Eyes on Ukraine

(©istockphoto.com/Beeldbewerking)

(©istockphoto.com/Beeldbewerking)

The increasing political and economic unrest in Ukraine has prompted The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore to launch the Ukraine Assistance Fund in order to provide urgent funds needed for the care and security for more than 300,000 Jews in Ukraine.

According to The Associated, Ukraine is home to some of the world’s poorest Jews, particularly the elderly. Odessa, Baltimore’s sister city, as well as communities all over the country will receive 100 percent of funds raised to ensure deliveries of food, medicine, heating and cooking fuel as well as provide live-saving care and security personnel.

Marina Moldavanskaya, The Associated’s Baltimore-Odessa Partnership coordinator, explained via email that the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, both supported by The Associated, ensure that the most vulnerable elderly receive services at home so they do not risk their lives to get basic necessities. JDC and JAFI have deployed emergency mobile units to deliver food, medicine and other critical supplies. They have
increased security as needed and provided uninterrupted daily home care services for the frailest of the elderly, with some home-care workers spending nights with the elderly in their apartments.

“The [JDC and JAFI] action strategy changes all the time … depending on the situation and needs of the Jewish community,” wrote Moldavanskaya.

Michael Hoffman, vice president of Community Planning and Allocations at The Associated, said that the current situation in Ukraine epitomizes why the sister city relationship with Odessa is so important, because it enables organizations to raise money in support of these relief campaigns. Hoffman said The Associated has been receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in requests from JDC, JCCs, synagogues and orphanages since November 2013. The need for assistance, he pointed out, has not increased solely from the most recent events in Crimea.

“We are also recognizing this is a very fluid situation,” said Hoffman. “[We are] in contact with partners on a daily basis. Every day you turn on the news, you see a new development. … We’re trying to be as proactive as possible and at the same time we’re responding to the facts on the ground.”

Many who fled Ukraine in past decades have created a large community in Baltimore. Yelena Gelfen, 50, of Reisterstown, left Kiev in 1989, and her husband Alexander left in 1979. They met in the United States. Gelfen’s aunt, Brony Factorovech, 68, still lives in Kiev. Gelfen is in close contact with her aunt and regularly sends money to help her out.

“During the problems in Kiev, we sent her money more often because the banks were closed,” said Gelfen. “She [was] afraid to go out. … People started to buy nonperishable items, and they panicked.”

Vladimir Volinsky, 44, also came to the U.S. from Ukraine. He still has relatives in Kiev, and his mother communicates with them regularly. Volinksy has been associated with a Jewish assistance organization in his hometown of Belaya Tzerkov, just south of Kiev, a town where the Jewish population has dwindled to about 1,500.

“We’re trying to [help out the Ukranians],” said Volinsky, “been trying since before the revolution started.”

In absence of a crisis, about $1 million per year supports a variety of needs and services in Odessa, said Hoffman. So far, about $100,000 has been sent in relief funds, combined from The Associated’s allocations as well as from donations to its Ukraine Assistance Fund, which were sent in partnership with Jewish Federations of North America and distributed to partners on the ground in Ukraine.

“There is the hope that things get quiet and we can focus on core business,” said Hoffman, “but I’m always amazed by the strength of our community.”

To donate to the Ukraine Assistance Fund go to associated.org/helpukraine, or send a check to:

The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore
101 W. Mount Royal Avenue
Baltimore, MD 21201
Attn: “Ukraine Relief”

For more information or questions, call The Associated Donor Center at 410-369-9300.

mshapiro@jewishtimes.com
mgerr@jewishtimes.com

Costuming a City

Daniel Shriki (left), a former Diller Teen Fellows participant, Einav Koren (center), overseas volunteer coordinator for the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership, and Gail Pinsky, a former Diller participant, display some of the costumes distributed in Ashkelon. (Provided)

Daniel Shriki (left), a former Diller Teen Fellows participant, Einav Koren (center), overseas volunteer coordinator for the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership, and Gail Pinsky, a former Diller participant, display some of the costumes distributed in Ashkelon. (Provided)

Thanks to one young Baltimore man, Purim was a little brighter for needy kids in Ashkelon this year.

