Rabbi Joe Wolfson went to sleep Purim night on a high after one of his greatest religious and communal Jewish experiences ever.
As the OU-JLIC Torah Educator at New York University, Rabbi Wolfson and his wife, Corinne Shmuel, serve as role models and community organizers on campus in partnership with Hillel.
In the weeks leading up to Purim, the Wolfsons found themselves brainstorming with nine student leaders how to make this Purim different from all other past celebrations.
They set out to change what matanot l’evyonim meant for college students.
“We might not think that brushing our teeth, having a warm pair of socks, or putting on deodorant is a great luxury—but for hundreds of people who spend their days and nights on the streets it is a small way to maintain dignity and achieve a modicum of comfort,” said Rabbi Wolfson.
With the enthusiastic support of the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at NYU, Rabbi Wolfson and his team of dedicated students formed partnerships with Knock Knock Give a Sock (an NYU student-run nonprofit donating socks to the homeless), Showering With Hope (an NYU student-run nonprofit seeking to improve the quality of hygiene for the homeless), and Rabbis Aviad Bodner of the Stanton Street Shul and Gavriel Bellino of the Sixth Street Shul, whose communities wished to join in.
A campaign was launched by Rabbi Wolfson and his student leadership a month before Purim to raise money. Postcards were created and social media helped spread the word to collect donations. An account was set up using Venmo, a free digital wallet phone app, for students to donate. “One of the great things about using Venmo was that it allowed students who are on study-abroad programs to directly participate,” Rabbi Wolfson noted.
Money was not the only valuable means to donate. Students across the Jewish spectrum were encouraged to volunteer their time to help purchase, package and deliver the items.
“Living in New York City with circumstances such as homelessness around us, we don’t even realize to what extent they are going on. I wanted to get involved because I wanted to give back to the community in some way,” shared student Tamar Cohen, who headed the social media campaign.
With more than 200 students donating via Venmo alone, the NYU OU-JLIC team raised $3,600 plus donations from the student charities of socks and hygiene products towards the care packages. Additionally, $1,500 was collected for needy Jewish families on the Lower East Side, as well as $1,000 for Yad Eliezer, Israel’s largest poverty relief organization. The students chose to give gifts containing essential items needed for people who are homeless: two pairs of warm, clean socks; deodorant; soap; and a two-ride MTA Metrocard.
In the days leading up to Purim, 400 socks, 200 toothpastes and brushes, 200 soaps, 200 MTA Metrocards, 200 granola bars and 200 personal notes to strangers were purchased and collected by the Wolfson/NYU student leadership team.
On Purim eve, 25 students assembled 200 of the care packages which were lined up for all to see at the Bronfman Center Hillel Purim party the following evening. Pens and paper were placed among the tables at the Purim celebdration for students to write personal notes to a stranger. After the megillah reading, 60 students marched downtown to the Bowery Mission to deliver the packages. Rabbi Wolfson contacted the rabbis on the lower east side with monetary donations to be distributed to Jewish families within their community.
“In the past I gave money on Purim, but I never knew who the recipient would be. This meant so much more than dressing up. It was very hands on and it was a high note after the holiday ended,” Tamar Cohen reflected.
“A student said to me afterwards, ‘modernizing the meaning of matanot l’evyonim has thrust the beauty and intention of Judaism back into my life,’” Rabbi Wolfson said. “I thanked him but told him that this was not about modernizing but rather opposite—going back to the original sources and letting them inspire our practice.”
“Purim is a wonderful holiday but it has turned into a day all about excessiveness—the food, the costumes, the drinking,” shared NYU student Adina Lichtman, founder of Knock Knock Give a Sock. “We learn about matanot l’evyonim in school and here we got to exercise that muscle. It was a very eye-opening way to celebrate Purim.”
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.