Why is this Passover different than all other Passovers?

A roundtable discussion with our Greater New Haven rabbis

In March 2020 the COVID virus hit full force, sending the world into turmoil as people were forced to isolate  themselves inside their homes, cut off from families and friends. The effect of the pandemic on the global Jewish community was especially profound when, just a few weeks later, the Passover holiday began and families, whose seder tables were usually brimming with beloved guests, were left vacant.

Now, two years later, the pandemic seems to be waning and many people are once again preparing to welcome families and friends to their seders.

But what will they find? Has the impact of the pandemic left its permanent imprint on Passover? Has the holiday been forever changed?

For insight into how the COVID pandemic has impacted the Passover holiday—and what lessons we can cull from the holiday’s central themes to help us navigate current world events—Shalom New Haven editor Judie Jacobson sat down with four area rabbis for the newspaper’s first ever roundtable discussion. 

SHALOM NEW HAVEN (SNH): Thanks so much for joining us today. Passover, of course, tells the story of the Israelites wandering in the desert and their feeling of being somewhat lost and disoriented. That sense of disorientation is similar to what we’ve all experienced these past couple of years as the COVID pandemic swept through our lives. Now that it appears the pandemic may well be behind us, can we expect the celebration of Passover will return to normal? Do you have a sense that the holiday has been permanently changed? Will it continue to affect the way we interact with one another at the seder and over the holiday? Will it change the mood of Passover?

RABBI BELLOWS: The image of the Israelites and the wilderness is quite apt considering the fact that we don’t exactly know where we’re going as we’re approaching Passover. It has been a really difficult two years of wanting so much to come together as a community. Passover is meant to be celebrated around the table with people, and that has been virtually impossible for many of us.

We just started conversations at our synagogue about what we’re planning on doing this year. Every year we hold an enormous seder that’s open to the community, and we get 75-100 people and it’s a big celebratory event. But we’re not sure if we’re going to be able to do that this year.

Right now the conversation is surrounding the question of whether or not we eat at the synagogue. Right now we’re hoping to have people, but do we have to limit the amount of people so that we can spread out more? Do we have to require vaccinations or negative tests? There are a lot of questions and worries and anxieties that I imagine the Israelites escaping to freedom and wandering through the desert were also filled with. There’s still a lot to come as we search for that Promised Land.

RABBI HECHT: It’s actually very interesting when you think about it; the first lockdown in Jewish history was the night of Passover when the Jewish people left [Egypt]. The verse tells us that the Jews were actually locked down in their homes for their own safety. And so, the fact of the matter is that the real source and place Passover was celebrated in is at home.

When we celebrate Passover we are celebrating our freedom—freedom not necessarily in a physical way, but freedom from those chains that bind us spiritually so that we can grow and develop. That’s true freedom. [This] can happen even today when we are at home and even when we see the world around us with COVID and all kinds of things. We ourselves still have the mandate of being able to leave our personal prison, to leave that which binds us, and elevate ourselves and strengthen ourselves and celebrate personal freedom.

So, I think that’s something to keep in mind. Passover is not only about ‘passing over’—it’s much more than that. When there are ups and downs you are required to jump, to veer you off the path of where you're going and to elevate yourself to the point where you can reach the next level. It’s too high to get there just walking, but with setting yourself up to jump, to go to the next level, to push yourself and to strive for greater heights, that’s what Passover is all about.

Together with friends each one of us really has to take that leap; to jump up, assess where we are in our lives and where we want ourselves to be, and take that leap to the next level. That’s what Passover is all about and we look forward to celebrating that again each year. We relive the excitement, the inspiration and the spirituality of the holiday.

RABBI GREENE: Passover is a core identifying experience in Jewish life. Passover seders are perhaps the second most widely observed Jewish experience of the year. It’s a critical thing for us to do because it's not just any holiday, it’s the retelling of our foundational story. We are the story of an enslaved people who became free and it guides everything that we do.

At Passover, we get together at the seder and we say that every person is supposed to behave and believe as if they themselves are leaving Egypt. So, what does it mean to preserve life, to take care of one another so that we can come together not just this year but in future years, to sit around the seder table and relive that experience to make sure that the next generation of Jewish children come to understand their sacred responsibility to seek and pursue freedom for everyone everywhere?

Part of my experience at camp [Laurelwood] over this past summer was learning how to do that safely and in person. I believe there are ways to do that—where we balance the critical need for preserving life with this very important responsibility to retell this story in a way that passes down that legacy when we come together with family and friends to celebrate Passover.

