Spiritual leaders offer perspectives on Passover 2021
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COVID-19Passover 2021

Spiritual leaders offer perspectives on Passover 2021

The holiday is going to look different, but don't give up on hope

Matza and Passover Haggadah. Photo by Inna Reznik via iStockphoto.com
Matza and Passover Haggadah. Photo by Inna Reznik via iStockphoto.com

Seder participants annually retell the same story, but the Exodus narrative may be more personal this year. After a 12-month stretch of pandemic restrictions, communal losses and the development and distribution of vaccines, local spiritual leaders are encouraging people to connect with Passover’s messages of freedom and hope.

Rabbi Barbara Symons, of Temple David in Monroeville, is emphasizing the latter.

“Whether we are sitting at the table in person with others or via Zoom, we are celebrating our past redemption and looking toward a future redemption by opening the door for Elijah,” said Symons. “Even if Elijah is not waiting on the doorstep, we continue on with our seder and on with our work repairing our world.”

Leading up to the holiday, Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt, of Temple Ohav Shalom in Allison Park, has urged congregants to “not just tell what’s in the Haggadah, but to tell your story.”

Current losses of freedom — albeit far different from slavery — can help Haggadah readers imagine themselves fleeing Egypt, and help frame concepts of redemption, according to Weisblatt.

“We need to always look forward,” he said, but added, “I don’t think we can go through this holiday without acknowledging what we’ve been through.”

Prior to recently joining Kesher Pittsburgh as co-spiritual leader, Sara Stock Mayo spent years in public communal service. When the pandemic reduced opportunities to connect with others in person, Mayo focused on looking inward. That ruminative process, which she described as “clearing out the spiritual chametz,” offered insight.

“There are lots of things in our culture in general that we need to look at differently,” said Mayo. Whether it’s innovating Jewish communal life or advancing spirituality, there’s room for future improvements — and although it’s difficult to envision what comes next, there’s also value in appreciating the present, she said.

Because of COVID-19, people now dwell in a “narrow space,” said Mayo, which sheds light on the Passover story, the experience of the Jewish people in Egypt, the meaning of the seder plate and the Haggadah’s questions — specifically why this night is different from all other nights.

Matzah and a mask. Image by Liudmila Chernetska via iStockphoto.com

Rabbi Ron Symons, of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh’s Center for Loving Kindness, is encouraging people to focus on personal growth and safety.

“This year, don’t rush to a premature freedom,” he said. “Continue to protect yourself in your social distancing, mask wearing and hand washing. As urgently as we want to be with other people, like the Israelites so long ago, soon we’ll make our way through the sea and find ourselves at Sinai.”

He touted two Center for Loving Kindness digital events to help foster the holiday spirit. On March 26, Symons and fellow JCC staffer Melissa Hiller will host a pre-Shabbat dinner party with faith leaders from the Sikh, Christian and Islamic communities. On April 2, Symons will join mental health professionals, including Maggie Feinstein, of the 10.27 Healing Partnership; and Geraldine Massey, of the Center for Victims and The Center of Life, Hazelwood, for a Yizkor service memorializing the past year’s diverse casualties.

“We’ve lost lives, work, finances, learning opportunities, innocence and autonomy,” said Ron Symons.

As the holiday approaches, Rabbi Mendy Schapiro, of Chabad of Monroeville, has been thinking about the past year’s losses but also their relationship to the losses experienced thousands of years earlier.

“One thing that’s really interesting is that the original Passover was in quarantine,” said Schapiro. “Back in Egypt, God passed over every home and saved the Jewish people.”

Thousands of years ago, God instructed the ancient Israelites to follow certain holiday guidelines. This year, the Jewish people are again being told to adopt particular Passover measures for safety’s sake, said Schapiro: “We should still drink the wine, eat the matzah and have the seder. It may not be ideal, it may not be a large community seder, but we definitely have to celebrate and be joyous and tell the story of the original Pesach.”

With the holiday rapidly approaching, and a realization that many will be experiencing it in isolation, Schapiro is trying to help area residents celebrate.

“We have close to 60 seder kits prepared for the community,” he said. “We’re offering full dinners for people who are homebound. We’re doing shmurah matzah delivery to 250 people in the eastern suburbs.”

It’s important to remember that providing food this time of year hits at the heart of Passover and a central Haggadah passage, said Schapiro: “All who are hungry should come and eat.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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