As cars piled into Ahavath Achim Synagogue’s parking lot for this year’s Purim Off Ponce celebration, it was clear the event was far different than before. SOJOURN, which serves the LGBTQ+ community in Atlanta and the South, has been hosting the event since 2007, and it has become an annual tradition.
In the past, hundreds gathered in a ballroom adorned in spectacular costumes and drinking late into the night.
Instead of a ballroom this year, guests parked for a drive-in experience of the 1975 cult classic “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” The event was also open to those under 21 for the first time, with SOJOURN presenting its main award to a group of “20 under 21.” A Havdalah service also was held for the first time.
As cars entered the parking lot, volunteers handed out boxes filled with a variety of goodies themed for the night, particularly for the Rocky Horror performance following the awards presentation. With stages set up throughout the lot for Rocky Horror performances, people were able to watch the program and listen to it using their radios. And for those who couldn’t attend, the event was livestreamed.
Rebecca Stapel-Wax, SOJOURN’s executive director, explained the planning process behind this year’s event. Last year the celebration occurred just before COVID-19 shut down the world, and it was important for it to be in person again this year, she said.
“Purim Off Ponce is not a virtual event. The essential piece to it is making connections, although we will be physically distant.” While Purim Off Ponce is certainly a celebration and party-like event, it also holds a special place in the hearts of many community members. Aliza Abusch-Magder, one of the honorees who attended virtually, said the event made her feel “warm.” She added, “It feels like there is a safe space for queer youth in Atlanta.”
Stapel-Wax reinforced the importance of the event. “We know that being together is critical in order to uplift people’s spirits, to show that we are willing to go the length to support our community, and that we have to have fun in order to be productive and healthy.”
Rabbi Joshua Lesser, founder of SOJOURN, said that “While there are a lot of changes that have needed to be made, and this is a completely different format, I think it speaks to the resiliency and creativity of SOJOURN and our Jewish community.”
While the event began with a Havdalah service, the main focus was on the Michael Jay Kinsler Rainmaker Award, this year presented to a number of young folks, from activists to writers. It is the largest group of honorees in the event’s history, Stapel-Wax said.
Lesser said, “Just being able to see each other in person is really awesome, and I think being able to honor so many of our youth makes it really special.”
Although COVID-19 prevented Atlanta Pride and many other LGBTQ+ community events, Purim Off Ponce provided an opportunity for the community to gather safely, he said. “You can just sense the electricity of people who haven’t been able to see each other.”
For example, hundreds of cars honked into the night in support of both the honorees, and of the “Rocky Horror” performance.
Following the awards, performers stepped onto their own stages as viewers watched from their cars, armed with water guns, a glove, and other Rocky Horror-related items. For some, it was more than just a fun show.
Ethan Asher, a young activist with the Future Coalition among those honored, said he enjoyed the novel experience. “It was my first time seeing ‘Rocky Horror,’ and one of the other honorees said earlier it is like you are finally being indoctrinated into the gay community, in a way.”
For those like Asher who viewed the film for the first time, Stapel-Wax said in advance of the event she was “thrilled there are so many ‘Rocky Horror’ virgins that are coming, and so many Purim Off Ponce virgins that are coming.
“We will be celebrating Havdalah for the first time, and there are many folks who have not participated in Havdalah service.”
As a testament to the success of the drive-in format, Stapel-Wax told the AJT, “It speaks volumes that we want to do this again.”