Purim in Poona
by Shai Gefen
"With my trip to Poona for Purim I felt that a circle was closing," says Yahel Dayan, who accompanied Rabbi Betzalel Kupchik to Poona, India, for Purim two years ago.
Eight years before returning to Poona with the rabbi, Dayan had spent time traveling around India, wandering from cult to cult in search of himself. Eventually he wound up in Poona, described by many as one of the world centers of "spirituality." The main ashram in Poona is comprised primarily of young people from America, Germany and, not surprisingly, Israel.
Yahel's goal in visiting Poona this time, however, was entirely different. He and Rabbi Kupchik were hoping to help young Israelis celebrate Purim and perform the mitzvot of the holiday.
The idea to go to Poona for Purim came from an interesting source. A young Israeli planned on visiting Poona and mentioned his impending trip to a few Lubavitcher acquaintances. Knowing full-well that Poona is steeped in idolatry, the Lubavitchers tried to discourage him from going. He finally agreed to ask the Rebbe. He wrote a letter and placed it randomly into one of the volumes of the Rebbe's letters [Igrot Kodesh]. Everyone was truly shocked when the letter he opened to said that the trip should take place and a Chasidic farbrengen (gathering) should be organized there.
While in Poona, the young man arranged a "Chasidic gathering" with some local Jews. An Israeli journalist who was in India covering Mr. Ezer Weitzman's visit (which was taking place at the same time), wrote about the "Chasidic gathering" in Poona, and concluded the article, "Poona awaits the Rebbe."
Rabbi Kupchik met this young man after his return from Poona. He spoke to Rabbi Kupchik of the thousands of Israelis who pass through the city in search of spirituality. He pointed out the opportunities for outreach.
"Then," explains Rabbi Kupchik, "out of nowhere, a colleague who directs Chabad outreach to the Kibbutzim in Israel suggested that I go to Poona, and even offered to finance part of the trip. I invited Yahel to accompany me since he had spent time in Poona before becoming observant." Rabbi Kupchik and Yahel wrote a letter to the Rebbe about the trip which they place in a volume of Igrot Kodesh, "and after receiving an amazing answer we decided to go."
The logistics were by no means simple. The two Chabadniks (as Chabad-Lubavitcher Chasidim are affectionately called in Israel) had to bring all of the food, Purim necessities, and outreach material with them from Israel. Their luggage ended up weighing over 1,000 pounds!
Four days before Purim, the two men arrived in Poona. They did not as yet know where they would stay, nor where they would hold the Shabbat meals and services they were planning on organizing or the Megila reading and Purim party they were sure to make. What they did know were the locations where the Israeli's hang-out.
Rabbi Kupchik describes their modus operandi: "As soon as we came we began looking for Jews. We began to make connections and asked them to inform their friends that on Shabbat we'd be providing meals and that on Saturday night the Megila would be read. This was before we had even managed find the place we ended up renting for the weekend."
On Thursday evening they signed a contract with a restaurant owner and begin publicizing the new albeit temporary Chabad Center. When the two men came to set up for Shabbat services they noticed graven images on the walls as well as candles lit for the idols. The restaurant owner agreed to extinguish the candles and a call to a rabbinic authority in Israel gave them the ruling they needed to deal with the images.
That Friday evening over 100 Jews came to the "Chabad Center" for services and a Shabbat meal.
On the Shabbat before Purim, there is a mitzva to hear the special portion of Parshat Zachor. Poona's old Jewish community was far from where the Chabadniks were staying, but they arrived in the local shul at 7:00 a.m Saturday morning nevertheless. There they joined the ten Jewish men who were delighted that they would hear the Torah reading. For, though they had a Torah scroll, no one in the small community knew how to read it.
In addition to reading the Torah, the Chabadniks also taught about Purim and spoke of the Rebbe's prophecy that the Redemption is imminent. Afterwards, they walked back to the "Chabad Center" where an even larger crowd had gathered than the night before.
When Shabbat was over, the Purim festivities began. The Chabadniks returned to the local shul to read the Megila. "Their joy," says Yahel, "was indescribable. Many asked if there could be a permanent Chabad Center in Poona!"
Trekking back to the restaurant turned Chabad Center, the Rabbi Kupchik and Yahel were delighted to find that hundreds of Jews had arrived.
The next day, on Purim itself, the previous night's events were repeated with the addition of the other Purim mitzvot: distribution of mishloach manot (gifts of food to friends), extra charity, and feasting and joy. Throughout the day, Rabbi Kupchik read the Megila for those who had not yet participated in this mitzva. Toward evening there was a Purim meal and an authentic Chasidic farbrengen where saying "l'chaims," words of Torah, songs, and stories of the Rebbe flowed. The evening ended in the early morning, with many of the young people posing questions about Judaism, G-d and Torah.
On the Purim holiday when one wears a disguise and hides one's identity, hundreds of Jews in Poona were inspired to reveal their Jewish souls.