Mazlow Cohen, 20, organized a costume drive earlier this year that sent used and unwanted costumes to Baltimore’s sister city last month. The college student, who splits time between Towson University and the Community College of Baltimore County, said he fell in love with the city when he visited on a trip sponsored by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore in January.

“I stayed there with an extension through The Associated for four days, and then I stayed an extra six days on my own in Ashkelon and did some volunteering, and I just felt a really strong connection to the city,” said Cohen. “I just loved it there.”

While in Ashkelon, he learned about a Purim drive hosted by a community center in the city’s Shimshon neighborhood. This year, the volunteer-run center worked with the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership and an alumni branch of the Diller Teen Fellows to provide costumes to underprivileged children.

“When I got back [home] I really missed it. I wanted to go back, but I couldn’t,” he said. “I wanted to keep some connection so I thought this would be a good way.”

Unsure of how he would get the costumes to Israel in time for the holiday, Cohen worried he wouldn’t be able to follow through with his plan. Then he learned about a group of Baltimoreans traveling to Israel.

With just over a week to pull everything together, he approached people he knew about donating. He was able to fill a large duffle bag of costumes and get it on the plane with the group. From there it was delivered to Cohen’s connection in Ashkelon for distribution to local families.

“For the kids, dressing up is the fun part they look forward to,” said Cohen. “They get all excited.”

With the donations from Baltimore, the community center was able to provide more than 100 costumes to those in need.

Cohen said he hopes to visit Ashkelon again over the summer. In the meantime, he will stay active in participating in and organizing other drives.

“Hopefully we can make this an annual thing,” he said.

hnorris@jewishtimes.com

Victory at Sea

An Israel Defense Forces captain serving on the vessel that intercepted an Iranian ship two weeks ago told a rapt audience at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville how the missiles, grenades and ammunition destined for Gaza were captured.

“This time, the intelligence was very, very accurate. We knew months before,” said the captain, who asked that his name not be used for security reasons. His speech was sponsored by the Washington and Baltimore chapters of the Friends of the IDF.

The Israeli navy found 40 missiles, each 16 feet long, deeply hidden in the Klos-C ship that was traveling under a Panamanian flag in international waters, said the young soldier, who turned 24 about two weeks after the capture.

The missiles, hidden beneath boxes in crates and covered with rice and sand, took more than an hour to find once members of the IDF boarded the ship. The crew and its Turkish captain were cooperative and completely unaware of the weapons they were transporting.

If those missiles, which have a range of about 125 miles, had not been intercepted, they would have been taken by land from Sudan to Egypt and then through tunnels into Gaza to be used against Israel, the captain explained. Also found on board were grenades and 400,000 bullets.

While it was crucial to keep these weapons away from terrorists, the captain told the audience of about 150 that it was also “diplomatically important, because now we can say Iran really is attached” to spreading terrorism throughout the region.

“Iran. Hezbollah. Hamas. They were acting like they were one organization,” the captain said, adding the rockets came from Syria to Iran.

Normally, his navy ship carries “60 to 70 people, tops, but on this operation, we were 92 people. People were sleeping everywhere,” he said. While not being specific, it was clear that the extra riders were IDF members who knew how to defuse bombs and others who would know what to do if the Klos-C ship’s crew had resisted.

It was the job of the navy ship’s crew, of which this captain was second in command, to track the vessel and follow it closely enough to learn if there were terrorists on board.

After several days observing, the captain’s ship as well as another vessel got “very close to them. We tried to scare them.” They next called to the ship from their radio.

“The minute they saw us they said, ‘OK, you can come aboard,’’’ recalled the captain, adding that their crew dropped a ladder for the Israelis.

While the Israelis searched the ship, its crew was kept together in one room. Once the weapons were found, the vessel was taken to Eilat, where the weapons were unloaded and studied, he said.

The return to Israel was dangerous, because the crew was concerned that terrorists might be hiding along the shoreline, ready to attack, he said.

When they made it back safely, the crew members were greeted by “thousands of people waiting for us, cheering, clapping their hands.”

Those in attendance at the JCC did likewise. “He is a true, true war hero,” said Philip Berry of Potomac, regional executive director for the Midatlantic Region of the Friends of the IDF. That chapter helps to support the well being of the men and women in the Israeli navy, donating $1.5 million over a three-year period.

