‘Celebrate wisely’: Hackney rabbi issues reminder to local Jewish community ahead of Purim

Purim celebrations in Stamford Hill in 2019. Photograph: Alan Denney

A local rabbi has called on the Jewish community in Stamford Hill to be “careful and sensitive” when celebrating Purim on 23 March.

The holiday commemorates the saving of the Jewish people from annihilation at the hands of an official of the Achaemenid Empire named Haman.

People will share food and gifts, dance, carry out charity work, and some will dress up in costumes.

In 2022, a child celebrating Purim caused controversy after being filmed in Stoke Newington wearing blackface and Rastafarian clothing.

The Pinter Trust, an ultra-orthodox Jewish group, said at the time that the incident was “wholly unacceptable”.

“Each year, community leaders issue guidance reminding everyone to act responsibly,” it added.

Rabbi Levi Schapiro, co-founder of the Jewish Community Council (JCC), is doing just that in the run-up to this year’s festivities.

At a time of heightened tension because of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, Schapiro said: “We are not trying to compromise Purim – all we ask is that people are careful and sensitive.”

Both antisemitism and Islamophobia have risen in London since the outbreak of violence in the Middle East.

Rabbi Levi Schapiro of the Jewish Community Council. Photograph: courtesy Rabbi Schapiro

Schapiro said: “People sometimes do not understand our way of life, and this can turn into hatred.”

He wanted to emphasise the symbolism of Purim, and to educate people about the reasons underpinning the festival, but also urged the Jewish community to “celebrate wisely”.

“Our community is very aware and very respectful,” he said. “And we have a good relationship with the local Muslim community.”

It has been a custom for people to hang a doll of Haman in a window or on the street to mark Purim, but Schapiro warned against this, saying it can easily be misinterpreted.

“The odd person [in Hackney] might still do it, but this is not the time. We are simply asking people to be vigilant, careful, and not too dramatic.”

The message is being received well by the community, he explained, and he complimented the council and police for their support.

Schapiro will be celebrating Purim with his family – “no alcohol, no smoking – just keeping healthy”.

He is also running a programme for around 70 children at an orphanage in Stamford Hill, and it is this, he says, that gives him the most pleasure.

“Some of these children lost both parents to Covid, some suffered other tragedies.

“Covid came and went, but it left behind a lot of damage. You can’t replace a mother or a father.

“I think most of us would rather be miserable and stuck indoors if it meant we had our parents.”

JCC will be hosting a meal for the orphans, who will also have a chance to dance and have fun.

“We have more than 100 volunteers,” Schapiro added. “The work is inspiring. It’s more important than anything else, and something I’m really passionate about.”

In a final message to the local Jewish community, he said: “We wish everyone a happy and safe Purim.”