It is Jewish custom for families to invite relatives, friends, and even strangers into their homes for Passover Seders, ritual meals that link present and past, children and elders, during the eight-day holiday that begins April 8.
But like so many things Americans normally count on, that cannot happen during the uneasy time of the coronavirus.
“It’s a very big deal for us that the epidemic is occurring now,” said Benjamin Abella, 49, of Ardmore, an emergency doctor at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania who has been fighting the disease daily. “Passover is one of the most deeply cherished Jewish events. But we’ll be lacking in-person connections with people this year.”
It’s one thing to be compelled to shelter in place on a typical Wednesday with a scuttled schedule and a disrupted work life. It’s quite another to have to forgo the fellowship of dear ones who gather according to revered custom to commemorate the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery.
“To feel like we can’t easily access one another is incredibly jarring and painful for people,” said Rabbi Eric Yanoff, 44, of Adath Israel Synagogue in Lower Merion, where Abella and his wife, Ursina Teitelbaum, 50, an oncologist at Penn, are part of the congregation.
“This is going to be an emotional, extraordinary, and, yes, difficult Passover.”
The holiday has always enjoyed a high level of observance, said Laura Frank, a spokesperson for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, a nonprofit that helps the Jewish community.
“This is a big one," said Frank, who added that typically, celebrants hold one or two nights of Seders. "But it’s not meant for people to flock to the synagogue, like at Rosh Hashanah. It’s meant to be held at home, where you welcome others.”
That will have a different feel this year for Jennie Nemroff, 55, of Wynnewood, a nurse and admissions counselor at Friends’ Central School, a Quaker school in Lower Merion.
In the past, Nemroff and her husband have hosted as many as two dozen people for their home Seder. But without a crowd this year, the family will have to initiate new ways to be together.
Like many planning Passover, she’ll try video chatting with family, including her three grown children. “What I envision is all of us talking remotely with our respective boxes of matzo,” she said. “That will ease the sting.”
Unfortunately, not everyone can take advantage of Zoom or Skype to link up during Passover.
“Many traditional Jews will not use tech on a holiday,” Yanoff said. Others simply aren’t computer savvy. It’s not clear how they’ll deal with empty chairs at the table, he added.
“I’m confident, though,” Yanoff added, that “most Jews will work really hard to do something.”
For his part, Abraham Gafni, 80, a former Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge and an emeritus professor at Villanova University’s Widger School of Law, said he’s willing to try a virtual Seder.
“It’ll be an attempt to create bonding,” he said. “But it’s not the same as interacting at a table. This will be the first time in my lifetime that families will not be getting together."
Because shopping has been fraught and preparing kosher meals won’t be easy for socially isolated people already dealing with kids and a new way to live, businesses like Betty the Caterer are stepping up to fill a void.
Normally, Betty the Caterer provides food for big events — weddings, galas, or bar and bat mitzvahs, said Jeff Kalinsky, director of operations for the 70-year-old North Philadelphia company.
But in light of the coronavirus, Kalinsky’s crew is scaling meals down to smaller sizes, so people can celebrate in the intimate family groups that will be expected this year.
“I figured I’d do 100 meals, and I started taking orders last Tuesday,” Kalinsky said. “But by Thursday, we’d hit 1,000 orders, and I had to cut it off.”
His plan is to deliver the $8 meals to the parking lots of synagogues where people can pick up their orders without leaving their cars.
“Thank God, we’ve never seen anything like this before,” Kalinsky said. “And hopefully, it never again will be.”
As is the Jewish tradition, Seders are not just meals, but religious intellectual salons, with emphasis on steeping youngsters in old values while at the same time encouraging them to question everything they hear.
Beyond that, said Abella, the emergency doctor, “deep in the cultural DNA of Judaism is the practice of turning any group event into a time of wrestling with current topics.”
Connecting ancient stories and teachings with present-day events is expected. Thus, predicted Yanoff, Seder tables next month will reverberate with stories of the so-called 10 plagues, the last of which was a severe punishment from God to the Egyptians for enslaving the Israelites.
On the night before the final plague, the stories go, God instructed the Israelites to shelter in their homes so he could strike down every first-born Egyptian, Yanoff said.
“Gosh,” Abella surmised, “talk about relevant. At Passover Seders all over the world, the immediacy of this coronavirus plague is not going to be lost on anybody.”
For Alan Sheinberg, 74, of Holland, Bucks County, his Seder will likely not buzz with the varied opinions of a family gathering this year. Unable to attend the meal at his daughter’s house, as is his custom, Sheinberg and his wife will huddle and tell the story of the Israelites.
At the end of the Seder, Sheinberg said, “you’re supposed to say to everyone, ‘Next year in Jerusalem,’” a wish for all Jews to be together in the holy city.