The Friday before Purim would usually be the time for a lighthearted message. But while preparing to celebrate one of the happiest holidays in the Jewish calendar, we must acknowledge the anxiety surrounding coronavirus and all that comes with it.
In Westchester’s Jewish community, families are coping with sick loved ones, several schools and synagogues are closed, and many hundreds of people are living under quarantine. More broadly, across the New York area, many people — particularly the elderly and those with underlying health issues — are understandably fearful.
On one hand, it’s uncharted territory. On the other hand, we’re facing this challenge the same way we have other challenges past and present — as a community made stronger because we’re in this together.
Somewhat paradoxically, this might be the one time coming together as a community means keeping a healthy distance from one another. Which is why, very regretfully, we decided yesterday afternoon to postpone our much-anticipated Westchester Celebration, scheduled for last night. Over 400 people were set to attend and pay tribute to two wonderful couples, Rikki and Barry Kaplan and Allison and Ben Friedland, for their incredible contributions to UJA and the Jewish community.
But our disappointment in canceling the event was tempered by an unexpected silver lining.
We asked Foremost, our caterer, if it might be possible to distribute the food from the event to the families in Westchester under quarantine. Foremost staff immediately volunteered to divide and repackage the food, putting together 600 kosher Shabbat meals. Those meals were all delivered this morning by our Westchester office staff and volunteers to families from the Young Israel of New Rochelle under quarantine. (The volunteers left the packages at the front door, without going into the house.)
And so, while the mitzvah on Purim of delivering mishloach manot (food packages) to friends and neighbors doesn’t formally begin until the start of the holiday this Monday evening, many in our community got a beautiful head start today.
On a parallel track, UJA’s staff has been actively planning for different scenarios and evolving needs. For example, knowing that the elderly are more vulnerable to the coronavirus and may be self-quarantining, we’re contingency planning with our partners to support the home delivery of food to those who normally rely on our pantries and community centers for meals.
Our government relations team has also been in constant touch with state, city, and county leadership and public health officials to get the most relevant information and share it with our nonprofit partners. Yesterday, we hosted a webinar for 140 nonprofit professionals to provide the best available information and steer people to appropriate resources.
Similarly, to support day schools (including those that have already faced closures), we helped organize a conference call for 220 school leaders on Tuesday featuring medical and trauma experts.
As Governor Cuomo noted in his press conference earlier this week, the general risk remains low in New York and it’s important that facts outweigh fear. At the same time, we need to be cautious and prepare to meet developing needs in our community and beyond.
One of the central concepts of Purim is v’nahafoch hu — “it was turned upside down.” Purim is such a joyful holiday because tragedy is averted; instead of the Jews being destroyed, as was Haman’s plan, v’nahafoch hu, it was turned upside down, and the Jews are allowed to fight back and defeat their enemies. Dread gives way to celebration. On a very small scale, this reversal is what happened when a canceled event was turned upside down and became 600 meals. And while we ready ourselves for what might come next, we pray and hope for another v’nahafoch hu, one that will transform this painfully uncertain moment into a period of peace, calm, and swift recovery for all.
Shabbat shalom and Purim sameach