout,” said  Debra Lytle, CAI synagogue director. “I think it’s fantastic that there are even non-Jews here today. For some people this is the first time that they are making hamantaschen.”

“It’s wonderful to see families working together to make the hamantaschen,” said Lynne Falkow-Strauss, CAI pre-school/kindergarten director. “This is a very important event because it makes us think of those who are less fortunate than us.”

Orli Griver, who participated in the event with her daughters, Elliya (6) and Mielle (11), said, “This is a wonderful mother-daughter experience. I made hamantaschen with my mother and now I’m making them with my daughters.” Mielle said that she hopes the event will be held every year, and Elliya added that it was “fun because you get to make this by yourself.”

Ken Morris and his 4-year-old son, Asher, were decorating shalach manot bags after making hamantaschen. “This is an absolutely great way to get the kids interested in Purim,” Morris said. His wife, Nicole Zuckerman-Morris, and their 6-year-old daughter, Chloe, also attended.

Ellis and Lilly Selznick at CAI's Hunger for Hamentaschen event on Feb. 26 (Yvonne Either)
Ellis and Lilly Selznick at CAI’s Hunger for Hamentaschen event on Feb. 26 (Yvonne Either)

“As a Jew I look forward to anything involving food, and I like being here with friends and having a good time,” said Sanford Selznick.  “It’s a bonus that it’s for a good cause.” Selznick came with his wife, Barbara, and their children Lily (15) and Ellis (13).

Other local congregations are planning a variety of events (see Calendar, page 20).

Chabad volunteers Donna and Stuart Medoff, left, distribute Purim gifts on March 24, 2016 with Rabbi Yehuda Ceitlin and his daughters Goldie and Sarah. (Courtesy Rabbi Yehuda Ceitlin)
Chabad volunteers Donna and Stuart Medoff, left, distribute Purim gifts on March 24, 2016 with Rabbi Yehuda Ceitlin and his daughters Goldie and Sarah. (Courtesy Rabbi Yehuda Ceitlin)

Rabbi Yehuda L. Ceitlin, outreach director of Chabad Tucson and associate rabbi of Congregation Young Israel, says it is a requirement to be happy on Purim. “Purim is about a threat to the Jewish people that was physical and existential,” says Ceitlin. “In the time of ancient Persia, the threat was the annihilation of the Jewish people. We were all threatened. Therefore, since this did not happen, we celebrate in physical ways, with parties and costumes, feasts and gifts of food.”

There are four customs or mitzvot for Purim, he says: Megillah, reading the scroll of Esther; mishloach manot, giving gifts of food to family and friends; matanot l’evyonim, gifts to the needy and mishteh, the feast.

But Ceitlin says that the ultimate goal on Purim is not just to celebrate with family and friends, but to share the joy of the holiday with total strangers. “We need to go way beyond immediate family and friends and reach out and share this joy with the needy. Doing this also promotes unity among Jews.

“When I was a yeshiva student in Israel, we got a group of students together and traveled in a van to northern Israel to visit IDF soldiers at army bases,” Ceitlin says. “These soldiers were far from family and friends. We brought the Megillah to read to them, and we celebrated with food and dancing. We brought them joy, and the soldiers were so moved that we did this for them.”

In Tucson, each year a Chabad rabbi goes to visit and read the Megillah to prisoners at the federal prison. “The inmates are surprised and greatly appreciate that a rabbi will take the time to do this,” says Ceitlin.

Chabad also gives out Purim gift bags to the elderly in Tucson, and this year they expect to deliver about 150 bags. “I go with my two daughters, Goldie who is 7 and Sarah who is 5,” says Ceitlin. “We dress in costumes to deliver gift bags and the seniors are delighted to see these young Jewish girls in costume coming to visit them and bringing gift bags.”

Anyone who wants to volunteer to pack or deliver gift bags can contact Chabad by calling 881-7956 or emailing  info@ChabadTucson.com.

Rabbi Stephanie Aaron of Congregation Chaverim says that her congregation’s Purim tradition is to visit with residents at Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging. “We create an atmosphere of joy by bringing both adults and children to visit,” says Aaron. “We sing, we eat dinner and of course, we eat hamantaschen. The children also spend individual time with the seniors and talk to them about their lives.” The food is supplied by Handmaker.

“Purim is a fun holiday and especially having the kids visit and entertain the residents brings a lot of positive energy,” says Nanci Levy, Handmaker’s community outreach coordinator. “The residents have fun, and the kids enjoy the experience because they see that the residents are interesting people who enjoy talking with the kids.” This year participants from Chaverim will visit Handmaker on March 13, and in addition to other activities, will join the residents in decorating shalach manot and filling the baskets with food items. The residents will give baskets to each other and everyone who attends will go home with a basket.

Thirteen-year-old Ellis Selznick’s comment about Hamentaschen for Hunger also captured the spirit of Purim. “It is fun to be here with all these other people,” he said. “It’s a way of being part of the Jewish community.”

Korene Charnofsky Cohen is a freelance writer and editor in