Jewish Montrealers vow to celebrate Passover with 'same joy' despite COVID-19 restrictions
Celebration of the flight from slavery is about adapting to circumstance, says Rabbi Lisa Grushcow
For tens of thousands of Jewish Montrealers, Passover, which begins at sundown this evening with the traditional seder meal, will be nothing if not memorable, as Quebec has banned all gatherings. Even for major religious holidays.
But Passover, a time in which older community members share the story of the Jews' exodus from Egypt and their escape from oppression to freedom, has always been about change and adaptation, said Rabbi Lisa Grushcow of Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Westmount.
"The seder manages to be both timely and timeless," said Grushcow. "It manages to change and still tell the same story."
This year, Jewish congregations — as well as Christians preparing for Easter on Sunday and Muslims who will begin observing Ramadan on April 23 — will have to adapt their religious practices in ways few have ever done in recent memory.
Montreal has the second-largest Jewish community in Canada, according to Federation CJA, a non-profit organization devoted to preserving and strengthening Jewish life.
Observant Jews gather with members of their extended family for meals over the eight-day holiday — something strictly forbidden during this pandemic, when any indoor or outdoor gatherings risk further spreading the novel coronavirus.
But Jewish Montrealers are rising to the occasion.
Grushcow's synagogue is holding an online seder service, using Zoom. MADA Community Center, which offers social and crisis services, is packing 121 boxes with all the ingredients for a seder meal for people in isolation and in need.
Rabbi Yechezkel Freundlich of the Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem says the synagogue has organized a "kindness committee" for community members, which will drop off seder plates including all of the key symbols and food. The synagogue is also holding its classes over Zoom.
Freundlich said the community should celebrate their freedom even in this difficult time.
"We need to celebrate the holiday with the same joy that we always do, even though it's so difficult," he said.
But will it be a true seder?
A traditional seder meal follows an intricate set of rules, replicating key elements of the original story of the Jews' hurried flight from Egypt.
In some ways, Grushcow said, this year's seder will be more reflective of that original story.
"The irony of Passover is, we connect it with all of these great and laboriously prepared foods," Grushcow said.
"The initial Passover was a meal that was eaten on the go. That's why we have matzo, which is flat — the bread didn't have time to rise."
Jewish leaders like those in the Rabbinical Assembly have counselled congregations and families on how to observe certain Jewish laws in light of the pandemic — for instance, allowing hand sanitizer to be used.
The most important Jewish law, says Grushcow, is preservation of life.
That's why most Jewish leaders are urging people to respect physical-distancing restrictions and stay at home, as much as possible.
Older community members an inspiration
For Rachel Goodman, a member of Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem, the hardest part of this Passover week is knowing that her mother will be alone in Toronto, far from Goodman and her family of five.
"We enjoy being together. We celebrate. It's very lively — lots of singing," Goodman said. "Now we're going to be just the five of us, which is rather strange."
Still, she's thankful to have her immediate family around her, since many elderly Jewish Montrealers will be forced to spend Passover alone.
Goodman said it's important to remind older members of the Jewish community that they inspire the younger generations.
"Most of them have been through a lot more than we have — a lot more than we are right now," Goodman said.
"If we give them the opportunity to inspire us, and be the example for us, maybe that will give them motivation to feel stronger and less alone."
With files from Antoni Nerestant