For Sandy victims in Brighton Beach, Purim story has a double meaning

The Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services on March 17 treated the Brighton Beach community, which was seriously affected during Hurricane Sandy, to a festive Purim party at Tatiana restaurant on Brighton Beach Avenue as part of the UJA-Federation’s Post-Sandy Community Outreach Program.

The program provides emotional and spiritual help to members of the Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Staten Island who have been seriously affected by the hurricane.  The free program, which is offered in both English and Russian, is unusual because it combines pastoral with psychological counseling.

“Our tradition holds that on Purim, nothing is what it seems,” said the program’s spiritual coordinator, Rabbi Josh Minkin, who appeared wearing various costumes and hats in the Purim tradition. “The day that was set for our people’s destruction became instead a day of joy and deliverance. So too, we wanted this party to help deliver the residents of Brighton Beach from the pain and destruction of Hurricane Sandy. Purim is a time for rejoicing.”

Vita Lisina and Alex Radionov, who presented the entertainment, facilitated this rejoicing. Many attendees sang along with the songs in English, Russian, Hebrew and Yiddish, and people were literally dancing in the aisles. Even with almost 100 people in attendance, the sponsors had to turn people away.

Malka Shagaraeva, the program’s mental health coordinator, made the comparison between the experiences of Russian Jews with the Book of Esther.  “A large percentage of the Russian immigrant community, particularly in Brighton Beach, is Jewish. During the Soviet era, it was dangerous to observe the holidays and customs of our people. The same situation occurred in the days of Mordecai and Esther in Persia.  The people who identified as Jews risked the wrath of the government.  

“By a miracle, the threat disappeared when the USSR collapsed and [also when] Haman was hanged. After trauma, we need a release.  Joy is the ultimate medicine to return to normal life. Our party is meant to bring joy back to the community.”

Rabbi Minkin added, “Just as we wonder where is God (who is never mentioned), in the Book of Esther, so after we suffer loss, we wonder where is God in our lives.  Our program helps people to reconnect to their experience of God.”

As Rabbi Minkin and Shagaraeva read excerpts from the Megillah of Esther, which tells the story of Purim, many of those from the former Soviet Union experienced a return to long-forgotten Jewish customs and ceremonies.  This small but meaningful miracle reflected the holiday of Purim.