It’s hard to imagine a time when most American Jews didn’t know what Purim was. But if you remember the sixties, you’ll recall that by and large, Jewish holiday observances were limited to Yom Kippur and Passover.
Who knew of Purim? Of shalach manot and hamantashen? Of groggers and megillahs? But all that would change when the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, launched a holiday awareness campaign that would place the more obscure holidays of Purim and Shavuot on the calendar of millions of Americans. Chabad-Lubavitch centers around the world utilized every medium to help Jews reclaim their festivals and traditions. Today, Purim is celebrated worlwide as one of the liveliest and most colorful holidays. Students on campuses nationwide look forward to the annual Chabad Purim bash, and in communities around the world, neighbors exchange gifts of food, and focused charity-giving.
What began as a small fundraising project for one small Jewish community has captured the imagination of thousands of Jews around the country.
The project, known as the Purim Gift Collection, was created by Rabbi Sholom and Chanie Deitsch, directors of Chabad of Northern Virginia, and has grown tremendously from its humble beginnings in 1991. Last year, they received almost 15,000 orders and they hope to exceed that number this Purim.
Rabbi Deitsch says that the profits from the project have helped him to expand the outreach efforts of Chabad in the Northern Virginia area “so that not only is the Mitzvah of shalach manot performed by so many people, but the proceeds continue to help teach Jews about Judaism.”
Chanie, the creative director of the project, recalls that it all started when they first moved to Fairfax, Virginia and her husband asked her to make up shalach manot baskets for several friends and supporters. “Purim has always been my favorite holiday” says Chanie “and I loved the challenge of creating unique and meaningful shalach manot. We found that everyone who saw the baskets wanted one for their families, most of whom lived out of the area.”
The following year Chanie put together a selection of baskets and offered shipping anywhere in the U.S. They called it “UPS,” United Purim Service and it became an instant hit. At first, it was an all volunteer crew who did the stuffing, and packaging in the Chabad House shul. But as one Purim and then another went by, the operation became more professional, with full color brochures, a website (www.purimbaskets.org), mailing lists and a donated warehouse space.
Chanie began to custom design their packaging with Purim motifs and Hebrew lettering. They began to order boxes and containers from the Orient and from the Ukraine and scoured the kosher market for the finest in gourmet foods and chocolates. Orders were shipped throughout the U.S. and Canada and in limited numbers to Germany, France and Israel. In recent years, they began a partnership with an organization in Israel to send shalach manot to Israeli soldiers .
During the busy six weeks before Purim, they now require fifty warehouse personnel, a warehouse manager and additional office staff. The orders are shipped mainly by UPS, inundating the company with packages the week before Purim, at a rate of about 5,000 per day. Last year UPS had to employ a separate airplane to make good on their promise of delivery before the holiday.
Rabbi Deitsch has increased the customer base to include many Jewish organizations, Chabad Houses and lobbyists, who use these shalach manot as a means of thanking their supporters. The list of recipients reads like a who’s who in American life: President Bush, Al Gore, Congressmen, Senators, Governors and Ambassadors; Joe Lieberman and John Kerry; Business and entertainment giants like Stephen Spielberg and Ron Perelman, philanthropist George Rohr, and what seems like everyone’s grandmother in Florida.
Chabad of NOVA has a file of beautiful notes and letters from people who say they feel a strong sense of Jewish connection and pride from the shalach manot they receive every year. “Many had never even heard of shalach manot before” says the Rabbi, “but now they look forward to Purim with anticipation. Others have gone on to further explore their Jewish heritage.”
Chanie recalls that years ago she used to send out dozens of personal shalach manot in their Fairfax community “and we never received even one. But now, sending shalach manot is a given and everyone is doing it.”