21st-century Passover plague keeps Jews from celebrating at communal seders

21st-century Passover plague keeps Jews from celebrating at communal seders

COVID1-19 causes families to rethink holiday celebrations

Due to COVID-19, seders will be celebrated without the usual guests and community this year.
Photo by Celia Zizzi via Flickr
Due to COVID-19, seders will be celebrated without the usual guests and community this year. Photo by Celia Zizzi via Flickr

Rebecca Schwartz’s favorite part of Passover is “when you finish the meal and everyone is having dessert and you are sitting around talking,” according to her mother Beth Schwartz.

The Schwartzes typically host a seder including family and friends each year. The meal lasts late into the evening as guests share dessert and talk spills across a range of topics. This year, the family’s Passover table will include only Beth, her husband and two daughters, victim to the social distancing being exercised in Jewish communities across the country due to COVID-19.

“When Mt. Lebanon announced their initial school closing, it was until right after Passover. We thought we were in the right ballpark, we could have people in our home,” Schwartz recalled.

The initial guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention limiting gatherings to fewer than 50 people with a minimum 6-feet distance between them, “was the tipping point” for Schwartz in opting to forgo a large seder this year.

“It was not an easy decision for us,” she explained. “Passover is a time to be together with people. We’ve never had a seder that was just our family. That’s not Passover. It’s unthinkable.”

Despite being unable to host friends and families, Schwartz is exploring ways to overcome the challenges and make this year’s holiday memorable.

“Even before we decided to cancel our seder, we had decided we would FaceTime my mom in California,” Schwartz said. “Her seder had been cancelled and she can’t travel.”

The family most likely wouldn’t have thought to use FaceTime if it wasn’t for the coronavirus and the new ways people are connecting using tools like the teleconferencing program Zoom and social media.

“Now I’m thinking, what’s wrong with a Zoom seder?” Schwartz asked. “We’ve got tons of Haggadahs and I can do porch drop-offs. Everyone would have to make their own food, but then we could do a Zoom seder.”

Despite a general decline in the number of American Jews embracing formal Jewish rituals and celebrations, Passover remains widely observed. According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, 70% of Jews in the United States attend seders. This year, the coronavirus outbreak will challenge that number.

Like Schwartz, Elaine Wolfe has had to change her holiday plans due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Wolfe’s seder usually includes 15-18 people in her home located in the city’s Eastern suburbs. This year, she was forced to disinvite most of her planned guests.

“I am in the top group of people who are susceptible. I am ‘elderly’ and I have severe upper respiratory issues. So that puts me at risk. My grandson, who always comes for seder has Crohn’s disease, which means his immune system is compromised. It was a matter of playing it safe, so I am down to just my family.”

Wolfe’s seder will now include only her husband, her two daughters and her grandson. Her children no longer live in Pittsburgh — one lives in Maryland and the other in Ohio — “so they’ll be driving,” she said.

While Wolfe is planning for a family reunion, “if they think for one minute that they don’t feel well, they’re going to cancel at the last minute and I appreciate that,” she explained.

Although the holiday is observed primarily in homes, many congregations host seders as well — welcoming members and guests alike — celebrating the Jewish people’s freedom from slavery and oppression.

With both the city and state having issued directives restricting public gatherings, as well as edicts to practice social distancing, this year Jewish institutions must consider other ways to engage community members and observe Passover.

Temple Emanuel of South Hills Rabbi Aaron Meyer said his congregation had not yet finalized plans to change its seder.

“I would say, we don’t know what we don’t know. I’m not sure what the state of the world will be by then, but my reading of the tea leaves is that this period of quarantine and self-distancing won’t have lifted by then,” he said.

While the future is uncertain, Temple Emanuel has begun to explore using “the virtual space” for its annual second night seder and is looking at the possibility of creating “a seder in a box” for those who had signed up for the congregation’s event, according to Meyer.

The idea of a “seder-to-go” kit has already been embraced by Chabad of Squirrel Hill.

“We’ve been doing a community seder on the first night of Pesach for 10 years or more,” Rabbi Yisroel Altein explained. “Last year we drew more than 150 people.”

Many of those who attend the community seder don’t have a family to celebrate the holiday with or are unaffiliated, according to Altein.

The rabbi still hopes that Chabad of Squirrel Hill, like Chabad centers throughout the country, will be able host a community event. If a seder is impossible, Altein said it’s his job to “make sure people are able to have a seder.”

To that end, like Chabad International, Chabad of Squirrel Hill will make available to the community, free of charge “seder-to-go” kits that will include items needed to observe Passover.

“People who don’t have a family and are living alone, it’s going to be difficult. So, we wanted to provide something for everyone so they can experience a seder properly,” said Altein.

The not-for-profit Giving It Forward Together (GIFT) has been assisting seniors in the region experience Passover since 2015.

“I had thought about elderly individuals in senior centers or assisted living that weren’t able to celebrate Passover,” explained GIFT founder Rochel Tombosky. “If you’re not Jewish in an assisted living home, you’re able to celebrate Christmas or Thanksgiving, but if you’re Jewish you’re not able to celebrate Passover. I thought that was unacceptable.”

GIFT handed out 70 Passover to Go kits its first year. Last year it distributed 250. This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic and a greater need, it will distribute 300.

One aspect that is different this year is that volunteers will not be able to talk to seniors as they deliver their kits. Instead, they’ll simply drop off the packages at the front desk of the various residences or leave them on front porches. The deadline to sign up for a Passover to Go kit is April 1, and the kits will be reserved on a first-come first-served basis.

For those forced to change seder plans or spend Passover alone this year, the familiar refrain of hope at the seder’s conclusion, “next year in Jerusalem,” might simply be “next year together.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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