Shelly Lohmannn, director of dev-elopment in the Baltimore office of the Midatlantic FIDF, called it “a gift” to be able to hear the captain’s story in person.

Eugene Meyer of Pikesville said the story made him very proud and propelled him back to the days, many years ago, when he was a member of the Israeli Air Force. He felt the captain was at times too modest, making it sound like all he did was drive a boat. “They weren’t there to take a cruise,” said Meyer.

Lawrence Kravitz of Rockville, whose grandson serves in the Israeli army, called the speech “excellent.”

“He said what he could,” noted Kravitz. “He didn’t say what he shouldn’t.”

After listening to the captain, Peter Huessy said it was even more evident just how isolated Israel is in the world. Thanks to a peace treaty with Egypt, Israel was able to sail through the Suez Canal on this mission, but that could change at any time with the current situation in Egypt, said Huessy, president of GeoStrategic Analysis.

spollak@washingtonjewishweek.com

Jewish man attacked in Paris

Two unidentified men wielding a stun gun assaulted a Jewish man near a Paris synagogue.

K. Sassoun, a 52-year-old Israeli, was identified as the victim of Monday night’s attack at a building next to a synagogue on Pavee Street in central Paris, according to JSSnews.com. Sassoun was not seriously hurt but required medical treatment after being knocked down from the stun gun.

“The perpetrators assaulted the victim for no other reason than his clothing and appearance, which identified him as being Jewish and the fact that he was near a Jewish place of worship,” the National Bureau for Vig-ilance Against Anti-Semitism said in a statement.

Sassoun filed a complaint for racial hate crime and assault with Paris police.

The site of the attack once was the center of Jewish life in Paris and is considered its historic Jewish quarter.

Egyptian Jewish leader buried

Nadia Haroun, the deputy head of Egypt’s Jewish community, was buried Tuesday. She died last Thursday from a heart attack at the age of 59. The funeral ceremony was led by Haroun’s sister, Magda, who is now the leader of the country’s small remaining Jewish community.

The burial was held in Cairo’s downtown Gates of Heaven Synagogue. During her life, Haroun was a lawyer and an architect. She was also the daughter of Egyptian politician Chehata Haroun, who was known for expressing anti-Zionist views and defending Egyptian Jews against accusations that they were more loyal to Israel than to Egypt.

Haroun is survived by a son and a daughter. Less than 40 Jews remain in Egypt, the Associated Press reported.

Anti-Semitic incidents on the rise in the Netherlands

A Dutch Jewish watchdog group reported a 23 percent increase in the number of anti-Semitic incidents last year in the Netherlands.

The Hague-based Center for Information and Documentation on Israel (CIDI) recorded 147 anti-Semitic incidents in the Netherlands in 2013, compared with 114 in the previous year. CIDI’s annual report was released Tuesday.

Verbal assaults on Jews that involved a direct exchange rose to 21 from 14. Three incidents involved direct physical violence, and one case featured threats of violence.

“CIDI finds the increase all the more disconcerting because it is partly caused by frequent confrontations between victims and perpetrators,” the organization said in statement.

Jewish Russian aboard missing plane

One of the passengers aboard the Malaysian Airlines plane that vanished is a Jewish Russian national.

Nikolai Brodskii, 43, of the Siberian city of Irkutsk, appears on the missing plane’s passenger manifest. He is a husband and father of sons aged 17 and 11.

Rabbi Aharon Wagner, a Chabad rabbi for the region, contacted Brodskii’s family after learning that he was on the plane, the Times of Israel reported.

Brodskii, a scuba diving instructor, had traveled to Bali, Indonesia, for a diving vacation. He was returning to Russia on Flight MH370, according to Vitaly Markov, first secretary of the Russian embassy in Malaysia.

The flight, with 239 passengers on board, disappeared Saturday while flying over the sea between Malaysia and Vietnam.

Boosting STEM

Zvi Peleg (left), director general of the Israel Sci-Tech Schools Network, is pictured with students of the network's program in collaboration with the Israeli Air Force in Kfar Saba, Israel. (Israel Sci-Tech Schools Network)

Zvi Peleg (left), director general of the Israel Sci-Tech Schools Network, is pictured with students of the network’s program in collaboration with the Israeli Air Force in Kfar Saba, Israel. (Israel Sci-Tech Schools Network)

In Israel, high school education is mandated by law, and the government grants each student an equal financial allocation for education. But a town such as Afula, with fewer residents than Tel Aviv, gets less government funding overall. This is also true for small villages of concentrated minorities.

