The children raced from table to table in the auditorium of Congregation Tifereth Israel, their hands tinkering with crafts, crayons and carnival games. They spun around wildly in the makeshift gaga pit — the Israeli version of handball — and exchanged fits of laughter as they played in the bounce house. Many had dressed for the occasion, wearing costumes you might see at Halloween, which added another aspect of fun to the party.
The unbridled silliness, Rabbi Irwin Huberman said, is the essence of the Jewish holiday of Purim, which was celebrated at the congregation with a carnival last Sunday.
“It’s mandated in the Jewish religion that you must be happy this time of the year,” Huberman said. “So much of the time, religion is about seriousness, but this is an opportunity once a year to let your hair down a little bit, dress up in costume and have fun.”
Purim, which was observed on Wednesday and Thursday this year, commemorates events that occurred in ancient Persia over 2,000 years ago, when Jews evaded persecution from King Ahasuerus and his minster Haman (see box). Purim, Huberman said, “Falls into the category of, as many Jewish holidays, they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat!”
The celebration began with an original play performed in the sanctuary, which featured characters from the Purim story competing in a bake-off to create the tastiest hamantaschen, a three-cornered pastry that is traditionally eaten on the holiday. Congregants recited songs and prayers about Purim, and then crowded the auditorium for the carnival.
Perhaps the most special part of the event — aside from Cantor Gustavo Gitlin twisting balloons into animal shapes with ease — was the congregation’s focus on inclusivity; that is, inviting children of all needs and abilities to attend the Purim party. “As a father of a 39-year-old son with autism,” Huberman said, “it’s important that every child and adult be happy in the way that is appropriate to them.”
Chad Altman, of Glen Head, vice president of education at Congregation Tifereth Israel, said that inclusivity is a major pillar of the congregation, and is often reflected in its services and programs. “We’re part of a larger community,” he said, “and we want to teach our children respect for all, regardless of background, and get them to recognize that they can play cooperatively with everyone, even [those] with disability.”
As the carnival continued, Debbie Ilberg, of Glen Head, took note of her son, Matthew, playing with his peers. A wide smile could be seen under the snout of his dog costume. Matthew, who has autism, attends Hebrew school classes at Congregation Tifereth Israel and works with an aide who provides him with support. “At Congregation Tifereth Israel, with their philosophy toward children with special needs, Matthew isn’t ‘that kid with autism,’” his mother said. “He’s Matthew, one of the sixth-graders.”
This philosophy is in keeping with the congregation’s commitment to providing anyone, regardless of need, the chance to practice the Jewish faith. Huberman said that Congregation Tifereth Israel would soon offer religious programs equipped for those with special needs, including bar and bat mitzvah services.
“Everyone has the right to find the core of religion inside them, and sometimes we get lost in the rules and regulations when, really, all religion wants us to be is happy and grounded and satisfied,” Huberman said. “Even if it means that [the children] say one blessing or just a few words or have some reason to smile, for them that’s their happiness.”