For weeks now, Merrill Alpert has been searching for the perfect inflatable slide, the largest Ferris wheel and the flashiest ice cream cart -- all for her synagogue. Like event organizers at other temples in the Southland, Alpert, Valley Beth Shalom's (VBS) youth director and carnival planner extraordinaire, feels that the joyous holiday of Purim is serious business.
Like many temple Purim carnivals, VBS' annual event is both a fundraiser and a community activity. On the fundraising side, $2,500 of the proceeds will go directly to the youth group's Tikkun Olam fund and any remainder will go toward scholarships. While the VBS carnival is a grass-roots effort, other local organizations, such as Temple Beth Am and Stephen S. Wise Temple, expect their larger-scale carnivals to generate more revenue. Temple Beth Am expects to rake in approximately $15,000, which will benefit its schools and youth department.
No matter what the profit, most synagogue administrators agree that the yearly celebrations are helpful morale boosters.
"People love [the Purim carnival] and the kids look forward to it all year long," said Susan Leider, principal of Pressman Academy Religious School at Temple Beth Am.
Rabbi Marc Dworkin of Leo Baeck Temple believes that his shul's event reinforces a certain closeness within the congregation.
"It's a community builder and it brings different generations together," Dworkin said.
While many synagogues elect carnival committees, the teenagers in VBS' United Synagogue Youth (USY) chapter traditionally put together this annual event. As the organization's administrator, Alpert has organized the annual carnival for the last 18 years.
"The struggle is getting the manpower," admitted Alpert, who expects 150 USY volunteers at the carnival on Sunday, March 16.
In order to accommodate the expected 1,000 carnivalgoers, Alpert needs all the USYers she can get.
Oraneet Orevi, 17, the USY chapter's co-president, is one of this year's committed volunteers.
"Despite the fact that we're teens, we have things very well-organized," said the Calabasas High School senior. Orevi, who dressed as a cowgirl at last year's carnival, said she hopes to work at the dunk booth again this year.
"The water is freezing," the teen said with a laugh, "but it's a lot of fun."
In the meantime, Orevi and her friends are currently creating posters and flyers in hopes of attracting more potential attendees.
Come Sunday, Orevi and the other volunteers are prepared to sacrifice their weekend sleep to begin decorating the booths and setting up at 7:30 a.m., a good three and a half hours before the carnival begins.
Alpert will coordinate with food vendors like Subway, which has been contracted out to make kosher hero sandwiches in the synagogue's kitchen. Another vendor will mass-produce slices of pizza.
While volunteering is hard work, Orevi said that investing time in the carnival is a bonding experience for the students and helps VBS become a close-knit community.
As the Purim countdown begins, Alpert still has a few concerns. The carnival will be held in the synagogue parking lot, rain or shine.
"If it's raining, not as many people show up," she said.
Luckily, generous congregants offer donations to underwrite costs. But even a large sum of money could not replace the crown jewel of Purim carnivals: an inflatable moon bounce. Unfortunately, the rental company from which Alpert rented the coveted attraction last year went out of business. Lucky for moon bounce fans, Alpert is determined to find another one.
As she prepares for a new shipment of carnival prizes, like whoopee cushions, key chains, stuffed animals or whatever the game company deems "trendy" this year, Alpert anticipates a successful and profitable carnival.
"It's pretty much down to a science," she said.
And if there is any doubt that her teen volunteers will come through for her, Alpert's got a plan.
"At the end of the day, if we help clean up, Merrill treats us to dinner," Orevi confided.
In addition to the carnival, which runs from 11 a.m-3 p.m., there will be a Red Cross blood drive from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. For more information, call the VBS youth office at (818) 530-4025, or the temple office at (818) 788-6000.