YouTube video sparks holiday donations for troops

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washington | Imagine what Esther and Mordechai could have accomplished with YouTube.

A New Jersey synagogue has seized upon the latest Internet technology to send the Purim message to far-flung U.S. Jewish troops and raise funds for gift packages, mishloach manot.

The YouTube message, performed as a good-natured spoof of an Oval Office speech, has exceeded expectations.

In conjunction with the Jewish Chaplains Council, headquartered in New York, Kehilat Kesher, a modern Orthodox shul in Englewood, N.J., has sent more than 150 Purim gift packages to Jewish servicemen and women in Afghanistan. The synagogue originally projected funds for about 100 packages.

Donations have come from across the country, according to synagogue President David Polinsky, who plays the president in the YouTube comedy short. It may be the first time the phrase “my fellow Americans” has been coupled with “mishloach manot.”

“We sent several thousand dollars worth of goods” that were “special requests from the chaplains from Iraq and Afghanistan,” Polinsky said. And as funds continue to arrive, “we will be shifting to sending Pesach packages, to keep sending stuff over depending on requests as money is raised.”

So far, the synagogue has received more than $4,000.

Jewish soldiers sent requests for items such as rugelach, gefilte fish and Jewish reading material, Polinsky said. They also requested more secular products like movies and magazines, added synagogue trustee Phyllis Freilich.

Children from Kesher’s junior congregation and Kol Haneshama, a Conservative synagogue also in Englewood, wrote letters to the soldiers.

Donors sent money for care packages through an online PayPal account accessible on the synagogue’s Web site,www.keshernj.com. The packages were assembled earlier in the month by Freilich and congregants Jocelyn Jonas and Tovit Schultz Granoff.

Freilich kept in email contact with a chaplain and lay leader abroad, Army Spc. Gavin Ellman, stationed in Iraq, and Rabbi Shmuel Felzenberg in Afghanistan.

Felzenberg received 50 care packages from Kesher and has shared them with Capt. Joshua Knoebel, who serves as Jewish lay leader to remote areas in Afghanistan. Felzenberg will distribute more on Purim to the troops under his jurisdiction, many of them from the 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Bragg, N.C.

Felzenberg wrote an email thanking donors “for showing a deployed soldier you care, that you value his/her service, and your acknowledgment that if he/she were not there deployed in harm’s way, then you yourself, or your son or daughter, may well have to be serving instead.”

Ellman said he was surprised how quickly the packages arrived, though he couldn’t distribute them immediately as most of the troops were at various bases working with Iraqi Security Forces.

Freilich, discussing her role in suggesting the project, said: “My husband is in the Navy Reserve and I am just always thinking of things that can be done, little things I can do to make things easier for people in the military.” Her husband, Benjamin, is a history buff who designed his office to resemble the Oval Office (it was used as the backdrop for the YouTube short).

Other synagogue members also contributed, including Uri Rottenberg, owner of New Year Video, and Michael Dube, who played a Secret Service agent standing behind Polinsky, wearing an earpiece attached to a disembodied phone cord.

“I had been wanting to use this medium to promote something worthwhile for a long time,” Michael Granoff, vice president of Kesher, wrote in an email from Israel, where he was attending a conference.

“So the six of us took an evening at the Freilichs and ran a number of takes, had a great time and got the piece filmed, as well as did a few different scripts, others of which may be used in the future. Uri did a great job weaving in the presidential touches.”

The YouTube promotional video is located online and can be viewed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=cDCJHJeWkzQ.

“We are thrilled with the response,” Granoff said.