Purim tradition, modern makeover
Delivering gift baskets is a major fund-raiser at schools and shuls
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
The best part of Purim when I was kid was shalach manot, delivering treat-filled gift baskets for the holiday to our friends and neighbors. It was better than dressing up in homemade costumes and even better than the loose, festive atmosphere during the megilla reading at our normally formal, even rigid, congregation.
Preparations started long before Purim with planning and baking. Then there was the assembly of the baskets, always in the dining room. My father turned our paper plates full of goodies into gorgeous packages with colored cellophane and curled ribbon. We stapled on a card, and it was time to deliver!
We kids would criss-cross the street, in costume, hand-delivering our gifts. One year my next-door neighbor, Naftali, came to the door dressed in a nun costume. My mother nearly fainted. After going to all the neighbors, we’d get in the car and deliver baskets to family and friends further afield.
When we got home, my sister and I would rip open all the packages we had received in return and inspect the contents.
Today, I miss all the fuss. Sure, we still give and receive mishloah manot baskets. But in communities like ours, as in many congregations, the sending of the baskets — in fact, a mandatory mitzva for the observant— has become a centralized communal activity and lucrative fund-raiser organized by synagogues and religious schools.
Although still lovingly planned, the work now falls to synagogue committees, the personal touch replaced by a delivery system that can feel more like UPS than trick-or-treat. (HappyPurim.com will even provide a special website to keep track of your membership list, payment, and deliveries.)
A well-organized mishloah manot fund-raiser can bring in thousands of dollars. Participants are asked to contribute to a central Purim fund and designate whom they want the “official” basket delivered to. It arrives for the holiday with a list of senders; to allay bruised feelings, most systems offer a “reciprocate” option, automatically including your name — and billing you — on the list of senders sent to anyone who is sending to you.
Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield made $8,000 per year in the first years of its fund-raiser, which they started about a decade ago. But the profits have since dropped to closer to $3,000 annually, a figure closer to other synagogues, according to event chair Lori Wishnak-Needleman.
At Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield, the project also brings in about $3,000 a year, benefitting early childhood programs like Travelin’ Tumblers and Living Legacy matza-baking and olive oil-making demonstrations. While Rabbi Mark Mallach said he still receives maybe six packages directly from individuals, he acknowledged that is fewer than in previous years.
“More and more people participate in the fund-raiser every year. Do they all fully understand the mitzva? I can’t answer, but the key has always been that doing leads to understanding,” he said.
The mitzva is spelled out in the Book of Esther, which is read on Purim and instructs the Jewish people to observe Purim “as days of feasting and gladness, and sending portions of food [mishloah manot] to one another, and gifts to the poor” (9:22). The package should contain at least two different ready-to-eat food items, and be sent to at least one Jewish acquaintance on Purim day (which this year is Sunday, March 16).
One reason for the fund-raiser, Mallach added, was to bring adults back into celebrating the holiday.
“Over, say, the last 40 to 50 years, we have allowed the religious schools to take ownership of the holiday with carnivals, etc., leaving behind that it is supposed to be an adult holiday in which the kids in the family participated,” he said. “I have long preached that adults need to take the holiday back — costumes, seudat mitzva [the festive meal], and shalach manot are all part of that.”
Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn instituted the fund-raiser in 1989. “It was a way of including and introducing the entire congregation to the mitzva of mishloah manot,” said Rabbi Steven Bayar. “It has become an institution for us, and a fund-raiser as well.”
He acknowledged the loss of the personal touch — which tends to make a comeback only when the holiday falls on a Sunday.
“I think there is always something lost when any mitzva becomes institutionalized — the spontaneity and spirit is somehow diminished, especially when we appoint agents to perform the mitzva for us,” he said. “However, there is also much to be gained in that it becomes a community function and many more people are involved in the mitzva. I believe that to enable the community to participate fully is of equal if not greater value.”
Twelve packers, 25 drivers
The Congregation Ohr Shalom-Summit Jewish Community Center’s sisterhood has sponsored a mishloah manot fund-raiser for close to 20 years.
It started “as a modest venture,” according to Linda Cabasin, but it grew “because the community liked it so much and was supportive with contributions and, just as important, volunteer time.” She declined to give a dollar amount, but said it is one of the sisterhood’s most significant money-makers.
The organizing committee includes four or five people each year, with 20 to 25 drivers, and about 12 packers.
“These volunteers run the gamut of our community, which we like. We have young kids, who help their parents deliver; teens who shlep the bags to the drivers’ cars; and members of all ages (some people who’ve been SJCC members for many decades) packing and driving.
“This fund-raiser makes many people feel good — and when you see the smiles of people getting the bags, it is satisfying. It’s a fund-raiser, but it is a mitzva, and sisterhood is glad we can combine them.”
They also order some food items made in Israel each year as a way to support businesses in the Jewish state.
Rabbi George Nudell of Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains, unlike many of his peers, does not think individual giving of mishloah manot is really affected by this project. “People can order extras to give to people on Purim. People inclined to bake hamantaschen do it anyway. There is no way to gauge how giving has changed,” he said.
The fund-raiser also helps raise awareness of the holiday. “I think, in general, observance of Purim is up among synagogue members,” Nudell added. While he’s never done a survey, “I think more people know about the mitzva because of this program and may be inclined to do it themselves in addition to our fund-raiser.”
Today I participate in my own synagogue’s fund-raiser, and we’ve gladly contributed a lot of money to benefit our congregation and share Purim cheer with many more friends and families than we could ever have done on our own. Still, I can’t imagine the holiday without baking my own hamantaschen — and have lately toyed with the idea of putting together a few baskets.
Then again, as a working mom with a husband who travels more than any of us would like and teens pulled in many directions, it would be hard to pull off what my stay-at-home mother could do.
Truth be told, most of my friends today have no memories of criss-crossing streets to deliver a dozen baskets. But all of our children look forward to receiving baskets from the shul and checking to see which generous co-congregants contributed to our Purim bounty. And they still rip open the package as soon as it arrives to see what goodies are inside.