Coronaversary Purim
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Coronaversary Purim

OU Jersey regional director talks about how to celebrate Purim this pandemic year

This Teaneck minyan, like many others, met outside despite the snow last week. (Orthodox Union)
This Teaneck minyan, like many others, met outside despite the snow last week. (Orthodox Union)

At Purim, it will have been a year since this odd new life began.

Maybe not quite a year. Not for all of us. Many shuls did meet in person to read the megillah last year, even if many of the readings were quicker than usual and the parties curtailed, the annual wildness tamed. But Purim was the beginning of the end, or maybe more accurately the end of the beginning.

By the next week, those of us lucky enough to be able to work from home had begun to live the new reality that still is with us today.

So how do we celebrate this Purim?

The Orthodox Union is offering its member shuls some advice.

Avi Heller of Teaneck is the OU synagogue services department’s regional director for New Jersey and Rockland County; his region encompasses nearly all of New Jersey, except for some of its southernmost reaches.

He’s well aware of this being the second pandemic Purim, but he’s also aware of what he thinks of its overarching differences.

This year, the OU says that members of its shuls can go to public megillah readings, if they are healthy, but “only with properly masking and social distancing, in accordance with local regulations and guidelines.

“Many shuls may find it necessary to create additional minyanim to address capacity issues resulting from distancing requirements,” it added. No singing, no dancing, nothing without a keen awareness of both halachic and CDC requirements.

Rabbi Avi Heller

It’s a good idea to deliver and receive mishloach manot, but at a distance; they should be deposited safely on a porch or on the public side of a threshold.

Still, things are starting to change.

“We didn’t really know what we were getting into a year ago,” Rabbi Heller said. “I was quarantining during Purim last year. I read the megillah over Zoom.”

The question of what an Orthodox community and its leadership finds acceptable halachically in this plague year is open to some debate. It is mandatory for Jews to read aloud or hear the megillah being read aloud. “Last year, we had a big conversation about what my reading the megillah over Zoom meant for everyone who heard me,” Rabbi Heller said. “It fulfilled my own obligation.”

This year, the OU’s guidance says that although the majority opinion is that it is necessary for a megillah reading to be live and in person for it to count as mitzvah-fulfillment for the listener, “there is however a minority opinion that does allow” the listener to hear it on the phone or online, “provided that the reading is live, and not pre-recorded.” That’s because of the halachic principle “that we may rely upon minority opinions under extenuating circumstances.” And this pandemic is an almost textbook example of extenuating circumstances.

Much has changed from last Purim to this one, as we mark what Rabbi Heller calls the coronaversary (although he is quick to disclaim credit for that brilliant name).

“A year ago, it was very scary,” he said. “People were saying things like ‘flatten the curve,’ which you don’t hear any more. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We didn’t know the path out of it.

“Now, though, there is a sense of optimism. Now we can see the path out. Now we can make the argument that we should stick with what we’ve been doing. And in a way it’s easier to stick to it now.”

Rabbi Heller understands that although it might be easier to stick to this dark path until it takes us to the tunnel’s end, he understands as well that the opposite might be true. It might be that because many people see light, in the form of vaccines, glinting at them, they might be tempted to rush the process. “It might be a little counterintuitive to stick with it now, but in a way it’s easier to do that now that we know it will end,” he said. “Even if you’ve had covid, if you’ve been vaccinated, you should keep doing what you’ve been doing.

“Take one for the team.”

It’s all a question of balance and nuance, he said. “We should be careful about gathering together, but we should not be so careful that we do not do mishloach manot.

“Do check in on your neighbors.”

The question of how to organize megillah readings and who should go to them is a complex and nuanced one, Rabbi Heller said; although the advice the OU’s general guidance offers is accurate, anyone in any doubt about what level of observance is most appropriate for him or her should consult a rabbi.

Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Hershel Schachter has published advice for rabbis on what to advise their congregants, Rabbi Heller said. “He has a sliding scale. If you can hear it live” — that is, if you’re healthy and strong and not at any risk for covid that you could think of — “you should hear it live.” Live, well masked, and socially distanced. If you can’t go to shul because you are at some risk but you are not infected or quarantined, you can arrange a private reading. If you are in quarantine, you can get a kosher megillah and read it at least partially aloud to yourself, using a recording as a guide if you need to. You should resort to a physically absent, technology-enabled reading only if you have no other choice.

But, Rabbi Heller cautioned, other factors matter as well. Isolation can be devastating. A sense of ever-present danger can dull the senses. Joy matters, and Purim should be a time of joy.

Many people have lost family members or friends to covid over this last year. How does that fit into the equation?

“I think Purim always is complicated,” Rabbi Heller said. “It’s always hard for people who have lost someone. There always are people who are in mourning.” Sensitivity always is necessary, at Purim, at every other holiday, in fact every day, he said. When you sign up for mishloach manot, you’re asked if you can give or receive them — a mourner should give only sparingly and should not receive them — but the need to be sensitive does not override the need to feel joy.

In the end, Purim is a time to bring joy, Rabbi Heller said. “The guidance says that we should try to bring joy to our communities, whether virtually or in person, delivering mishloach manot or doing Zoom parties.

“We’re so much better at this than we were a year ago,” he concluded. “There was no sense of normalcy then. Now, we’re struggling in some ways, but we have a greater sense of normalcy. It feels like by now, we know how to do this.”

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