Chabad House, Hillel resume in-person Purim events after a two year hiatus
The Brandeis Jewish community celebrated the holiday Purim from March 16-17.
This past Wednesday and Thursday were filled with celebratory traditions across Brandeis’ campus, such as costumes, music, dancing, and feasts, in honor of the Jewish holiday of Purim. Together, the Brandeis Hillel and the Chabad House sought to celebrate and engage the Brandeis community with the holiday, which took place this year on March 16-17. Each organization held various events, services, and parties for students to participate in over the two-day holiday.
According to Peretz Chein, Rabbi and co-founder of the Chabad House at Brandeis with his wife Chanie, the Jewish holiday of Purim is “perhaps the easiest and most accessible [Jewish] holiday to celebrate, celebrating our pride in being Jewish and our identity.” Rabbi Chein explained that Purim is a celebration of “a miraculous turn of events” when the Jewish community in the ancient Persian empire, targeted for annihilation, was able to safely practice their Judaism again. Dressing up in costume, hearing the megillah (the traditional oral story of Purim), and giving gifts to family and charity are all traditional Purim customs.
For 15 years, the Chabad House at Brandeis has hosted a party the night Purim begins. “We’ve created a space where, if people are of legal age and want to, they can have a drink to celebrate the holiday,” Rabbi Chein said. He continued that drinking is by no means a requirement and that the party is to celebrate the Jewish identity, first and foremost. Justin Sohn ’22, who served as president of the Chabad Club in 2020 and remained an active member, echoed Chein’s sentiments. The Purim party at the Chabad House is unique. Still, this year’s energy was especially positive, he said, because “it wasn’t a party where you just came to party — we’re celebrating the fact that we can celebrate again” for the first time since the outbreak of COVID-19.
Outside of the Chabad House’s party on March 16, there were a variety of ways to engage in the holiday traditions and atmosphere around campus. On Thursday, March 17, the Chabad club and the Cheins gathered on the Rabb steps, handing out mishloach manot, or food baskets, to all those trekking up the steps to their classes in the Humanities quad. “The Rabb steps give [Chabad] the ability to further engage with those people [who attended the party] again,” Sohn said. In past years, Rabbi Chein explained that on the day after the party (the second day of the two-day holiday),“We [Chabad] come to you. We’re deliberately creating opportunities for students to connect in different ways.” Sohn added, “The vibe was so cool. No one ever wanted to go up the Rabb steps — until Purim.”
Aside from the Chabad House’s Purim programming, Brandeis Hillel hosted multiple Purim events across the two days of the Purim holiday. Samantha Brody ’24, the current president of Brandeis Hillel, said, “The biggest celebration is the Brandeis Breakfast Club, which we host the morning of Purim: [threre's] a delicious festive meal of breakfast burritos, waffles, and smoothies; making gifts of food for friends; giving charity to the poor.” When asked how many people were in attendance, Brody said, “Hundreds of people attended. This was the first year we were able to host Brandeis Breakfast Club in full.” The first Brandeis Breakfast Club happened in spring 2020, and “we had to adjust for COVID. We’re excited for this to be an annual campus tradition.”
Like Chabad’s Purim programming, Hillel’s Breakfast Club was open to the entire Brandeis student body. Thus, Hillel “had signs and explanations around the room for anyone who came in to know what each activity meant and why we celebrate Purim.” Like Chein and Sohn, Brody echoed that Purim is an easy Jewish holiday to engage in because “Purim is also just super goofy! I mean, who doesn’t love fun costumes, lots of food, and giving gifts to friends?”
In addition to the Brandeis Breakfast club on Thursday morning, Brody explained that Hillel also hosted a meal to break the traditional fast before Purim-eve, called Taanit Esther. She added, “We also had eight readings of the Megillah, the Purim story” across various Jewish denominational groups under the Brandeis Hillel umbrella. On Wednesday, the eve of Purim, there were two readings led by the Brandeis Orthodox Organization, and Masorti and Baruch, the Conservative/Egalitarian and Reform Jewish clubs on campus, each had their own. The Brandeis Orthodox Organization and Masorti held additional services on Thursday, the second day of Purim celebrations.
The Cheins added, “When we arrived at Brandeis … we didn’t want to replicate existing activities” that Hillel and the Jewish religious clubs under it put on. Instead, Rabbi Chein explained that Chabad reached out to students’ fraternities and sororities to host a Purim party at the Chabad House. “Greek life was our biggest partner … Purim was an event welcoming to Jewish students who weren’t active in the Jewish community. Talking to Greek life brought people in.” Over the years, he continued, Chabad has worked with fraternities and sororities less because people wanted to join the party regardless of it being thrown by Greek life, and, “we wanted to make the party open to everyone.”
With the rise of COVID-19 cases, though, the party was capped at a certain capacity and the Chabad House required people to test negative for COVID-19 the day prior. Chabad tried to balance this concern with the concern for students’ mental health in the social time that is students’ college years. Sohn, whose first Purim at Brandeis coincided with the beginning of the pandemic, agreed. The quintessential Purim experience he was looking for was “exciting and out there,” whether that meant dressing up for the Cheins’ party on a Wednesday, or “even having a smoothie at Hillel on Purim morning.”
Rabbi Chein concluded that Purim’s value of joy is something that can benefit the entire Brandeis community. “Not often do you find people dancing in the middle of campus,” Chein mused. “Imagine what campus would be like if we had more of that. For Chabad, we use Purim to bring that value of joy … beyond just the Jewish community.”