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ISRAEL: Purim giving spills over in Sderot

March 21, 2008 |  9:41 am

Jews in Israel and around the world are celebrating Purim, the holiday marking the escape of the Persian Jews from a plot to exterminate them devised by Haman, vizier to King Ahasuerus who ruled Persia in the 5th century BC.

The Book of Esther tells the story of the plot and the reversal of fate by which the community was saved. Among the good deeds Jews are obliged to fulfill during the holiday is "mishloah manot"- the sending of portions [of food], and "matanot la'evyonim"- gifts, charity to the poor.

(The customary masquerading, mostly by children, is another prominent if relatively modern tradition -- and is becoming more modern by the minute. Among secular kids, Queen Esther is out; SpongeBob Squarepants, sadly, is in.)

This year, Israelis went all-out with holiday spirit. They showered love, giving and gifts on the town of Sderot that has suffered rocket attacks for the past seven years. The southern town and its environs have been worn thin by years of fear, financial losses and government promises, and thousands have abandoned it in recent years. The rockets that started out crude and with more bark than bite have evolved into lethal weapons; fired from Gaza, they take a fleeting 15 seconds to land in Sderot, where mundane activities have become dangerous gambles.

First, it was only do-goodniks that were giving: organizations, charities, NGOs. Israeli-born comedian Avi Lieberman visited the town a few months ago with money collected from his L.A. congregation (real, not funny money!). Last week, a New York rabbi handed out 200 NIS bills to passersby. And today, Israel radio reported, one representative of a fund dedicated to the welfare of people living in the "confrontation lines" in Israel's north and south arrived in town with tens of thousands of Sheqels in his pockets to cover people's grocery-store tabs.

The increase of public awareness to the town's plight erupted into a burst of giving this Purim.

People from all ends of the country either came to the town themselves or organized truck-loads of gifts; private citizens, aid organizations, school and even kindergartens from far and near sent tens of thousands of gift-baskets and hundreds of brand-new Purim costumes. Purim-baskets were only a click away for those living abroad. My kids' school wanted to send gift baskets too; we were turned down politely, they had more than enough. By this evening, most families had received several packages each, and the overwhelmed town was trying to figure out how to put the remaining gifts to good use and transfer them to IDF soldiers.

The civilian giving to Sderot stands in contrast to government aid to the frayed community, as well as to criticism that the town had been left for dead by "Tel Aviv", the trendy city that had become a generic derogatory term for indifference and lack of solidarity on the part of the fortunately secure.

Mayor Eli Moyal was grateful for what a radio anchor had called "the tsunami of giving" and thanked all Israelis, including the "Tel Aviv bubble". "The love we are flooded with is unbelievable. This makes what we have been through for the past 7 years worth it."

And while Jews of Persia were saved then, Israel today remains concerned over dangers from the same direction in the form of threats from modern-day Iran.

— Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

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