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Passover during a pandemic: How Jews continue to maintain our sense of community

*Editor’s note: Lea Loeb is a journalism student in SF State’s Journalism 575 Community Media this spring. Taught by professor Jon Funabiki, the class is a collaboration with El Tecolote.

Although I’ve never considered myself to be particularly religious, Passover has always been one of my favorite times of the year. I grew up in an interfaith home celebrating both Christian and Jewish holidays, so my family was one of those that ate latkes while decorating a Christmas tree and made matzo ball soup while dying Easter eggs. 

Despite my family’s uniquely blended traditions, there’s always been something about Passover that has resonated with me—perhaps because it is one of the most quintessential Jewish experiences. 

Passover is the most widely celebrated Jewish holiday. While only 23 percent of Jews reported that they went to religious services at least once a month, 70 percent of Jews (both religious and secular) reported that they attend a seder every Passover. 

In a nutshell, Passover (or Pesach in Hebrew) is an eight-day long holiday in which Jews commemorate the liberation of our ancestors, the Israelites, from enslavement in ancient Egypt by having a seder, a ritual meal in which symbolic foods are consumed in a specific order. 

“It’s a holiday where Jews are accustomed to gathering in large groups and it’s easiest for people to connect with one another that way,” said Rabbi Abby Phelps, the Rabbi Educator at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. 

But this year, the holiday fell during the height of COVID-19, leaving Jews to navigate the unprecedented circumstances of celebrating a communal holiday while social distancing. 

Illustration: Lea Loeb

“It’s a celebration of freedom, and that can be a challenging thing to figure out how to engage with when our freedoms are restricted,” said Rabbi Phelps. “Even though our freedoms are not restricted in the authoritarian manner that they were for our ancestors, we feel restricted nonetheless—and it’s very difficult figuring out how to reconcile with that.” 

There would be no large synagogue services or seders with extended family; instead, millions of Jews turned to video conferencing platforms like Zoom and Google Hangouts to virtually come together and retell the story of Passover from the Book of Exodus. 

The story chronicles how the prophet Moses advocated against the Pharaoh of ancient Egypt for the Israelites’ freedom. When the Pharaoh refused to let them go, God sent forth 10 plagues upon the land: blood, frogs, bugs, beasts, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the slaying of the firstborn. The Pharaoh finally granted the Israelites freedom, so they quickly fled East and in their haste left without waiting for their bread to rise. God parted the Red Sea so Moses could lead the Israelites across to safety, then they wandered the desert to the Holy Land and along the way, God gave them Jewish law—the 10 Commandments at Mount Sinai and 603 more laws that make up the Torah. 

It’s a narrative that is deeply ingrained in Jewish culture and teaches values that over four millennia have become core Jewish beliefs—the need to stand up for equality, to pursue justice and advocate for the rights of the marginalized. So in such a time of uncertainty and fear, when it felt imperative for people to take care of one another, for many the seder had to go on. 

For the members of my synagogue, Congregation Sherith Israel, not having a seder was never really an option. The event is an annual fundraiser for two organizations, Chicken Soupers and HaMotzi, which benefit adults and children in need of food. 

The congregation began streaming Friday night Shabbat services and Saturday evening Havdalah ceremonies several weeks prior, so the transition from an in-person celebration to a virtual seder was relatively seamless. On Thursday, April 9, 124 families came together via Zoom for a second night seder led by Rabbi Jessica Graf, Cantor David Frommer and Rabbi Abby Phelps. 

Savannah Lira (left) raises her glass for the second blessing of the wine during Congregation Sherith Israel’s Zoom seder. Lira is Lea Loeb’s roommate. This was her first time experiencing a seder. Photo: Lea Loeb

For many of us participating, it was our first time preparing a seder by ourselves, for ourselves. We made due with what was available: disposable paper seder plates, online haggadahs and crafty substitutions when certain foods were nowhere to be found. I frantically texted my mother for the secrets to her matzo ball soup, a recipe that normally would serve 6-8 people, but this year would only fill two bowls—mine and my non-Jewish roommate’s. I chopped up apples and walnuts for the charoset in a lonely kitchen, which under any other circumstances would have been crowded with family and friends, but in the moment held only me and my memories of previous Passovers. 

Natalie Weizman, the youth program manager at Congregation Sherith Israel, tried her hand at making matzo balls for the first time. Weizman, whose family is Morrocan, had to resort to having an Ashkenazi or European-style seder rather than following the Morrocan traditions that are customary for her family. 

“It was easier to find matzo ball mix, even though Moroccans don’t eat matzo balls, rather than try and have a lamb or find turmeric,” Weizman said. “There are certain things, like the charoset, that were just easier to do Ashkenazi style, so it was new for me.” 

Rabbi Phelps, who lives alone, organized a seder on the first night of Passover but did not make a traditional meal for herself. She had matzah, but decided that since she was leading the prayers she would let others be the ones to have a proper seder plate and she would enjoy the meal vicariously through them. 

“It really got me in touch with how Passover is about the people, not the food,” said Rabbi Phelps. “The nicely set table is secondary to reading and laughing with people I don’t get to see on a normal basis.” 

Weizman felt that the large seder put on by Congregation Sherith Israel just wouldn’t feel the same as previous years, so she hosted her own small seders instead, celebrating with her boyfriend (whom she lives with) and nine Lambda Chi Mu sorority members over Zoom. 

Despite the chaos of the coronavirus, spirits were high during the seders. Participants laughed and cracked jokes. Preschool teacher Chloé Erdan lightheartedly likened Lysol disinfectant spray to lamb’s blood as protection against the pandemic. Sarah Henighan, a middle school english teacher, joked that she was about to make a Paschal sacrifice to ward off the final plague, as both her husband and son are firstborn children. The more superstitious of the group examined biblical parallels and expressed how strange it felt to be experiencing Passover during a pandemic that so closely resembled the plagues listed in our haggadahs. 

“Sheltering in place for Passover feels so symbolic,” said Weizman. 

Other participants like Fallon Renard, who lives in Tel Aviv, and Hayley Yoskowitz, who lives in New Orleans, expressed gratitude for the opportunity to gather virtually since it allowed them to connect with friends and family who they otherwise would not have been able to celebrate with due to physical distance. 

“One of the most important things to know right now is that by cooperating with the request that we shelter in place, we’re not just protecting ourselves but others as well,” said Rabbi Phelps. “That is holy work; it’s a spiritual act, a moral act. Just by living our lives right now we are all doing holy work, even in the midst of all the craziness.” 

Although this Passover was different from years past and we were unable to celebrate in the ways in which we normally would, the essence of the holiday remained the same as it has for thousands of years. 

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