Fearing Repeat of Last Year, U.S. Orthodox Jewish Groups Urge Community to Comply With COVID Restrictions for Purim

Citing the experience of last year’s holiday, which became a super-spreader event, the Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America are stressing the need for caution this year

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Members of the ultra-Orthodox community celebrating Purim in Bnei Brak last year.
Members of the ultra-Orthodox community celebrating Purim in Bnei Brak last year. Credit: Oded Balilty / AP

Ahead of the Purim holiday later this month, U.S. Orthodox organizations are urging communities to comply with COVID-19 health guidelines during the celebration, which was a super-spreader event as the pandemic began last year. 

The Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America issued their Purim guidance for synagogues and communities on Wednesday, stressing that “the situation continues to evolve and varies significantly from region to region.” Purim runs from February 25-26 this year.

The groups address how to conduct megillah readings (the traditional public recitations of the Scroll of Esther), as well as how to conduct holiday meals and send care packages for the occasion. 

The OU’s director of synagogue and community services, Rabbi Adir Posy, said that the guidance is informed by “the memory of what Purim was like last year.” However, it also recognizes “that there is a big difference between this year and last year – which is that last year it was so new, we really didn’t know so much about the virus. The community was learning.”

Last year, Purim began on the evening of March 9 – just before large parts of the United States shut down to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The first serious outbreaks in the Orthodox community were later linked to those festive celebrations. A week after the holiday, authorities had already begun imposing social distancing restrictions. 

“We’re trying to balance both the recognition of the concerns that we have for safety and making sure that we’re safe in our gatherings, and the recognition that the pandemic is still very much with us but we’re in a different state of knowledge,” Posy said. 

The OU and the RCA have put out similar guidelines periodically over the past year, either in preparation for a Jewish holiday or as new developments in official protocols emerged.  

According to Wednesday’s Purim recommendations, “Shuls should conduct public davening and megillah readings only with proper masking and social distancing, in accordance with local regulations and guidelines,” with the possibility to organize additional services to accommodate more people while maintaining distances.

Generally healthy individuals, the groups noted, can attend public readings where the community is exercising the proper precautions. However, those deemed high risk should reach out to their community leaders to arrange private megillah readings.

“Those who are ill or have had serious exposure and must remain in isolation must not come to shul,” the document stated. “To fulfill the mitzvah, they should have a kosher, hand-written megillah which they read audibly, either on their own or assisted by a reading heard electronically.”

Purim meals and get-togethers, meanwhile, “must necessarily be limited” and would best be conducted within the family bubble, if members have not yet achieved immunity from the virus.

As far as care packages (mishloah manos), the Othodox groups cited the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s conclusion that cooking or preparing food and delivering it to someone, with a mask and proper social distancing, is “a very low-risk activity.” 

“What we hope people take out of it is what we’ve always tried to push, which is a balanced and nuanced approach,” Posy said. “We understand that every single community is different and, frankly, every geography around North America is different because of different infection rates. But we want to be able to give people language to understand the balancing of the different factors that impact how they plan celebrations and other communal functions.” 

Though some of the Orthodox community will have been vaccinated or recovered from the coronavirus and carry antibodies, people still have a “mutual responsibility” to “preserve human life,” Posy explained.

Orthodox community members in the United States have expressed much frustration over the past month with conflicting guidelines issued by authorities, and inconsistencies they felt infringed on religious freedom.

The frustration even led some to take to the streets, as some residents of Brooklyn’s Borough Park did last October. Despite this, Posy said he hoped community members would remember that his group’s message “generally has been that our baseline, both as civically responsible communities and as observant Jews, is to never go against any guideline of a public health or legal authority.” 

With addition reporting from JTA. 

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