Tony Cenicola / The New York Times

A plate of hamantaschen, or "pockets of Haman," the traditional Purim treat

February 28, 2021

One Year After the Shutdown, Purim Brings Cornell Jewish Community Together

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Last year, Purim was a final hurrah before the pandemic and subsequent shutdown. This year, it represents the new normal for student gatherings –– celebrating with a mix of in-person and remote events.

The holiday commemorates a time 2,500 years ago when Persian prime minister Haman threatened to eradicate its Jewish population. The king’s Jewish wife, Esther, intervened and saved the people. The celebratory holiday involves readings from the Book of Esther and eating hamantaschen, triangular cookies symbolizing Esther’s defeat of the enemy.

Cornell Hillel usually has several large gatherings, including a feast and readings from the Book of Esther. This year, the organization gave out gift baskets including food and hamantaschen for students to celebrate Purim in their own small groups and hosted a virtual reading of the Book of Esther.

Rabbi Ari Weiss, executive director of Cornell Hillel, said the gift baskets provided a way for students to participate in the holiday. “Students were really looking forward to them. I’ve heard that students really appreciated Mishloch Manot gift packages,” Rabbi Weiss said.

Base Ithaca, an extension of Cornell Hillel, operated as Cornell’s chapter of a nationwide Base organization in which a Rabbinic family opens their home to serve as a “home base” for a local Jewish community.

Rabbi Hayley Goldstein and her partner, Lizzie Sivitz, of Base Ithaca hosted a small in-person get-together in their backyard for Purim. In order to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines, they hosted 10 masked people per hour in a heated outdoor tent. 

Attendees baked hamantaschen, listened to music, played lawn games, read from the Book of Esther and took pictures in a photo booth. A compilation of TikToks about Purim submitted by Cornell community members was projected. Students who couldn’t be in-person joined through Zoom.

As part of the celebration, Cornell Hillel raised over $300 to help fight food insecurity with Anabel’s Grocery, as giving is an important aspect of the holiday. Base Ithaca also raised over $300, donating to the Greater Ithaca Activities Center. 

Noah Doshna ’21, who has been active with Hillel and Base since freshman year, was unsure what to expect at Base’s gathering given the COVID guidelines. “I was not super optimistic going in, I’ll admit, but Rabbi Haley and Lizzie were really able to create an amazing experience with every conceivable safety precaution in place,” he said. 

Base Ithaca was only established two years ago, so their first Purim celebration occurred literally minutes after Cornell released an email sending students home for the remainder of the Spring 2020 semester.

Rabbi Goldstein said people arrived at last year’s event shocked and upset about their upcoming departure. “Then something shifted, and it turned into almost like an end of the world party,” she said. 

This year, Purim has functioned as a way for students to safely come together in-person during a time when most activities occur online. 

Hannah Rudt ’23, who attended small readings and the gathering at Rabbi Goldstein’s house, said the Purim celebrations were the first in-person event she’s gone to in a while. “It was nice to meet a couple new people, which I wasn’t really expecting,” Rudt said. “I think that people were maybe more excited for it this year.”