I want to add that the Passover offering, as we read in the Torah, is not meant to just be eaten by one small group of people but is designed to be shared with the folks who are not just family—folks who are in one’s community. It speaks to the important nature of community, specifically for Passover. So, while I know that each of our communities will respond to that challenge, we will meet the challenge of this moment, and adapt to it differently and in unique ways with all of the intentionality that you can bring to this moment. The Passover offering is something that we do not just in our smaller families but, in whatever way that we meet each other in the moment of the exodus, that we do that in our larger community.

RABBI WOODWARD: There’s a part of me that’s sitting here in February wondering who even knows what's going to be happening on Passover COVID-wise. Part of me is saying the numbers are getting better, so it’s all going to be better…and then there’s part of me that’s saying the numbers are getting better, which means we have nowhere to go but down and it’s all going to be worse. We’re sort of waiting for the other shoe to drop. And I think that feeling of being unsettled has been very much with us the past several years.

But I actually think there is some spiritual wisdom in this experience. One of the big messages of Passover is that we are supposed to see ourselves as going from degradation—sort of loneliness—to praise. There’s this debate that I think is very powerful and that is about this “degradation.” There are two takes on this. One is the fact that we were once slaves and the other is that our ancestors were idol worshippers. We are all very much in touch with both in the last two years. We are feeling lost and hurt and confused, and we’re also in touch with feeling vaccinated and saved and we appreciate the people around us in new ways. Being in touch with those feelings is actually really important for us. Obviously, we usually think that slaves are sort of the thing that we are talking about at Passover, but I also think about the piece about our ancestors being idolators. So, it’s not just about the fact that we were slaves, but there’s this whole story that comes before that; every one of us has a pre-story [that leads] to where we are now.

In March 2020, we felt we were all perfect and life was great, and then this pandemic happened. But we had a lot of other challenges; we had political and social challenges in our country; we had psychological and emotional challenges in our own lives. And so, we can also think about whether we are telling a story of the past two years of pandemic or are we also seeing that as something that fits into our own lives and the ups and downs of those experiences. That’s been hard for us in the long term which I think is something that Passover is trying to get us towards.

Passover is a holiday about political freedom, obviously, and the need to create political freedom and emancipate slaves and things like that. But it’s also about spiritual freedom and liberating ourselves from places we feel trapped. There are moments that we feel trapped in our homes and we feel trapped in Zoom screens and all sorts of things like that, but there is liberation to be found in small beautiful moments of existence. And maybe a prayer for all of us is that we can find some moments of liberation in our seder, whether it’s in the crumbs of the matzah or in the taste of the grape juice or wine that we can really feel something ‘liberatory.’

SNH: Recognizing that the COVID has been very tragic for so many people, it sounds as if you’re all suggesting there might be something positive that we can cull from the pandemic as it relates to Passover. Is that correct?

RABBI BELLOWS: What’s been interesting for those of us who feel comfortable using technology on Pesach is the ability to gather together with people who have otherwise not been able to join us for our seders. It’s forced us to get creative to rethink what a seder can look like.

If you’re home alone or if your family lives across the world or in another country, and you weren’t able to go to someone’s home or to your congregational seder, what would you do? It’s been really special to be able to turn on the computer, as sterile and impersonal as that can often feel, and to enjoy a bowl of matzah ball soup together! This can be very freeing for us in the midst of the narrow place that COVID has created. That's been surprisingly special. And it’s not just true for Passover; during COVID many people who experienced loss would have been prevented from having people at the funeral, were it not for Zoom. It allowed people from all across the world who are close to you to be able to mourn with you. So there have been interesting silver linings to this technology.

RABBI WOODWARD: I think that’s brilliant and I think you are just so right on. It makes me think about how there are things in our lives that have contracted in the last two years and there are things that expanded. Maybe the other rabbis have had experience with this too—where you have a congregation who doesn’t know how to use Zoom or something like that. Oftentimes it’s a generational thing and you never thought ‘Oh, one way I might connect to a senior is by teaching them on the phone how to use Zoom.’ but it is and that’s beautiful.

The roundtable participants include (pictured from left to right):
Rabbi Marci Bellows of the Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek in Chester, Rabbi James Greene, executive director of Camp Laurelwood in Madison; Rabbi Sheya Hecht of Chabad of Orange/Woodbridge; and Rabbi Eric Woodward of Congregation Beth El-Keser Israel in New Haven.

