READERS PLEASE NOTE: This article was published
COVID-19 has made holiday celebrations a problem to solve — but this week, Jewish-Canadians are getting creative
As physical distancing guidelines keep families from gathering for the foreseeable future, Jewish-Canadians are getting creative when it comes to celebrating Passover this week.
Normally, families, schools, and synagogues around the world would be preparing elaborate dinners, called seders, and gatherings. However, as the coronavirus pandemic continues, these gatherings have become unsafe. Last week, the Ontario government invoked an emergency order prohibiting gatherings of more than five people. Jewish communities are now turning to technology to aid in honouring the holiday.
“We’re going to set up a Passover Zoom for all 60 people we normally have at our seder,” said Noah Zweig, a Ryerson graduate, whose family will be virtually hosting.
Passover is one of the most important holidays in the Jewish calendar, commemorating the struggle of the biblical Israelites to escape slavery in Egypt. The seder is comprised of prayers, storytelling and symbolic foods, including matzo. Traditionally, Jewish people abstain from eating anything that contains wheat or similar products for the duration of the holiday, a practice that symbolizes the haste with which their ancestors had to escape — without even time to let their bread rise.
On March 20, the Toronto Board of Rabbis released a statement discouraging large seders. “Passover Seders should only be celebrated with the members of one’s immediate household … this will be a heartbreaking reality and a major disruption for many,” they wrote. “There are many wonderful ways to celebrate Passover, even as we limit human contact.”
Video conferencing apps like Zoom and Google Meet have helped people stay connected as physical distancing guidelines become more widespread, and seem to be the most popular solution to these woes. Sherry Wolfe, a Judaic studies teacher at the Gray Academy of Jewish Education in Winnipeg is using Google Meet with her colleagues to coordinate a virtual seder for all of her students and their families. She’s expecting more than 400 attendees.
The Gray Academy seder will include slide references, explanatory videos and live music by Wolfe and her colleagues. “It’s a multimedia extravaganza!” she said.
Food is a significant part of the seder, which presents a problem for the virtual proceedings. “In the invitation, we said to the families, if you can have matzo in front of you, some grape juice in a wine glass, to kind of simulate [the experience],” said Wolfe, who has been teaching for over 30 years. “Because we would usually set the table, right?”
While getting traditional food to 400 households might be a struggle, families with smaller attendance lists are finding ways to recreate the shared feast. “We’re planning to do a Zoom session with a shared screen…and hopefully divide up our cooking and disperse out portions to each family’s doorstep,” said Josh Glow, whose Winnipeg family is coordinating their own virtual seder. Whether or not home cooked food can be safely shared without putting family members at risk is a concern. Glow says his mother thinks it may be too dangerous.
Even acquiring the food for the seder may prove difficult this year, as grocery stores limit the number of people allowed inside and some staple ingredients become scarce. “We haven’t even gone Passover grocery shopping,” said Megan Seligman, a second-year master of journalism student at Ryerson. “We usually do that two weeks ahead in my neighbourhood because everything is sold out. I genuinely have no idea if we’re going to be able to get kosher for Passover things.”
“I think it’s worth all the effort,” said Glow. “We need to find ways to adapt and the holidays are an important time of year … for some relatives we don’t see frequently from out of town, this will be a special occasion.”
“I think it can be very isolating in this time,” said Seligman. “So if you are going to do a Zoom call and see your extended family that you haven’t spoken to since the pandemic started it’s so important, especially now, in this kind of strange and unusual time, to make that effort.”