'It's going to be radically different': How Sask. Jewish families are celebrating Passover during COVID-19
Saskatchewan Rabbi Avrohom Simmonds says 'this year the focus is on the personal'
Jewish families across the province will begin celebrating Passover, one of the most important holidays in the Jewish calendar, on Wednesday night, but physical distancing requirements mean this year's celebrations will look very different.
"Passover is a very family-oriented holiday," said Rabbi Raphael Kats, the co-director of the Chabad Jewish Discovery Centre in Saskatoon. "You get together with your extended family and your friends. It's one of the highlights of the year, if not the highlight."
The Passover seder — a ritual meal involving many different stories, prayers and types of food — is often celebrated in a large group, with friends, family and community members coming together.
"There's going to be people spending Passover just with their immediate families, and some people are unfortunately going to be spending Passover alone," Kats said. "People who are not used to running a Passover seder are going to be jumping into that head-on for the first time."
This year, with circumstances forcing Jews to celebrate in smaller groups, some rabbis see a resonance with the origins of the holiday itself. The holiday commemorates Jews' exodus from Egypt.
"Going back to the first Passover evening, before the Jewish people left Egypt during Exodus, we were commanded to stay in our own homes with our own families," said Rabbi Avrohom Simmonds, co-director of the Chabad Jewish Centre in Regina. "And this year we're going back to that, where we have each individual family celebrating on their own.
"Sometimes as a nation, you get lost in the communal aspect of it, and this year the focus is on the personal."
Simmonds recognizes the challenges many families will face in putting together a Passover seder this year, but said he is optimistic about what this year's celebrations will mean for Jews around the world.
"This year will have the most individual seders happening around the world all at the same time, which is a rather empowering thought," he said.
Kats, who has been working to support his community through these unusual times, recognizes this year's logistical and spiritual challenges.
"The Passover seder is a very elaborate ritual meal that requires a lot of items and supplies," he said.
"Then there's the fact that the economy is in a downturn right now, so some people can't afford the necessities for the holiday. We've been helping them with those items as well."
To help families prepare for Passover, Jewish congregations and organizations in Saskatchewan have been hosting online tutorials for the ritual elements of the seder, and distributing food and "seder kits" full of materials.
Some synagogues in Saskatchewan — as well as many congregations around the world — will be live-streaming their services so people can attend and participate without leaving their homes.
Rabbi Jeremy Parnes of Beth Jacob synagogue in Regina has already moved some services online.
"Every Friday night for the last couple of weeks, I have been livestreaming Shabbat services from my home," he said.
"The uptake has been great, and it feels good. The feedback has been very positive. So I think people are quite receptive to these things, and I think it's going to be fine."
Parnes has even noticed former congregants asking to join Passover services from as far away as B.C. and the Maritime provinces.
"We are adapting," he said.
"And when this is all over, we'll come together and celebrate and enjoy each other's company."
Simmonds said this is also an opportunity to reconnect with the holiday in meaningful, actionable ways.
"The exodus from Egypt is really about liberating ourselves and becoming better people in times of challenges," he said.
"This is a time where we all need to step out of our comfort zone and reach out to our neighbours, friends and families and make sure that everyone has what they need."