SNH: Switching gears… It appears that Russia may indeed invade Ukraine. [NOTE: This interview was conducted just prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There are many Jews living in Ukraine today; many are torn between fleeing the country they love or staying put. Of course, this—the exodus— is yet another theme of the Passover holiday. What can we learn from the Passover story that relates to the plight of our brothers and sisters in Ukraine right now? How can we help them?

RABBI HECHT- Chabad has institutions throughout Russia and same throughout Ukraine, and there are many discussions regarding this crisis on various websites. Rabbis in the Ukraine thought it would be best to try to give them places to go if they felt they wanted to leave; but if some felt that they would try to stick it out, then we would support them with whatever we can in terms of physical needs, social needs, etc.

Clearly, it’s something that is frightening for the Jewish people because they say Jews are the first ones to get it whenever something like this happens. I don’t know if that will happen, but certainly the fear and the worry is there. We must help and support those in Ukraine in any way possible. There are campaigns going on to collect donations and to help with items like food and shelter, etc. I think that’s what we can do. We can send support to our brothers and sisters, as we have throughout history.

RABBI GREENE: I think that often from our place of privilege we think about what is it that other people need and how can we provide that to them. I think that comes from a place of deep kindness and deep belief in the humanity of others.

The story we learn from Pesach, and what triggers the beginning of the exodus narrative, is the crying out from the Israelites who are in Egypt. I actually think that’s what we should be listening for, we should be listening for voices in the Ukrainian Jewish community, and we should be looking for how we can be supportive to them in the way in which they would like our support. We should allow them to lead that conversation and we should, as Rabbi Hecht said, stand ready to be supportive in whatever way emerges for them.

If folks in the Ukrainian Jewish community want to stay, we should be supportive of that and we should be bringing the resources that they are asking for to support that. And if there are Jews in the Ukrainian Jewish community who want to leave, I would advocate that we listen to that crying out as well and support that in whatever way we can, with all the resources that we can bring to there. Not just because they are Jews but because they are humans who are in the pathway of suffering. And that we understand from our place in the world, not just from the exodus story but from other moments when the Jewish community has been ‘otherized’ and suffered. That experience, that feeling, is deep in our bones and because of that we have a special obligation to respond by taking a rights-based approach, saying, “ You have these basic human rights let us help you stand up and gain access to those rights in the ways in which we are best able to do.”

RABBI BELLOWS: These are beautiful and thoughtful answers. It’s really making all the gears turn regarding what is the best approach both for us from the outside and for our brothers and sisters within the Ukraine. It reminded me of Operation Moses—the airlift of Ethiopian Jews from the Sudan in the mid 80s to Israel. We have a history in modern times of swooping in quite literally and saving those who need to be saved from destruction, from war, from persecution of any kind. Moses! What a beautiful name to give an operation! To give it that title really does show us how meaningful this story of exodus always is.

In putting myself in the shoes of the Ukrainian Jewish community—and of everybody really—the question we have had to ask ourselves way too many times is when do we leave? Even for some of us in America, there have been times over the last few years when we’ve said to ourselves “Is it safe to be Jewish in America right now?” And “When do we leave?” I made sure my son had a passport just in case, and I don’t think that was being alarmist, I think that was being smart. I think back to my great grandfather who always had a suitcase packed in his closet, ready to go at anytime.

I think it’s something sadly that Jewish people have had in our history for thousands of years: a feeling of not being welcome where we are, of being prepared to go. It’s actually quite reassuring and heartwarming to know that, as Rabbi Greene said, should the community or members of the community decide it is time to go, there are supports set up for them across the world should they make that choice.

RABBI GREENE: I would add one other piece to this, which is that we’re really fortunate in the Jewish world that we have organizational leaders and experts and resources to bring to this conversation: folks from the JDC, from the Jewish Federation, who are leading that conversation. I would just voice appreciation and gratitude that there are resources that are being used in our community, not just in this moment but in every moment, to ensure that we are ready to face that challenge when it arises.

RABBI WOODWARD: You know, I don’t know what’s going to happen with Russia and Ukraine right now, but what I do imagine is people are scared out there right now and I think all of us, as clergy, are used to talking to people about their fears. Also, if you're a person who has experienced displacement or trauma or war before, and that’s something in your background that is sort of triggering fears or traumatic stress right now, we are all here to talk to you if you need help.

SNH: Well, I want to thank you all for taking part in this important conversation and for your continued guidance in times of trouble and stress. This roundtable discussion was a first for Shalom New Haven and I’m sure it won’t be our last.

We wish you all a Chag Pesach Sameach!

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