Purim at Or Chadash, in Flemington, N.J., includes many of the usual traditions: putting on a Purim spiel (play), using boxes of pasta as gragers, baking hamantaschen with our students, reading the Megillah, and hosting a spectacular carnival that features Esther’s Salon, Mordecai’s March Madness, a photo booth, and plenty of prizes and food. But the highlight of Purim at Or Chadash is our mishloach manot (Purim gift bags) program. Launched 12 years ago, the initiative has since evolved into one that touches each and every member of our synagogue community, including our college students, who receive a text message reminding them to check their mailboxes for Purim goodies. The project also encompasses many facets of congregational life – social action, college outreach, community outreach, and fundraising. Here’s how it works: Congregants order mishloach manot gift bags to be sent to other congregants, and every household in our community receives a gift bag and card, hand-delivered before Purim by synagogue members. The cost to send a mishloach manot gift bag to each household in the Or Chadash community is $180. There are other gift options, as well. For example, for $18, members can select three households to which they wish to send a gift bag. Each bag’s contents fit within the theme selected for that year, and the accompanying card is signed by everyone who had a hand in putting the bag together. This year, that’s more than 85% of our members! This year’s Purim theme is “Green Eggs and Hamantaschen,” which we selected to coincide with Read Across America, an annual event to celebrate reading and the birthday of children’s author Dr. Seuss. In addition to green eggs and hamantaschen, this year’s red and white striped bags will be filled with goodies related to Dr. Seuss’ books, including a bookmark, red fish candy, Goldfish crackers, animal crackers (for all the animals in If I Ran the Zoo), lollipop Truffala trees (from The Lorax), a pencil to “briefly write briefs”, and a chocolate globe to navigate The Places You’ll Go. In addition to selecting a theme every year, we also choose an organization or two related to the theme to receive a portion of the proceeds from our fundraising initiative. After Hurricane Sandy, for example, our theme was “The Jersey Shore,” and the gift bag included playing cards from Atlantic City, cotton candy, and salt water taffy. We donated the proceeds to an organization that was doing hurricane relief work. Another year, the theme was baseball, with a tie-in to a baseball exhibit at the National Museum of American Jewish History called “Chasing Dreams: Baseball and Becoming American.” That year, Cracker Jack, Baby Ruth candy bars, and bubblegum were among the bags’ goodies, and we sent the residents and staff of our neighborhood boys’ home to spend a day at the local Atlantic League ballpark. Because this year’s theme is centered around reading, a portion of the proceeds from the fundraiser will go to an Or Chadash favorite: PJ Library®, a Jewish family engagement program whose website and books are our number one resource for holiday activities for kids of all ages (and their parents). We also will donate to First Book-Hunterdon County, which provides new books to children in need in Head Start, Early Head Start, and our local public schools. We also have delivered 20 Purim gift bags to Family Promise-Union County to support its new reading initiative, The Need 2 Read®.
On Purim, we read in the Book of Esther (9:22), “The Jews were to observe these days for feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor.” Or Chadash’s mishloach manot program provides members with opportunities to perform these two mitzvot—sending gifts that delight family and friends, as well as offering presents and tzedakah to the needy. This initiative strengthens our sense of community, both within the congregation and in and around Hunterdon County. Chag Purim Sameach!
Betsy Zalaznick is a member of the Association of Reform Jewish Educators (ARJE), formerly the National Association of Temple Educators (NATE). She is the longtime educator at Or Chadash in Flemington, N.J., and enjoys baking for her students, Bikram yoga, cycling, and knitting.
The Union for Reform Judaism has partnered with WRJ and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation to provide opportunities for select small congregations to offer PJ Library® subscriptions in communities where it does not yet exist. For more information, visit the partnership website or contact Stephanie Fink.