With the backdrop of that challenge of getting enough outside funding for smaller communities, Zvi Peleg — director general of the Israel Sci-Tech Schools Network, the largest independent network of science and technology educational institutions in Israel — wants to grant the same quality of education to every citizen in Israel.

“We are serving the secular [Jews], the religious, the Orthodox religious, the ultra-Orthodox religious, the Arabs, the Druze, all the populations in Israel,” explained Peleg.

On Feb. 25, Friends of Israel Sci-Tech Schools, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization supporting the Israeli schools network, held a gala to honor five prominent supporters of the program at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.

“Our American Friends group plays a very important role in the success of our programs throughout Israel. There has never been a greater need to prepare our young people with state-of-the-art science and technology education to serve the growing need of industry in Israel,” Peleg said of the dinner, which honored Thomas E. McCorry of Lockheed Martin, Dr. Charlotte Frank, Dr. Lynne B. Harrison, Mark Levenfus and corporate sponsor Marks Paneth LLP.

The Sci-Tech network was first established in Israel in 1949 and today includes 206 junior and senior high schools, industrial schools, educational centers and technical, engineering and academic colleges throughout the Jewish state. The network’s schools focus on science and technology education and reach the peripheral regions of the country, including Israeli municipalities beyond the Green Line such as Maale Adumim and Ariel.

“We are not political at all,” said Peleg, himself a graduate of an Israel Sci-Tech school. “We are dealing only in education.”

A core goal of the school network is to motivate more students to focus on science and technology education. In the Sci-Tech schools, 60 percent of students choose this focus, compared with Israel’s national average of 30 percent.

This focus pays off in a country that has built itself an international reputation of being the “startup nation,” according to Shai Lewinsohn, director of resource development and external affairs for the program, who said the network’s 37 two-year colleges prepare students to be practical engineers.

The Israeli high-tech industry is built on three layers of workers. At the top is the research and development sector, mostly comprised of people with Ph.Ds. Below them are engineers, and below the engineers are practical engineers, the largest layer.

Practical engineers “are very needed in the high-tech industry,” said Lewinsohn, and about 40 percent of those in Israel are graduates of schools in the Sci-Tech program.

Furthermore, the Israel Defense Forces depends on Sci-Tech schools because the army is moving toward high-tech equipment that needs the attention of many technologically trained people.

“Forty percent of the practical engineers who are serving today in the IDF are graduates of our colleges,” said Lewinsohn. “Currently in the IDF, we have three graduates who are major generals. … One of them is the chief of intelligence, Aviv Kochavi.”

In addition, Elisha Yanai, the last of president of Motorola Israel, is a graduate of the Singalowski Technical School in Tel Aviv, a Sci-Tech school and one of the oldest and largest high schools in Israel.

Another two graduates of the school network are heading to the Pitango Venture Capital fund.

“Pitango is one of the largest funds that invests in the high-tech industry in Israel. [Managing general partner and co-founder of Pitango] Chemi Peres is the son of [Israeli] President Shimon Peres. The other [managing general partner] is Aaron Mankovski,” who has headed the HighTech Industries Association, an organization representing the high-tech industry in Israel, said Lewinsohn.

Today, Israel Sci-Tech Schools is the largest education network in Israel, working with 100,000 students from all over the country. Some of the schools have been founded by the program, while in other cases, small municipalities or developing towns that have a lower overall education budget choose to affiliate their existing schools with the Sci-Tech program.

Often, “because the brand has become so well-known in Israel and the level and quality of education is so strong, Israel Sci-Tech schools are really sought after,” said Stan Steinreich, a spokesman for the school network.

The program “will help any kind of community in Israel that asks for help,” said Steinreich. Since Israel’s minority populations tend to concentrate in particular areas, Israel Sci-Tech schools in those areas tend to include predominently students from those communities simply for geographic and demographic reasons.

“In an Arab community the school will be an Arab school, or in a Druze village the school will be a Druze school,” he said.

