Wednesday night is the first night of Passover, and for Jews around the globe it means retelling the ancient story of freedom from slavery from Egypt.
For Jews, orthodox and pious, reform and secular, Passover is one of the most widely celebrated holidays on the Jewish calendar. Even the most liberal-minded Jews who won’t set foot in a synagogue the rest of the year refuse to miss Passover — an eight-day celebration of joy for the liberation from bondage and sorrow for the deaths of the children of their enemies.
At the center of Passover is the Seder, the ritual meal full of symbolism that tells the story of freedom from slavery. At the Seder a text is read that tells the story of how the Jews were enslaved and freed and explains the significance of the Passover foods.
Passover is the time when entire families – from great-grandparents to newborns – sit at the table, retell the story as told in that text, the Haggadah, and ask questions, debate and eat.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, social distancing is forcing Jews to give up the traditional large gathering and big meal.
But religious leaders say extravagance has never been what Passover is all about.
“The tradition says that even if someone’s alone that they should still ask themselves the questions of the Haggadah and ask themselves what it means to be free and what it means to be a recipient of the gift that Passover celebrates,” said Rabbi Adam Raskin of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, Maryland.
Raskin said this year’s unusual circumstances does not leave Jews, in his words, “off the hook” in their obligation to Passover.
“The idea of asking ourselves questions and probing our own thoughts and beliefs and memories is very powerful and obviously the preference is to do it in the context of family and community, but we can still do it in small numbers,” he said.
And for families still planning a Seder, Rabbi Raskin says:
“My advice is to keep it to the essentials and to keep it simple and that it’s OK not to have the lavish expansive Seders that we’re used to and to really focus on the required elements and to reclaim what’s most important about this holiday experience, which is internalizing the story and reciting the parts of our historical memory which is traditional at this time of year.”
The United Jewish Appeal Federation of New York is delivering about 8,000 Seder kits to those the charity calls the hard-hit city’s most isolated and financially vulnerable.
The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews plans to send 75,000 Passover dinners and 130,000 boxes of matzo to elderly and needy in Israel.
According to Rabbi Raskin “the Jewish people have kind of developed an art of being able to persevere even under challenging circumstances. So this is definitely not the first or even the most unprecedented of challenges under which Jews have celebrated Passover.”