Philly’s Passover Plans Change in Wake of COVID-19

Shelley Ducker used props to reenact the plague of darkness during a past Passover seder. This year, she will not hold a large gathering due to the coronavirus.
Shelley Ducker used props to reenact the plague of darkness during a past Passover seder. This year, she will not hold a large gathering due to the coronavirus. (Courtesy of Shelley Ducker)

Shelley Ducker takes the 10 plagues seriously during her Passover seders.

“We once put brown paper bags over people’s heads to simulate darkness,” the Bethesda, Maryland, resident said. “We’ve had as many as 35 people crammed in my dining room.”

This year, however, has required a change of plans. With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing people to adopt social distancing and large gatherings banned in many states, celebrating the most widely observed holiday on the Jewish calendar has become a lot more complicated.

“It’s going to be a much lonelier time for many people,” said Rabbi Aaron Gaber of Congregation Brothers of Israel in Newtown. “But part of the optimism of Judaism is even in our darkest moments, there is hope for the future. 9/11 happened right in the middle of the High Holidays, and we still celebrated.”

Gaber said a later celebration would also be possible.

“There is the option of Pesach Sheni, which is a biblical holiday,” he explained. “If someone was not ritually pure to offer a sacrifice on Pesach, they could do it a month later.”

While social distancing means that people will only be able to celebrate in person with those they already live with, technology like Zoom, Skype and FaceTime will allow some families to connect with relatives they will not be able to visit this year.

“To not have a great big Golder-Saft seder is a big deal for our family” said Ellyn Saft, former secretary of the board of directors of Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. “We usually have anywhere from 22 to 32 people. My father, Bob Golder, likes to brag that he’s led the seder since he was 13 and he is 89 now.”

This year, the Saft family will hold a virtual seder on Zoom. Her son, Jonathan, helped some of their older relatives learn how to use the video conference technology so they will have no issues connecting with the rest of the family when the holiday starts.

Saft, who lives in Bryn Mawr, said she prepared her soup and kosher meats ahead of time and is storing them in her freezer. “I am absolutely planning on setting my table with a beautiful cloth and good dishes and the seder plate and making it special. I am absolutely making this night different from all other nights.”

She noted that Jews have often had to be flexible in their celebrations during troubled times in past generations. “Moses didn’t have Zoom, FaceTime or teleconferencing,” she said. “We thank God we live in 2020 and have technology at our fingertips.”

Conservative Rabbi Alana Suskin of Rockville, Maryland said technology use on the holiday is a hot topic among Conservative and Orthodox rabbis right now.

“We’re thinking, what options are open to us? Is there something like Zoom you can just leave on?” she said. “I know that in more liberal ends of the spectrum where people are not as concerned with halachic requirements, this technology is OK. For people who are more committed to halacha, it’s a bit more complicated.”

Suskin said that those who will not be able to connect using technology will need to focus on deriving meaning from religious rituals, which can be more difficult without the joy of a family gathering.

“Passover itself is a holiday that celebrates a pivotal moment in our development as a people and religion. With oppression and plague and all the terrible things we faced, we lived through those and came out stronger,” she said.

According to Rabbi Howard Cove of Beiteinu Synagogue, rituals can also be altered to make the festive meal safer for those who are eating together.

“Each person should have their own seder plate, with a communal one for show. Rather than having three full matzah squares, break them into smaller pieces for each person. You could also have individual afikomens rather than a shared one,” he said. “If I’m leading the seder, I’m spending a little extra time washing hands. Everyone should be washing their hands throughout the seder this year.”

For those concerned about obtaining celebratory kosher foods, Rabbi Adam Zeff of Germantown Jewish Centre says there is more flexibility than people realize.

“As long as we have a little bit of matzah, we’ll be able to celebrate,” he said. “The mitzvah of eating matzah takes place on the first and second nights of the seder. The rest of the holiday requires ignoring chametz.”

Zeff also pointed out that many people in his community have started eating kitniyot — rice and legumes — during Passover, which is usually more common in Sephardi communities.

“This is not chametz; it is just not traditionally eaten by Ashkenazim during the holiday. I would encourage people to do that this year if they have concerns about obtaining kosher food,” Zeff said.

“People think about horseradish as bitter herbs, parsley as karpas, but you can use substitutes — potatoes, vegetables, things that grow out of the earth,” he added.

Zeff will hold a Zoom service on the first night of Passover to provide instruction to those who find themselves hosting or celebrating alone for the first time. He said the coronavirus crisis provided a lot of food for thought about the holiday’s meaning.

“Traditionally, we interpreted the blood on the door posts to represent our willingness to identify as Jews, and that is what saved us. But families also had to pool their resources to obtain lambs for sacrifice, so maybe this meant something else — that pooling our resources is the thing that saved us,” he said.

Ducker and her family were planning to celebrate the holiday in Jerusalem, but will now celebrate with immediate family in their home.

“For me, people have energy,” Ducker said. “When we don’t have guests, we’re all in our sweats, and there’s a little less formality. The trick is going to be to try to find the joy and energy in a smaller group and have the discipline to bring the creativity just for ourselves.”

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