Celebrating Passover During a Pandemic

“Passover has many messages. Among them is a message of the importance of relationships: relationships amongst family, community, the Jewish people, humanity, and between us and God.” Quote from Rabbi Andrew Busch, pictured above in blue shirt. Bottom right: Rabbi Chesky Tennenbaum, director of Jewish Uniformed Service Association of Maryland.

Rabbi Nochum “K” Katsenelenbogen of Chabad of Owings Mills usually welcomes about 150 people for the Passover seder. Needless to say, this year, things will be different.

“Oh boy, my life has changed a lot due to this latest craziness … though, we are stronger and [more] connected than ever,” he said. “These are amazing times we are living in.”

The COVID-19 crisis has closed schools, synagogues, and community centers. Now, with Passover right around the corner, the community has had to adjust to yet another disruption. So how is the Baltimore Jewish community handling Passover during the COVID-19 pandemic? Many synagogues are finding the answer in the digital age, while families plan smaller and more intimate seders than they may have had in the past.

Many non-Orthodox synagogues like Baltimore Hebrew Congregation are hosting seders on Zoom or other online platforms. “Passover has many messages, among them is a message of the importance of relationships: relationships amongst family, community, the Jewish people, humanity, and between us and God,” BHC Rabbi Andrew Busch said. “The closest of those relationships are best experienced in person, around the same seder table. However, we can never all be around one table. So this year, online and through our hearts, we will connect with each other, in relationships born of history and hope. We may not sit right next to one another, but we will be together.”

Community organizations are participating in the trend, too. The Edward A. Myerberg Center, for example, will hold a seder April 6 at 10:55 a.m. through Zoom, open to the households of the first 20 members who sign up by contacting Myerberg. Prior to the seder, staff will drop off bags with a seder plate, kosher wine, a box of matzah, shirts, and a cookbook in front of members’ homes. Children from Krieger Schechter Day School will participate by singing the Four Questions.

Families are making unique memories as well this year.

“If we do anything, it will be at our home, and we always fill our home with all of our family, about 10 to 15 people,” said Marc Shuster, founder of MJS Financial Group LLC in Timonium.

Shuster said he is used to a little chaos around Passover. “My family waits until the last minute anyway,” he said with a chuckle. This year, though, things are especially unpredictable.

Even before the stay-at-home order, he had told his parents he didn’t want to see them at Passover this year. “Even if I’m asymptomatic, it raises the [risk] as far as what you last did,” he explained. Schuster said his biggest concern right now is people thinking they don’t have it when they might just be asymptomatic, so he feels confident about his decision. “If everything clears up, I’m sure we will get together in my home and celebrate it.”

Jeremy Silbert, Baltimore Police Department public information officer, is going to have a special seder.

“My wife Jill and I are very excited for Passover,” Silbert said. “Our son is 7 months old, so this will be his first seder.”

His family’s tentative plan is for their intended guests to participate in their individual homes. They will all create similar Haggadahs to read from. Everyone will set the table with plates, silverware, and … a computer. As they read from the Haggadahs and enjoy their meals, they will livestream the seder to share the moment.

There is one humorous upside to it, Silbert pointed out. “This will be the first year that we have a mute button during the meal,” he quipped.

Baltimore Police Department Public Information Officer Jeremy Silbert with his wife Jill, their son, and the family dog. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Silbert.

Dori Henry, Baltimore County director of communications, is also planning a virtual seder.
“My cousins and I actually did a happy hour Zoom last night,” she said. They are working out how to move their annual Passover gathering of about 20 online as well.

This unusual experience presents some positives, she said. “The one nice thing about that is we may have families who are not in town able to participate,” she said.

Having a virtual seder, though, is not an option for everyone, and some people are making a seder alone for the first time. Chabad houses are preparing “seder-to-go” kits. Rabbi Chesky Tenenbaum, director of the Jewish Uniformed Service Association of Maryland and a Chabad rabbi, hosted a video conference class on how to make your own seder April 2. Usually, a law enforcement and military seder takes place at the JUSA Center, but that won’t be happening this year.

“Especially during these times [it’s important] to make sure our brave men and women in uniform have what they need to be able to celebrate Passover with their families,” Tenenbaum said.

Iris Miller, a member of Suburban Orthodox Congregation Toras Chaim, and her family have experienced a number of changes to their plans.

First, her family was going to go to Israel to visit her son, as they do every year. Then, slowly, it looked like Tel Aviv was going to have a lot of shutdowns so they figured they would just celebrate in Florida with Miller’s side of the family. Then, slowly, it looked like that wasn’t feasible either so they decided to fly their son home. Then, suddenly, they realized they needed to do it as soon as possible or risk not seeing him at all for some time.

“We ended up, at the last minute … catching a flight,” Miller said. But now her son has to be in quarantine for two weeks. As a mother, she finds it frustrating to not be able to hug her son.

Miller’s sister-in-law lives right around the corner, but now it looks like they won’t even be able to have a seder with her, either.

“We’re so used to having a synagogue to have minyan,” she said. “It’s not even just Passover. It’s every week wanting to go to Shabbat.” Miller said she didn’t want to complain, though. She stays in touch with family and stresses how grateful she is that Baltimore has a Jewish community where she can still find kosher food options despite closures.

Another perk, she said, is that “as a woman we’re used to doing it on our own, but this year everybody is ready to help. My sons have already started to clean, and my husband has been on board. I sent him to the store several times already.”

Her heart only hurts when she thinks of those who won’t have an immediate family to stay by them.

“Whether they’re single or elderly, my heart goes out to the ones who are really on their own,” Miller said.

Baltimore County Councilman Israel “Izzy” Patoka will also be downsizing his usually large seder to just his immediate three-person family this year. While he said he would love to see his family and friends, he is prioritizing his family’s health and safety, and recommends other families be careful, too.

“The best thing you can do for your family is to keep them healthy and keep yourself healthy,” Patoka said.

Like the other families, he is looking on the bright side.

“For me, it’s important to have quality time with my wife and son and quality time enjoying the Jewish tradition.”

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