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Ahead of Purim, Jewish students take up fasting to show solidarity with Ukraine

As Russian forces pummel Ukraine, Hillel International has been spurred to connect the mostly overlooked fast to meet the needs of the current crisis.

Women and children shelter on the floor of a corridor in a hospital in Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, March 11, 2022. Mariupol has been under siege for over a week, with no electricity, gas or water. Repeated efforts to evacuate people from the city of 430,000 have fallen apart as humanitarian convoys come under shelling. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

(RNS) — Ben Lefkowitz, a senior at Emory University, had never fasted the day before Purim, the holiday that celebrates how the biblical Queen Esther saved the Jewish people from destruction.

But on Wednesday (March 16), he planned to forgo food from sunup to sundown as part of a Hillel International appeal for Jewish unity in support of Ukraine refugees.

The Jewish college student organization is urging students to donate what they would have spent on meals Wednesday to the organization’s Ukraine relief efforts.

“I knew about the Fast of Esther but it had never held a very significant meaning for me,” said Lefkowitz, 22, who is co-chair of Hillel International Student Cabinet.

Ben Lefkowitz, a senior at Emory University and a co-chair of Hillel International Student Cabinet. Courtesy photo

Ben Lefkowitz, a senior at Emory University and a co-chair of Hillel International Student Cabinet. Courtesy photo

This year is different, he said. “This is my way of showing solidarity for what the people of Ukraine are going through.”

The Fast of Esther is one of six fasts in the Jewish calendar (two major, four minor). It’s fair to say many U.S. Jews have never heard of it, much less observed it. Most Jews who are not strictly Orthodox fast only once a year — on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

This year, though, as Russian forces pummel Ukraine, Hillel International was spurred to connect the often overlooked fast to meet the needs of the current crisis. The organization is also mourning the death of a 29-year-old, active member of Hillel’s Kharkiv chapter, Serafim Sabaranskiy, who was killed Sunday in a Russian airstrike. Hillel’s building in the northeastern Ukrainian city was also destroyed.

The idea for the fast came from two Jewish lay leaders who wrote an editorial for a Jewish publication asking, “How can the celebration of Purim square with the reality of the suffering of over two million refugees?”

Several Jewish organizations in addition to Hillel took up the challenge, including the Jewish Federations of North America.

RELATED: US Jews furiously raise money, send delegations to help Ukraine

Purim recalls the Jewish people’s survival in the Bible’s Book of Esther, which tells how the grand vizier of the Persian king, a man named Haman, plotted to kill all the Jews. His plans were foiled by Esther, the Persian king’s Jewish wife, and her uncle, Mordecai.

According to the biblical account, before Esther went to the king, she fasted for three days, and asked that all the Jews fast as well.

“Her act then is what we’re trying to tap into now — the courage of the people to rise up against that which aims to destroy,” said Rabbi Ben Berger, vice president of Jewish education at Hillel International. 

U.S. Jews are taking an intense interest in the fate of Ukraine, which has a sizable Jewish population of between 50,000 and 200,000 people. American Jews have raised millions of dollars to help the nation under siege and sent delegations of rabbis and other Jewish leaders to Poland and Romania to personally donate medical supplies and offer comfort to nearly 3 million Ukrainians who have become refugees due to the conflict.

Hillel International had 44 full-time staff in Ukraine based at five Hillel centers. Many, especially in Eastern Ukraine, have evacuated. Hillel centers In Europe are not necessarily attached to universities as they are in the U.S.

Purim, which is celebrated Wednesday night and Thursday this year, is a joyous and raucous event during which the biblical scroll of Esther is read aloud in synagogues as adults and children swing groggers, or noisemakers, every time Haman’s name is mentioned. To many children, Purim is the Jewish Halloween, where kids dress up, traditionally as Queen Esther and Mordecai, though all manner of costumes are welcome.

This year, many synagogues expected a full house after two years of coronavirus restrictions or cancellations.

Taking advantage of fast day to raise awareness (or money) for a cause has become something of a trend in recent years. Berger acknowledged that Hillel has never before asked students to take up the Fast of Esther, called Taanit Esther.

In recent years, though, American Jewish organizations have also latched on the Tisha b’Av fast, commemorating the destruction of the Jewish temples in Jerusalem, as a way to raise awareness of other issues, such as racial discrimination, or to advocate for immigration reform.

Lefkowitz, the Emory University student, acknowledged as much. There are some 1,000 Jewish undergraduates at the Atlanta-based school, he said. Not all are associated with Hillel and of those who are, only a fraction will actually fast.

“We don’t want to force the fast on anyone,” he said. “We try to allow for different tiers of participation. I know a lot of students, even if they’re not fasting or donating, simply spreading awareness is their way of joining and they find a lot of meaning in that.”

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