Aquarian Minyan's Purim celebration at Ashkenaz in Berkeley. (ALEX MADONIK)
Aquarian Minyan's Purim celebration at Ashkenaz in Berkeley. (ALEX MADONIK)

Despite coronavirus, public Purim celebrations go on around Bay Area

Sophie Miron never considered skipping her congregation’s Megillah reading last night at Ashkenaz in Berkeley.

A member of the Aquarian Minyan’s council, the board of directors of this longtime egalitarian prayer group, Miron was one of the scheduled Megillah readers and part of the annual Purimspiel. So she needed to be there.

But she would have showed up anyway. “It didn’t even occur to me to stay home because of the coronavirus,” she told J.

Even as Jewish organizations and synagogues are heeding calls to cancel large events in the name of public health and personal safety, a number of Bay Area congregations bucked the trend and went ahead with their public Purim celebrations.

Many canceled “nonessential” Purim events such as parties and children’s activities. Canceling public readings of the Megillah, or Scroll of Esther, however, is more problematic because Jews are commanded to fulfill this mitzvah on Purim — young and old, men and women.

While at Reform or Renewal synagogues this might be less of an impediment in decision-making, and most did cancel these public readings, Conservative and particularly Orthodox congregations wrestled with the issue: When do health considerations trump religious obligation?

Rabbi Yisroel Hecht of Chabad of Sunnyvale leading Purim services, March 9, 2020.
Rabbi Yisroel Hecht of Chabad of Sunnyvale leading Purim services, March 9, 2020.

Rabbi Yisroel Hecht of Chabad of Sunnyvale called it “an important question.” On one hand, Chabad is an outreach organization. Its mission is to help Jews fulfill Jewish obligations, such as by holding public Megillah readings. On the other hand, he told J., “there’s the value of public safety.” And Sunnyvale is in Santa Clara County, where the health department on March 5 recommended canceling “mass gatherings and large community events.”

Hecht turned to his community for help. “They were unambiguous,” he said. “They wanted me to go forward.”

If the county guidelines had been clearer, he said, he “would certainly” have followed them. “But what is ‘mass’? What is ‘large’?’” he asked. Even so, if the issue was about a Purim event not scheduled on the actual holiday, he would have erred on the side of safety. But this was about a commandment.

“It’s not an easy decision, but I feel very comfortable,” he said. “As long as there were people who wanted to come, I could not take away their opportunity to hear the Megillah.”

Last week, the Orthodox Union issued guidelines to help observant Jews fulfill their Purim commandment in the age of coronavirus. Among other recommendations, it suggested that people at greater risk due to age or underlying health problems should stay home and either arrange for a private Megillah reading or listen to it online — live, if possible.

Those guidelines influenced the Aquarian Minyan’s decision to livestream the Megillah reading on Facebook for those who could not attend.

While some braved the virus and went to synagogue for the megillah reading, Rachel Gross went to the home a friend for a small gathering where she read aloud from an English translation of the megillah. Max, 8, (bottom left) booed enthusiastically at every mention of Haman. (DAVID A.M. WILENSKY)
While some braved the virus and went to synagogue for the megillah reading, Rachel Gross went to the home a friend for a small gathering where she read aloud from an English translation of the megillah. Max, 8, (bottom left) booed enthusiastically at every mention of Haman. (DAVID A.M. WILENSKY)

“We’d never done it before, because it gives people the option of not attending —  and not paying,” said Miron, noting that the congregation of 100 to 120 regulars depends on entrance fees, such as the $20 for Purim, to sustain year-round activities.

But considering the median age of the group is in the mid-70s, the leadership took health concerns seriously.

Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland also made special arrangements, informing members last Friday. “We encouraged people who were unwell or showing any kinds of symptoms to stay home,” said Rabbi Gershon Albert. “We held our normal services and we also had a live Zoom call reading for anyone who is in a sensitive category or age bracket, and we encouraged those people to not come, and to fulfill their obligation through that unusual way.”

Like Hecht, Albert said that if public health authorities had required “or strongly encouraged” cancellations, that would be different. “Or if we had anyone who had tested positive in our community, we would have considered canceling,” he said. “But under the current circumstances and the guidelines we’d read, we decided to go ahead.”

All of those interviewed said their congregations followed recommended protocol for coronavirus containment, including providing hand sanitizers, encouraging frequent handwashing and encouraging people to maintain a safe distance from one another.

That was the approach taken by the Mission Minyan, a traditional egalitarian prayer group in San Francisco that draws a younger crowd than the Aquarian Minyan.

A sizable crowd turned out for Mission Minyan's megillah reading in San Francisco. (DANA GRIETZER GOTLIEB)
A sizable crowd turned out for Mission Minyan’s megillah reading in San Francisco. (DANA GRIETZER GOTLIEB)

David Henkin, co-founder and one of the group’s organizers, told J. that minyan leaders discussed canceling, “but no one really advocated it.” They did livestream last night’s reading, “and older people definitely stayed away,” Henkin noted.

“There was a consensus among the decision-makers, who are many, that the response ought to be make the event safe rather than cancel it. The principal thing people wanted was to have a livestream option so people would not feel pressure to go” in person, he said.

Across the board, last night’s crowds were smaller than usual and the atmosphere “more subdued,” as one congregational leader described it.

At Beth Jacob, 150 or so people showed up, about 75 percent of the usual crowd, Albert said. “People were having a good time and feeling the joy of Purim, but at the same time it’s hard not to feel that there’s this cloud hovering over us,” he said.

In Berkeley, the Aquarian Minyan Purim party traditionally draws late-night crowds from other shuls, people who show up to Ashkenaz for the live band and dancing at the venerable Berkeley music hall. That didn’t really happen this year, Miron says.

“We actually had more people than usual for the Megillah reading, and fewer for the dancing,” she said, with about 100 folks showing up in total.

The party started later than usual because they read the entire Megillah, which they usually don’t do. “What with that, and the time change, and people getting older, a lot of them went home.”

“The party was smaller, but fun,” said Henkin of the Mission Minyan event. “It was successful, but it did bear the stamp of the circumstances.”

David A.M. Wilensky contributed to this report.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at sue@jweekly.com.