An exception exists when it comes to the haredi Jewish community, which comprises an estimated 10 percent of Jewish Israelis. Due to that the community’s heavy focus on religious study and religous life, few in the community are able to work full time, and the salaries of those who do are significantly lower. About 60 percent of haredi families, which usually include many children, live in poverty. By 2050, haredim are expected to make up more than a quarter of the Israeli population.

“In order to get those kids to participate, there are sensitivities, and [we are] working with local rabbis to make that happen,” said Steinreich, explaining that Sci-Tech needs to set up special schools geared to the haredi community’s needs in order to work with that community.

At the same time, there is a “warming for the concept” of education in secular subjects in the haredi community, especially science and technology, which represents the core of what the Sci-Tech network does.

“It may not be as quick [as growth in other communities], but it’s certainly changing,” said Steinreich.

Paul Charts a Conservative Way

Sen. Rand Paul’s speech was the best received, especially among college students. (Provided)

Sen. Rand Paul’s speech was the best received, especially among college students. (Provided)

In striking a more libertarian tone than in previous years, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference might be taking the constituency represented by American Conservative Union down a path that is alienating to some in the Jewish community.

According to some observers, the conference’s apparent toning down this year of foreign policy concerns certainly played to the base of Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who won the March 6-8 gathering’s straw poll of presidential contenders but could prove a liability in the effort to win over moderate Jewish voters for the Republican Party.

“The most important thing is to find a candidate who speaks to all these people,” said Eric Rappaport, director of PolicyHill.com. “I think a lot of Jews are Reagan Democrats who are more centrist, and what the Republicans really need instead of rhetoric is someone who can garner those votes and bring them into the fold.”

Though Jews make up a small minority of CPAC attendees, their number in recent years has been increasing. This year, the invocation at the beginning of the conference at the Gaylord Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor near Washington, D.C., was given by an Orthodox rabbi.

“Everybody knows him here,” David Keene, former CPAC chairman and current opinion editor at The Washington Times, said of the choice to have Rabbi Chaim “Nate” Segal of Staten Island, N.Y., deliver the invocation. “Rabbi Segal is our rabbi.”

Keene also mentioned how recent elections show a growing number of Jews voting Republican.

“The Jewish vote has begun to shift, but it’s mostly younger people because that’s who you have to get [to change voting trends],” he argued. “You either have to get younger people, or there has to be some cataclysmic event.”

Whereas in previous presidential election years, the Jewish Republican vote at the top of the ticket hovered in the 20 percent range, exit polling data in 2012 indicated that upward of 30 percent of Jewish voters chose Republican nominee Mitt Romney for president. Historic highs in the GOP’s share of the Jewish vote came in the 1956 re-election of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the 1988 election of then-Vice President George Bush.

Because CPAC always runs Thursday through Saturday, attending each conference has traditionally been difficult for observant Jews. In 2012, the Young Jewish Conservatives began hosting a Shabbaton at or near the conference so that religious Jews could attend sessions in between prayers and meals. This year’s Shabbaton drew about 120 attendees, who were addressed by former GOP presidential candidate and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), former Rep. Allen West of Florida and Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.); each in their own way expressed their support for Israel.

Though Franks received the greatest response from Shabbaton attendees, Santorum came in a close second, delivering a thinly veiled attack at the conference’s prevailing message of isolationist foreign policy.

But among attendees of the general CPAC conference, the momentum undoubtedly belonged to Paul and his brand of libertarianism, which, until this year, has not seriously threatened the loyalty of the GOP elite on the boards of organizations such as the ACU that project a mainstream mix of conservative fiscal and social policies.

Paul’s speech was the best attended and best received by attendees — especially among college students — than any during the entire conference, including a keynote address by former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who read from a Dr. Seuss book to rail against Democrats.

Key points in Paul’s address focused on the ideals of liberty and freedom, referencing National Security Agency wire-tapping programs to military drone strikes, an issue on which he conducted a filibuster on the Senate floor last year.

“Will we sit idly by and let our rights be trampled on?” he asked. “Will we be like lemmings, rushing to the comfort of Big Brother’s crushing embrace, or will we stand like men and women of character and say, ‘We are free, and no man, no matter how well intentioned, will take our freedom from us?’ “

Among Jewish attendees backing Paul was Joseph Strauss, 24.

