By Louise Rachlis
‘Guess what we got in the mail today!” enthused my daughter Naomi in Brampton over FaceTime. “PJ Library Haggadahs!”
The child-friendly sets of Haggadahs sent to PJ Library families were particularly welcome this year as everyone is faced with a different kind of at-home seder because of COVID-19.
Instead of joining us and other relatives in Ottawa, my daughter’s seder will be just the four of them, like many nuclear families having seders without extended family members and friends.
Devora and Joseph Caytak have 12 children, nine of them married, and “many, many more grandchildren,” so they are accustomed to large seders.
“Everyone is – thank God – OK,” she said, “but one of my married daughters and son-in-law did get the virus in New York and had a rough week. They are OK now, but this virus is a very nasty thing. We have children all around the world, and everyone is staying in their own city, except our three single children.”
“We will never have had such a small Pesach,” she said. “These are really unprecedented times. We are trying to look at the positive side of things and want to give ourselves a positive report card at the end of all of this.”
Since everyone is home, Devora said, we have more time to focus on the spiritual side of things, “prayer, mitzvot, and tzedakah.”
“At its core, Passover is about family,” said Rabbi Daniel Mikelberg of Temple Israel. “We each have memories of seders past with our loved ones. Typically, there are our favourite foods, our beloved melodies, and a little bit of chaos. This year our seders will be especially unique as we’re confined to our own homes with our nuclear families.
“For many this is disappointing,” said Rabbi Mikelberg. “It’s not the type of seder we’re craving. And yet, we’re called to do the best that we can to have full Passover experiences, just a little quieter than years past.
“This may be a chance for us to experiment leading a seder for the first time. There are loads of materials online, and the rabbis of our community are preparing resources to build us up. We can also creatively use technology to join our loved ones from afar. Our seders conclude with the words of hope, ‘L’shana haba’ah b’Yerushalyim (Next year in Jerusalem).’ May the seders of 2020 be fun and meaningful, and may our seders of 2021 return to normalcy,” added Rabbi Mikelberg.
In the weeks leading up to Passover, Rabbi Idan Scher of Congregation Machzikei Hadas was collecting ideas on “how to create a feeling of togetherness with our loved ones even without being physically together.”
Machzikei Hadas has distributed those ideas via email and on social media. “Prior to Pesach, family members should send written Haggadah insights, stories, words of encouragement and affection to family members for them to open and read at appropriate moments of the seder. Not the same... but maybe the next best thing to being there,” read the first message in the series.
“This is obviously a very difficult time,” said Rabbi Scher, “and we are planning for the eventuality of 90-year-old members of our community having a seder alone for the first time in their lives.”
Machzikei Hadas, he said, “is doing everything we can to ensure that no one feels alone and has what they need for the seder,” he said. “We have been working with Creative Kosher to ensure there are seders-in-a-box for every size seder that will happen this year.”
Rabbi Scher and his wife, Shifra, have assembled a print-at-home seder guide, he added, “with our insights and wishes and directions to make sure everyone knows what they are doing and to share a little bit of ourselves at every seder in Ottawa using our guide.” [Editor’s note: The link to download the guide was not yet available at press time, however it will be added to the online version of this article on the Bulletin website as soon as possible.]
There can be an emotional toll from not celebrating Passover in the normal way.
“Although Passover may be different this year, for many of our clients the holidays are always hard,” said Executive Director Sarah Caspi of Jewish Family Services. “Feeling part of the community is a challenge and finding community seders to have our clients join is important. Bringing holidays to our clients is important and as we venture on in Pesach version COVID19, we will be looking at new ways to provide support,” this year when community seders are not taking place.
During times of crisis, following spiritual traditions becomes even more important, Caspi said.
“Getting together with people allows them to share the anxiety and attain some peace in the process. With social isolation, it is a challenge to have these benefits met. Many of our clients do not belong to any particular shul but seek out the comfort of tradition for the holidays that are celebrated communally. Many are single and don’t have family or friends to support them, or family that lives nearby. Our teams are reaching out to our clients to offer support and ways to virtually celebrate Passover.”
Caspi said the seder question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” will take on a whole new meaning as we prepare ourselves for Passover in the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic.
“Family and community seders, which normally would be a grand festive occasion for the retelling of the Israelite’s Exodus from Egypt, will this year be a much smaller event held in people’s homes with few if any guests. This year as we temporarily put our ability to move more freely around to the side to ensure the safety of others, the answer to why this night will be different from all other nights is ‘Stay at home. Save Lives.’”
Caspi said that however sombre it may be to be isolated from friends, family, support workers and community, “we take great pride in the way communities, both micro and macro, have rallied together to continue to support individuals during this crisis, supporting front line workers for their continued tireless efforts in helping those physically, psychologically and economically affected by COVID19. This Passover we unite to ensure that we are all supported and no one is left behind.”
JFS is working hard to engage with their clients in a variety of creative ways over Passover, Caspi said, with Kosher Meals on Wheels, financial support, and maybe some Zoom group activities.
“Follow us on social media to find out more, and if you know someone who needs support let us know,” she said. JFS can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“My advice this year is to just do your best,” summed up Rabbi Deborah Zuker of Kehillat Beth Israel. “It won’t be perfect, we will miss being with our loved ones, and making a seder can be intimidating if you’re doing it for the first time. Be gentle with yourself. Find helpful resources to help you prepare – whether online, from your Haggadah, or by talking to friends or your rabbi. Then have fun and make it your own!”