In the week building up to Purim, Randi Grauman spends hours orchestrating an assembly line of 20 volunteers to package hundreds of gift baskets. Their finished products, filled to the brim with goodies, will be given out for the holiday, which this year begins at sundown on March 15.
Grauman is a volunteer for the Adath Israel Sisterhood in Merion Station, which runs the Conservative synagogue’s mishloach manot program to both fulfill a Purim mitzvah and raise money for the sisterhood.
“It was hard work but once things started, most people enjoyed themselves,” Grauman said of the volunteers, who got to work early this week. “For all of us, it was a labor of love to be able to do this project and bring joy to a lot of people.”
The Purim-based mitzvah of mishloach manot has evolved over the years from the simple custom of giving at least two different foods, often including hamantashen, into a major organized communal activity for many synagogues.
Synagogues from Reform to Orthodox run centralized mishloach manot programs that allow congregants to send baskets to one another without the stress of buying, baking, packaging or even delivering them. And while members fulfill the mitzvah, the synagogues often benefit by using the programs as a fundraiser.
Though details vary by synagogues, congregants generally get the option to pay anywhere from $5 to $10 or pay a flat fee, usually more than $100, to send a gift to everyone in the congregation. Each member receives one uniform package with an attached list of the names of people who contributed to their package. So, for example, one family could receive a mishloach manot that was sent on behalf of 10 or more people. The extra nine donations count directly toward the fundraiser.
Overall, the baskets can generate anywhere from $3,000 to $20,000 for synagogue programs, according to a variety of shuls surveyed for this story.
Since Adath Israel is in the middle of a campaign to raise funds for a renovation project, Grauman said, the synagogue decided to depart from tradition and do a construction-themed basket this year. The packages were designed to fit into a bright yellow plastic hard hat and included hamantashen, chocolate tools, Candy Blox, a construction noisemaker and raisins to represent “raisin’ the roof.”
For Rabbi Gregory Marx of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen, the fundraising element is just a side note. The bigger goal, he said, “is to connect our members to each other.”
Putting a synagogue-wide exchange together used to be much more of a burden before online services helped streamline the data-gathering process, according to Lisa Gershenfeld, president of the sisterhood at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, N.J.
Her synagogue has been running a mishloach manot exchange since 1986, taking orders manually before switching to a DOS-based program and then other computer systems before settling on happypurim.com eight years ago.
“I can tell you firsthand that it’s a world of difference,” said Gershenfeld. “It’s a very sophisticated system.”
On happypurim.com, which launched in 2003, congregants get emailed a member login and password to make their purchases.
A “reciprocity” option allows members to automatically send gifts back to whoever sends one to them. This covers the bases for members who are concerned that they might forget to include someone on their list, or might not be aware that someone is planning to send a basket to them, Gershenfeld said.
Adding that feature was a “no-brainer,” said happypurim.com co-owner Ari Green, whose company is based in Teaneck, N.J.
“People are stressed out about who to send mishloach manot to,” Green said, adding that synagogues have been so happy with the program that “we get thank-you notes from our clients.”
The company takes a percentage of the funds raised while the rest goes back to the fundraisers — mainly to be used for synagogue or sisterhood programming, or to donate to a charity, fulfilling another Purim mitzvah of giving to the poor.
While happypurim.com seems to be the most popular online service among local synagogues (though Green declined to say how many from this area were using it), others have opted for similar alternatives.
Congregation Beth Or is running this year’s project through purimproject. com, while Germantown Jewish Centre in Mount Airy set up a WordPress page to direct members to a PayPal account.
Even though Adath Israel uses happypurim.com, Grauman noted that many congregants still prefer placing their orders on paper with the sisterhood.
However they get involved, Grauman said, the program has turned into a great way to bring members together, especially the volunteers who gather to tackle the assembly.
“They truly enjoy the spirit of mishloach manot and doing the mitzvah, but for some it was simply the camaraderie of the day,” Grauman said. “There were people there that don’t show up for anything else.”