University of Florida student Ryan Schmid hands fellow student Jake Littman cotton candy at the Jewish Student Union Purim Carnival. (Sam Petosa/WUFT News)

Jewish holiday of Purim is ‘relevant in a different way this year,’ says UF Hillel rabbi

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Gifts, costumes, groggers, and above all: hamantaschen.

All of these items commemorate the jolly Jewish holiday Purim. Each year, it is celebrated on the 14th day of the Hebrew month “Adar,” which falls between late winter and early spring each year. For 2023, the holiday begins Monday, with celebrations set to wrap up Tuesday evening. With the holiday approaching, members of the University of Florida Hillel and Chabad are preparing for its annual celebrations.

Yet the holiday lands during a tense time for the Jewish people. Online agitators proposed a “National Day of Hate” late last month. It was the latest in a string of antisemitic displays nationwide. UF Hillel and Chabad members are no strangers to this, with February’s pro-Kanye West display at Plaza of the Americas bringing such hate to UF’s campus.

Despite the discourse, Hillel and Chabad anticipate proceeding with plans for the holiday, beginning with the Jewish Student Union’s (JSU) Purim Carnival on Sunday. Jonah Zinn, the rabbi at UF Hillel, is among the individuals looking to actively combat any form of hate on campus.

The rabbi feels that Purim is all too poignant this year.

“Purim is the story of the attempted destruction of the Jewish people,” he said. “So I think definitely that story is relevant in a different way this year.”

Purim celebrates a story of triumph. In the fourth century B.C.E, Haman, prime minister of the Persian Empire, attempted annihilation of the Jewish people. However, on the thirteenth of Adar, they defeated Haman and those attempting to persecute them. With the victory, the Jews rested on the fourteenth of Adar, with the two days being celebrated as Purim each year thereafter.

Certainly, the holiday signifies a celebration in Judaism and has individual meaning to certain members of the faith. For Jason Scheuer, former president of Gators for Israel and frequent goer of UF Chabad, the holiday signifies the strength of the Jewish people. Even more, the Milwaukee native sees it as a point of inspiration for current conflicts.

“For me, Purim will mean a celebration of overcoming hate,” he said. “I believe that as the Jewish community faces threats today, we can take inspiration from the Purim story to remain strong and proud Jews who will push back against hate.”

Zinn agrees with Scheuer’s sentiments. In fact, the rabbi believes when the story is retold Monday and Tuesday, it could take on an entirely different meaning in wake of recent showings of hate. However, he also sees it as a celebration of the Jewish people overcoming forces looking to annihilate them. In modern context, he perceives this meaning as a worthwhile notion to consider.

“I think that it’s a powerful reminder that just as we were successful in overcoming Haman in the Purim story, so too will we once again prevail over those forces that are currently seeking to vilify the Jewish community,” he said.

Zinn has been an advocate for equality on campus since his arrival in July 2019. Following October’s incident at the Florida-Georgia football game, the rabbi and UF Hillel launched a “Chomp Hate” campaign intended to temper the suddenly rampant bigotry close to home. For this campaign, UF Hillel has made an effort to educate different student organizations on the plight of discriminated groups on campus, including the Jewish community.

Among such student organizations, Zinn identifies the Florida Cicerones as one making strides toward educating its members. Sean Harkins, a Florida Cicerone and member of JSU, said the rabbi spoke at the club’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) training. The third-year student highlights this discussion as impactful, believing the club to have bought into Zinn’s message. Above all, Harkins foresees more future partnerships.

“We recognize Hillel as a resource for all students,” he said. “I could definitely see in the future more partnership between us and Hillel.”

Students played games such as Spike Ball at the Jewish Student Union Purim Carnival Sunday. (Sam Petosa/WUFT News)

Besides Hillel and Chabad, JSU serves as a strong resource for all students as well. The club serves to unite the Jewish community on campus through organizing events and socials. For Purim, the club is organizing Sunday’s carnival. With games and food being provided, JSU President Sam Hendler wants this event to be a celebration.

“We’re pretty much having this big celebration to drown out the noise of antisemitism and giving an opportunity for Jewish students to engage and have a good time,” he said.

In the midst of ongoing hate, Hendler still anticipates a large turnout for events throughout the week. However, the third-year student recognizes the significance of Purim within the context of recent events. While recognizing the holiday as important to the Jewish people, he highlights a sense of unity as crucial towards Monday and Tuesday’s celebration.

“Purim itself is such a big holiday for the Jewish people,” he said. “It’s a great time for everyone to come together showing unity and drown out the hate.”

Students will have the opportunity to participate in a variety of traditional Purim celebrations at Hillel and Chabad throughout the week. Among these celebrations include gift giving, dressing up in costumes, attending parties and indulging in three-cornered pastries shaped like Haman’s hat known as hamantaschen. To wish fellow students a happy Purim, they may say in Hebrew “chag Purim sameach.”

Sunday’s carnival saw a variety of students on the grounds surrounding UF Hillel. There, members of JSU and students alike participated in games and ate carnival food such as pizza and popcorn while coming together as a Jewish community. Acknowledging hamantaschen as his favorite part of the holiday, Jacob Wancier, a third-year student in attendance, sees this as an opportunity to come together as a community.

“A holiday like Purim is a perfect way just to come together and enjoy each other’s company,” he said.

In the end, Zinn wants students to feel safe celebrating the holiday. While discussing expected attendance for events, the rabbi explained students are still attending activities even with recent national incidents in mind. Instead of fear, he explains the students have shifted any such feeling to a sense of duty. Above all, he sees students coming together, just as the Jewish people did in the story of Purim.

“I think students are more aware for the need to come together,” he said. “But I think one of the things we’ve seen is a lot of students that have responded to these acts of hate by saying I’m going to make engagement in Jewish life on campus a priority.”

About Sam Petosa

Sam is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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