So much for ancient Persia.
At Purim celebrations at Chabad centers throughout northern New Jersey, revelers will find entertainment reflecting a variety of themes, including a Greek wedding celebration, a circus, the 1960s, Russia, and outer space.
The original exotic setting of the Purim story doesn’t make the cut, however.
“It’s a way to inject some excitement,” said Rabbi Chanoch Kaplan of the Chabad Jewish Center of Northwest Bergen County in Franklin Lakes, where Sunday morning’s festivities have the 1960s themes. “For Chanukah and Purim, we always try to have a theme.”
The themed events stand in contrast to the Purim celebrations at most other area synagogues, which, whatever their denomination, generally supplement the traditional reading of the Scroll of Esther with a festive meal, perhaps, and add nothing more exotic than a carnival or a play performed by either children or adults.
“Chabad thinks outside of the box,” Stephanie Hausner of the Synagogue Leadership Institute of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey said.
Last week, Hausner led a seminar on what synagogues can learn from Chabad that drew around 50 rabbis, synagogue professionals, and lay leaders.
She notes that Chabad’s focus on experience is different than that of synagogues.
“Chabad’s mission is to have Jews perform one more mitzvah, so sometimes they’re looking at one-off things,” she said. “Synagogues are looking for people to join and be part of their synagogue family. It’s not just about that one-time experience.”
Kaplan said he doesn’t expect the Purim party to bring many new people into Chabad – though there are always one or two walk-ins – but that it’s a nice way to get people with whom he has started to form a connection into the room again.
“It’s a nice way to build up and develop your interaction with them,” he said. “Having an interesting party might be a way to get people who might not go to a regular Purim service or party, to engage them in a more modern way.”
Kaplan said that the practice of a weaving a theme through a celebration’s menu, decoration, and entertainment is something he remembers from his childhood. He grew up in Maryland, in a family of Chabad emissaries.
“We always try to pick a theme that’s exciting or relevant,” he said – though he allows that “I’m not sure the 1960s is relevant in the 2010s.”
Having chosen the theme, he took to the Internet to research an era before he was born. “I’m trying to bring in things that are – in my imagination – from that period,” he said. A troupe of break dancers – admittedly from late 1970s – were available, and close enough.
Kaplan said that Purim celebrations draw between 150 to 300 people, and this year’s numbers are an open question, because Purim falls on the tail end of the Presidents Week public school holiday.
In Hoboken, Chabad-Lubavitch co-director Shaindel Schapiro says that her Chabad’s Purim celebration “is one of our biggest events of the year.
“It really attracts everyone,” she said. “You have the families. It also attracts young adults – Hoboken has a lot of young people. They like to drink, they like to have fun. It brings out Israelis and other people who might not celebrate other holidays.”
Hoboken’s theme is sports, she said; in part as a nod to the recent Superbowl, and in part to craft something kid-friendly for a Sunday event pitched to a family audience.
“There will be concession stands with popcorn and hot dogs,” she said. “Different kinds of wings and grilled chicken. It’s a great party.”
The night before, Chabad of Hoboken will host a 9 p.m. event for young adults. “We have an open bar, very fancy hors d’oeuvres, gourmet hamentaschen. We have a megillah reading at that event. Everyone sits on couches.”
Holding a Purim event in a private home, said the Synagogue Leadership Initiative’s Hausner, is an example of another Chabad principle: “Meeting people where they are.”
Another way Chabad is out of the box: They’ve figured out how to update the reading of the megillah for the multimedia generation, for whom following the translation in a book might not be engaging enough to engage them for the better part of an hour.
Both the Hoboken and Franklin Lakes Chabad centers supplement their daytime megillah readings with silent large-screen entertainment.
In Franklin Lakes, it’s a “comical” retelling of the megillah’s story. It’s not synchronized with the actual reading – it runs at its own pace.
“For those who choose not to follow inside of the book, this is a way they can follow along with the story and get a feel for the relevant details,” Kaplan said.
In Hoboken, a similar presentation will get even more attention -Chabad is inserting pictures of the Hebrew school students in the presentation.
“It keeps the children focused and entertained,” Schapiro said.
Also to keep the children quiet: The shaloch manos bags they receive include crayons and a coloring book.
Kaplan says the large-screen accompaniment to the megillah goes back to before he began at Franklin Lakes some 14 years ago.
One traditional Bergen County synagogue is hosting a Chabad event. The Jewish Center of Teaneck has teamed up with Teaneck’s Chabad in a program, “Cirque Du Purim,” which features a male contortionist, a juggler, a unicycle, and more circus-style entertainments, which will follow the Saturday evening megillah reading.
Rabbi Lawrence Zierler of the Jewish Center says he left the entertainment to Rabbi Ephraim Simon, who heads the Chabad center in Teaneck.
“I’m a big one for collaboration,” Zierler said. And the high-wire, high-concept event brought in a large crowd from beyond the two sponsors.
“What greater message to take out of Purim than to affirm community by being able to cross thresholds?” he said.
He said he preferred bringing in entertainment “that makes people joyous, more than homemade and self-authored Purim shpiels that I have seen grow very raw.
“There’s an expectation riding on Purim, that people can have a good time. It’s the story of the man who came to synagogue twice a year, on Purim and Simchas Torah. He wanted to be part of the Torah of Joys, not the Torah of Oys.”