British Columbia

'Seder in a Box' nourishes Jewish tradition during COVID-19 Crisis

Congregation Schara Tzedeck has expanding their "Seder in Box" delivery program to include seniors who are physically distancing. Since Passover is such an important holiday in the Jewish community and they don't want anyone to be without the special food and sense of connection.

Vancouver synagogue distributes Passover meals to isolated seniors

Florence Morris, 93, receives a Passover meal outside her home in Vancouver on Tuesday. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Passover, or Pesach, is one of the most significant holidays in the Jewish calendar.

It's a time for families and communities to come together to share traditions, including a Seder feast, to mark Jewish liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt.

But the COVID-19 outbreak means Passover celebrations will be very different this year, with physical distancing  separating families and friends. Seniors in particular find themselves alone as they try to protect their health.

Traditions in a box

Congregation Schara Tzedeck has stepped up to deliver a "Seder in a Box" to isolated seniors. It's an expansion of an annual program run by the Vancouver synagogue to help vulnerable community members. Volunteers deliver a hamper of special foods for a Seder feast, and a copy of the Haggadah, a prayer book used at Seder.

Passover meals kits are assembled in Vancouver Tuesday to bring to vulnerable and physically distanced seniors during COVID-19. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"Although physically we can't be together ... we are still here for one another," say Camille Wenner, executive director of Schara Tzedeck. "Maybe we're not able to pass another a piece of Matzah or share a glass of wine together. But we are here and we want to make sure that everyone feels they are part of our community, no matter where they are in the city."

Powered by donations, volunteers

Donations from the community funded hamper supplies which must meet strict "kosher for Passover" requirements. Wenner says COVID-19 restrictions means ingredients are harder to come by this year, and more expensive. Maple Grill stepped up with catering services and volunteers came together at the synagogue on April 7 to pack the hampers for delivery in time for the start of Passover on Wednesday.

Physical distancing requirements meant the assembly team had to be smaller than usual, and everyone wore masks and gloves. But that didn't dampen the spirits of longtime volunteer Howard Kallner.

"It's an amazing feeling to see all of this food being laid out and packaged," said Kallner, who is also the synagogue president. "In this awful time ... it's been really great to see the outpouring of people wanting to help others."

Camille Wenner, executive director of Congregation Schara Tzedeck, delivers one of 350 Passover meals sent across Vancouver Tuesday. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Alone at Passover, but still connected

Volunteer drivers fanned out across Vancouver to deliver 350 meals to 215 households.

Florence Morris, 93, will be spending her first Passover alone this year. The "Seder in a Box" will help her carry on traditions with her family from afar when she connects online for a Seder feast.

"It's the one time of the year that I'm absolutely vehement about all the children coming together," says Morris, who always travels to Toronto to join her son's family. "But of course, not this year. It's not safe."

Morris usually travels to Toronto to be with her son's family at Passover, but that's not possible this year. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

The situation hadn't completely sunk in when her hamper arrived, which she described as "lovely."

"It's kind of surreal," says Morris. "It's like it's not happening because I'm not cooking, I'm not baking. I'm not setting the table for 20 people and I'm not in Toronto helping my daughter-in-law making the gefilte fish and helping her get ready for Seder."

Morris, who was adamant about making a generous donation to the program to help make sure anyone who needed a hamper could receive one, looks forward to connecting her family through technology — and tradition — in these difficult times.

"I think that continuity of this is what holds us together. I really think so."

Listen to Margaret Gallagher's report on On the Coast