NEW ORLEANS—Ask Malkie Rivkin and the volunteers who are preparing hundreds of mishloach manot food baskets at the Btesh Family Chabad House in New Orleans three days before Purim what makes the holiday unique in New Orleans, and they almost don’t understand the question.
“It’s like any other Chabad House around the world!” exclaims Rivkin, co-director of programs for Chabad-Lubavitch of Louisiana with her husband, Rabbi Mendel Rivkin. “I’m sure people right now are doing the same thing we are,” she tells Chabad.org.
One thing that makes Purim special in New Orleans is that “people here are good at getting dressed up in costumes,” says Rabbi Mendel Rivkin. “New Orleans is a costume town. People don’t shy away from them.”
Volunteer Jill Halpern, looks up for a moment from rolling hundreds of little paper scrolls with the mitzvahs of Purimwritten on them, and agrees: “The Rivkins always have the best costumes,” chimes in Halpern. “When the theme was France, the whole family came dressed up as French’s mustard.”
The scrolls that Halperin are rolling will accompany each food gift bag and box. She and other volunteers will help deliver more than 275 packages all over New Orleans.
“The mishloach manot program is a win for Chabad, a win for the person who receives it and a win for the person who does the mitzvah of giving,” says Malkie Rivkin. “And people who get one this year are more likely to give to others next year.”
Halpern, whose father settled in New Orleans from the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., in the 1950s, proudly says: “I love Chabad. Wherever they need me, I am here.”
Rabbi Yochanan Rivkin, director of the Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center at Tulane University, is looking forward to the Megillah reading and sharing the other mitzvahs of Purim with his students. He points out that some fraternity and sorority members are in the habit of baking hamantaschen as well.
One place where the Jewish community comes together on Purim is at the yearly themed party. “Chabad Uptown and Metairie join together,” notes Malkie Rivkin. This year, it’s one big city to another: “Purim in the Big Apple.” Past themes included “Purim in Outer Space” and “Purim in France.”
Katrina ‘Part of Our Consciousness’
When Hurricane Katrina raked through New Orleans in August 2005, Chabad helped the community cope by adding a little comic relief to the Jewish community the following Purim.
“Everyone remembers the images of people being rescued from the rooftops of their homes,” says the rabbi. “We actually chose a hurricane theme—‘Purim on the Blue Roof’—a little satire for the times. Katrina is part of our consciousness, but it is not something to be brought up every year. We may be recovered, but there are still pockets in the city not rebuilt.”
Malkie Rivkin notes that the party themes are well-chosen to make the holiday entertaining and inclusive for everyone. “One nice thing about Purim is that even the adults get involved; it’s not just for kids.”
One unique aspect of the Purim party is the entertainment, which is provided by a special member of the Jewish community. New Orleans is home to Ochsner Medical Center, a world-renown facility for liver transplants. The piano player for the Purim celebration is in town from Israel as he awaits a transplant. “Many Israelis come to our community for months at a time as they await liver transplants,” she explains. “We have a strong relationship with the Israeli families. There are four Israeli families here now; one just received a transplant.”
Rabbi Zelig Rivkin, head Chabad-Lubavitch emissary of Louisiana, could be seen this week “making the rounds” as volunteers assembled the mishloach manot. He was a little reluctant to comment much since he feels that the other emissaries, many of them his own family members, are now doing the day-to-day work of serving the needs of Jewish residents throughout the state. He and his wife, Bluma, were sent there on shlichus in November 1975 by the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory.
Rivkin and Chabad of New Orleans have especially strong connections this time of the year. “We opened this Chabad House on Purim of 1976. We made some renovations to the building and were ready to open for the holiday. We started with college students—and have been making Purim here every year since!”
Chabad in New Orleans has also expanded ever since.
The Rohr Chabad Jewish Student Center next door, directed by Rabbi Leibel and Mushka Lipskier, serves students from Tulane University, Loyola University and the University of New Orleans. Rabbi Yochanan and Sarah Rivkin oversee a special division for graduate students. Rabbi Mendel and Malkie Rivkin direct programs for Chabad-Lubavitch of Louisiana. There are also Chabad centers in the nearby suburb of Metairie and in Baton Rouge, and Chabad Lubavitch of Southern Mississippi in Biloxi falls under their auspices.
As for community member Jill Halpern, she just loves Purim in the Big Easy: “Here, Jews are such a minority. Purim gives the Jewish community a chance to be together. You are with Jews en masse. I can’t tell you how much it makes me kvell!”