“I think that his message is the most refined message that traditionally isn’t reached by the Republican Party,” said Strauss, a consultant and native of Washington, D.C., who spends half the year in West Virginia. “I think it’s the most expansive message of liberty and freedom. I think that that’s attractive to everyone, and I think that the outreach would provide for a larger voter base than we normally have access to.”

Strauss said that although Paul raised eyebrows in September by apparently suggesting in an interview that hawkish Republicans were backing military action because of concern for Israel and the Jewish people, he could tolerate the senator’s isolationist approach. In Strauss’ view, presidential intervention in conflicts around the globe has only led to mistakes.

“I’ve watched president after president — whether on the right or the left — stumble in foreign policy,” he said. “They’re always supposed to be these experts, and they hire all these academia types and consistently they underperform.”

Rabbi Yitzhok Tendler, co-founder of the Young Jewish Conservatives, acknowledged a divide in the part of the Jewish community that hews close to conservative politics, saying that those who tend to identify as Zionist side more with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz — who finished a distant second in last weekend’s straw poll — but that Paul appeals to the younger generation.

“Young people in general identify with those [libertarian] ideas and typically identify with people who express their beliefs in an articulate and unambiguous fashion” said Tendler. “Though the more strongly Zionist young Jews identify, the more likely they will have questions about Rand Paul’s foreign policy.”

dshapiro@washingtonjewishweek.com
JNS.org contributed to this story.

Dressing the Part


Photos by David Stuck

Lions, tigers, ninjas, super heroes and crayons are just some of the characters that will be wandering the streets in celebration of Purim in a couple days.

“I’m very into themes,” said Rachel Lasson, who attended Ner Tamid’s Pre-Purim Carnival last weekend. She picks a theme each year for dressing up her family. Last year’s theme was “The Cat in the Hat.” This year’s theme is “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” and each of her children, Mali, Layla and Eitan, attended the carnival dressed as a different animal.

(Within the first hour of the party, the mane was off the lion, and the tiger had swapped her fur for leggings and a tunic.)

With activities such as bounce houses, potato sack races and obstacle courses set up all over the building on March 9, there was no shortage of fun for the young bears, kings and knights, who were escorted by their parents and grandparents. The same could be said for the Jewish Federation of Howard County’s Purim Palooza Carnival at Reservoir High School in Fulton, where hundreds of attendees — bedecked in fairy outfits, action hero get-ups and the ubiquitous animal costumes — made the event the federation’s largest of the year.

Community Purim events this coming weekend — the holiday, which commemorates the Jewish victory over a Persian decree thousands of years ago, begins Saturday night — will likewise feature costumed children of all ages, but Jewish tradition maintains that there’s actually a method to the madness. The fun and revelry, specifically of the costumed kind, emphasizes Purim’s key themes, even though you won’t find a commandment to wear costumes anywhere in the Scroll of Esther’s telling of the Purim story, explained Rabbi Elchonon Lisbon, director of Chabad of Park Heights.

“It’s consistent with the theme of the holiday,” said Lisbon, “which is the miraculous transformation of a day that could have meant utter tragedy and destruction to one of the most holy days on the Jewish calendar.”

Costumes allow people to present themselves as things they’re not in celebration of that transformation. In addition, said Lisbon, a major theme of the holiday is revealing that which had been earlier concealed: Mordechai, one of King Achashverosh’s advisers, told Queen Esther to hide her Jewish identity, but when the king offered Esther whatever she wanted, she revealed her identity to stop Haman’s plot to exterminate her people.

At the end of the story, Haman was hung from the very same gallows he built for Mordechai. So on Purim, every- thing is upside down or transformed, said Lisbon.

But the miracle of Purim is also celebrated by the specific mitzvahs outlined in the Scroll of Esther: giving gifts, known as shelach manot, to acquaintances, charity to the poor, publicly reading the scroll and enjoying a feast.

In the 16th century, the nature of the celebration began morphing into its modern costumed version, according to Rabbi Barry Freundel, a professor of Jewish studies at Towson University. Jews escaped German persecution by fleeing to Italy, namely the Padua region, where they were
introduced to Italian street fairs.

