By Alanna Berman
With its hamantaschen-laden costume parties and carnivals, Purim celebrations get a pretty nice reception among American Jews. Here in San Diego, for example, almost every congregation will host its own celebration of the holiday during which we remember the story of Haman’s defeat in the Book of Esther.
Purim carnivals abound, with games, food and reenactments of the Purim story as common activities. The exchange of hamantaschen and other food gifts is also commonplace, although traditionally, mishloach manot, or baskets containing small food items, are exchanged among friends.
Most synagogues extend this tradition to their members by organizing the creation and distribution of these baskets together. One of the four mitzvot of Purim, giving misloach manot to those in need, is sometimes combined with another mitzvah, matanot levivim, or giving tzedakah. In conjunction with Jewish Family Service’s Hand Up Youth Food Pantry, three groups are making Purim a little brighter by donating their mishloach manot to those in need.
“We’re always making sure people have enough to eat, and at times like Purim, it’s really a time when our Jewish clients can connect to their religion,” says Shelly Hahne, who runs the Food Pantry. “The work at this time is very important, at least for us, because a lot of [these people] might not always connect to their Judaism, but these are times when they really get a chance to.”
While the Food Pantry’s volunteers do not create mishloach manot themselves, Temple Beth El, Temple Solel and the San Diego Jewish Academy’s Lower School will donate enough Purim treats this year to serve many of the organization’s clients, including participants in the Supporting Jewish Single Parents program and members of JFS’s three Older Adult Centers throughout the county.
At Temple Solel, the congregation’s members exchanges Purim gifts between one another, and members may underwrite one or more mishloach manot to be donated to the Food Pantry. In the past, Temple Solel was able to supply residents of Seacrest Village with Purim packages thanks to a generous shul member and hoped to have similar success with the packages for the Food Pantry. At press time, no underwriter had been found, although members were donating individually to support the Food Pantry.
In its fifth year of collaboration with the Food Pantry, Beth El member Ellen Sacks, who also serves on the shul’s board of directors, expects at least 50 packages to be ready for Food Pantry volunteers to pick up the Sunday before Purim, but that number could grow.
“Each year, our congregants make and hand deliver a Purim basket to everyone in our community,” Sacks says, “and while some baskets are designated for JFS ahead of time, our members may choose to donate their own basket directly to JFS, so the numbers fluctuate year to year.”
Personal touches, like a custom-made challah cover or Shabbat candlesticks, have made Beth El’s mishloach manot a much-loved item among Food Pantry clients in years past. This year, the Shabbat theme will continue with a challah plate, complete with an etching of the HaMotzi, as the centerpiece of the Purim packages. Of course, hamantaschen and chocolates will also be included.
“This is a really necessary, valuable and rewarding project, and it touches lots of lives,” Sacks says. “From the designers of the baskets to the people putting [them] together, the people delivering [them] and those receiving [them], it’s a win-win.”
Creating their own version of mishloach manot, students at SDJA’s Lower School, which includes students from preschool through fifth grade, will bring food items from home for donation to the school’s latest tikkun olam project. Dried fruit, cookies, grape juice and other snacks will go into the school’s 70 total mishloach manot created specifically for the Food Pantry’s clients.
“We teach the kids a lot about tikkun olam and giving, and they will also exchange mishloach manot among themselves, but we teach them that the idea is to give [these baskets] to one another, but it’s an even bigger mitzvah when you give it to those who are in need,” says Shani Abed, Judaic director for SDJA’s Lower School.
Although this is the first year SDJA has donated mishloach manot to the Food Pantry, it is not the first time the two groups have collaborated, so students are well versed in what it means to give back. In preparation for the school’s Purim celebration, they are engaged in a discussion about giving tzedakah.
“We run several tzedakah projects every year, and it seems that it makes a huge impact on our kids who are so willing to give and to spend time, even on the weekends, to complete these projects,” Abed says. “We try to show them that these things we take for granted, like having food and all kinds of other goodies, are being given so that other people, who usually might not be able to, can observe the holiday of Purim, and to bring happiness to others.”
Once the baskets are ready, Food Pantry volunteers pick them up from each site and bring them to the Food Pantry, where they are distributed to those in need. While not every Food Pantry client will receive a Purim treat, the selection process for the sometimes hundreds of baskets donated takes individual circumstances into account.
“Our program staff works closely with our clients, so they will know who is really Jewish, who is in need and who might like to receive one of these packages,” Hahne says.
And of course, while each recipient’s response is different, Hahne says the effect of this program is felt almost immediately.
“So many times, when the clients receive these baskets, they are really amazed at the time someone took to put something together for them, and it really brightens their day.”
The Hand Up Youth Food Pantry at JFS is always accepting donations. To learn more, or for volunteer opportunities, visit www.jfssd.org or call (858) 637-3088.