Andrea Miller has been torn about what to do about her family’s annual Seder supper to celebrate Passover, which begins Saturday, March 27.
Last year, Passover took place at a time that Miller remembers as mysterious, unknown and scary. Schools and nonessential businesses were closed. Gatherings, including for religious holidays like Passover, were forbidden.
But Miller, who is director of the Rochester Jewish Book Festival and the Rochester Jewish Film Festival for the Jewish Community Center, found comfort and community in her faith. During the first weeks of the pandemic, she and a few family members gathered in a driveway on Friday evenings. Spaced according to social distancing guidelines, they said traditional Shabbat prayers and shared wine and challah bread.
When it came time to celebrate Passover, she used Zoom to connect with family and friends around the country and even in other countries. “Those were real moments of connection, even when it was on Zoom,” she said.
This year, Miller, like other Jews, is grappling with how to carry on with traditions safely. She leans toward the side of caution. “We may not be quite there yet,” she said. “Vaccinations are the guide.”
On the first two nights of Passover, Jews customarily gather with their families for traditional Seder suppers. Part of the evening’s ritual is the youngest child asking a series of questions; the answers tell the story of the Jews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt some 3,333 years ago.
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Last year, Rochester, New York’s Jewish community found new ways to continue their traditions. Some celebrations were held in garages, with doors open for ventilation. Others were held virtually, using services such as Zoom. The Jewish Federation of Greater Rochester and Jewish Family Service of Rochester worked together to deliver Seder-in-a-box meals to hundreds of people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to secure and prepare the holiday meal.
A year has passed, and the circumstances have changed. Three vaccines are rolling out at a rapid pace, but an average of more than 100 cases are still diagnosed in Monroe County each day.
Here’s a look at a how different people and organizations are celebrating.
Blanche Fenster of Brighton traditionally hosts Seder suppers on both the first and second night of Passover. In her case, the larger gathering is the second night, when she usually hosts 25 to 30 people.
Last year, she had just three people at her table — her husband and her son, who had been sent home from college. People from around the country joined them via Zoom. She even edited her usual Haggadah (prayer book), adding in humorous references to the coronavirus. Afterwards, the group played games via Jackbox Games. “It worked as well as it could have worked,” she said.
This year’s Passover comes on the heels of the death of her father, businessman and Holocaust survivor Simon Braitman, who died earlier this month. She couldn’t attend the funeral in Florida, but instead watched a livestream of the funeral and attended the shiva via Zoom.
She finds herself having less enthusiasm for organizing a second Seder supper over Zoom. “This year it kind of feels like it would be going through the motions,” she said. “The first time was new and different. The second time feels a little unfulfilling. The novelty is gone, and I think everybody is feeling it.”
Five people will gather around her family table this year, and she will focus on connecting with them. “I’m excited to be able to have my immediate family together,” she said. “To me that feels like a huge win.”
Community Seder suppers resume
After being canceled in 2020, some public Seder suppers will return this year, with numbers limited and safety measures in place.
Chabad Lubavitch of Rochester will host its annual Seder supper Saturday, March 27. It is geared toward people who need a place to go for the Seder and are comfortable venturing out of their homes at this time.
Michael Ellman will host a Seder supper at his downtown restaurant, Founders Café. He held them annually from 2017 to 2019, open to anyone who wanted to attend. His guests were often disaffected people: Gay people who didn’t get invited to the family meal, Jews who were no longer religious but wanted to participate in the tradition, people without family in the area.
Last year, he canceled the event but prepared takeout meals and a Seder plate for five families. His own gathering was for just three people.
This year, he plans to return to an in-person Seder supper, but limit the group to 18. His traditional wisecracking Seder commentary, its style passed down from his great-grandfather Izzy, will return as well. “It will be nice to be with other people for once,” he said.
This year the Jewish Federation and Jewish Family Service will once again deliver Seder meals to people who need them. But this year, more people are in need, said Meredith Dragon, CEO of the Jewish Federation, and not just for Passover meals.
Demand is up at the Brighton Food Cupboard, a program of Jewish Family Service. Many families are experiencing temporary food insecurity brought on by job loss. “It’s really a challenge,” Dragon said. “It has been an incredible safety net in the communities for families who have never needed to access services before.”
Rabbi urges patience
Last year, Rabbi Nechemia Vogel, director of Chabad Lubavitch of Rochester, offered a message of hope for Passover, pointing to an outpouring of love, kindness and willingness to help each other he saw in the community.
This year, Vogel advises patience. “They say patience is a virtue, and certainly for the Jewish people, patience is the ultimate virtue,” he said. The enslaved Jews in Egypt held onto their faith and didn’t succumb to despair, he said. And even in concentration camps, Jews celebrated Passover. “The inner spirit is something that nobody can touch,” he said.
To raise spirits, Chabad Lubavitch of Rochester sent boxes of handmade shmurah matzo to 2,000 households. “We felt like we needed to do something for the community,” he said. “It’s like getting a hug through the mail.” And the Chabad-Lubavitch central organization has published a new Haggadah, with new translations and insights. It is available as a free download at chabadrochester.com.
“We can’t choose our circumstances but we do have the freedom to react to them,” he said. “That’s always a matter of choice and that’s the freedom we’re celebrating.”