“Jews, for Purim, started doing their street festivals the same way as the Paduans did,” explained Freundel. “They dressed up in costumes.”

When one pious man asked his rabbi about whether or not their actions were violating Jewish law, the rabbi responded that Purim is a holy day and exceptions can be made, but the community could reassess the previous year’s festivities each year before Purim to make sure things didn’t get out of hand.

“Shortly thereafter there were all kinds of letters challenging this ruling, not having this ruling; it didn’t matter. It got into the culture, and forevermore the Paduan street festival makes its way into synagogues around Purim,” said Freundel.

The free choice of costumes, he said, is a direct effect of the street festivals and the sense of freedom to dress as you please.


Photos by Noam Lewis

LETTING LOOSE
Fallon Saposnik and her husband will be dressing up as characters from “Charlie and The Chocolate Factory” for their first Purim as a married couple.

“Being festive and happy is such a big part of the holiday,” she said. “Not only should you bring joy to yourself, but you should bring joy to those around you.”

She expects friends to get a kick out of her husband dressed as an Oompa Loompa, and her costume of Violet Beauregarde — the girl who turns into a blueberry — as a blueberry.

Their shelach manot runs with the Wonka theme and features blueberry muffins that Saponsnik made, Wonka’s Laffy Taffy, golden eggs and labels that look like golden tickets.

She’ll be going around Pikesville with a friend delivering the shelach manot, and she and her husband will also send them to family out of state and to her brother in Israel.

For larger families, the costumes can become a central part of the Purim celebration in which families make their own costumes and cover a lot of characters from the theme of their choice.

At Ner Tamid last weekend, for instance, Gladys Ricklis, a preschool teacher who attended with her grandchildren, decided to join in the fun and make herself a spider-web costume out of black felt and yarn by using a glue gun. Granddaughter Addie Shar came as a dog, complete with a black nose and whiskers.

Getting Addie into a costume isn’t a problem, said Ricklis. “She likes to dress up at home too.”

Rachel Turniansky, her husband and their five children are dressing as “Toy Story” characters. She’ll be Little Bo Peep; her husband will be
Emperor Zurg; her four sons will be Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Hamm the piggy bank and Mr. Potato Head; and her daughter will be Jessie.

“It’s such a fun holiday, and we really like to get into the spirit of things,” said Turniansky. “I think they like being creative and being able to let loose in this manner.”

All of the family’s costumes are homemade or purchased at thrift stores. Turniansky does a lot of crafts at home, and using scraps and other materials, she sews the costumes together. She gets hats, dresses and other accessories at thrift stores. This year, she used duct tape in the Emperor Zurg costume and fake leather for Woody’s boots.

At least one area woman acquired so many different costumes over the years that she now operates her own Purim gemach, a costume rental service.

“The first year my husband and I were married, he looked me in the eye and said, ‘You’re not dressing up. We’re dressing up,’ ” said Tzilah Raczkowski. “I think he regrets it.”

For the second year, she’s running the Keren Reva Costume Gemach out of her house. She estimates that her collection has about 500 costumes, more than 300 of which have been rented for this year.

“I saw there was a need in the community,” she said. After about a decade of loaning costumes to friends and friends of friends, she started running the Purim gemach out of her house and established hours open to the public. She spread the word through email, social media, synagogue bulletins, Facebook and word-of-mouth, she said.

The collection first got started with her family’s own costumes. Since they always did themes and never repeated costumes, the collection began to build up over the years. Raczkowski, a bargain shopper, finds costumes on eBay, looks for sales and even buys costumes through wholesalers.

Costumes cost $3 to rent, and while other cause-specific gemachs typically give proceeds to charity, she uses the money to acquire more costumes for the organization.

The most popular costumes, said Raczkowski, are firemen and policemen for boys and princess costumes for the girls. “Sesame Street” costumes, as well as Thing 1 and Thing 2 shirts — from Dr. Seuss’ “The Cat in the Hat” — are popular this year, too.

While he’s not sure when costumes came into the picture, Lisbon welcomes the festivities.

“I think, for kids, it’s a fun thing. I think it’s a good way to get them to understand and appreciate the holiday,” he said. “As we adults get older, we internalize the message too.”

mshapiro@jewishtimes.com
hnorris@jewishtimes.com