UK (Sky News)

Coronavirus: Jewish communities asked to stay apart for Passover

By April 26, 2020 No Comments

The Jewish community are being urged to stay apart and stay at home as they prepare for Passover.

This evening marks the start of one of the most important festivals in the Jewish calendar, marking the exodus of Jews from Egypt over 3,000 years ago.

But synagogues are currently closed like all other places of worship during the coronavirus lockdown – and at a time when many families would be coming together for the traditional festivities, as Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick has called on everyone to stick to the guidelines on social distancing.

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It is a message echoed by rabbis across the country who say it is already a difficult time for many families.

Rabbi Joseph Dweck, head of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews Congregation, said it is especially hard for those who have lost loved ones.

He said: “Part of Jewish tradition we spend seven days after someone passes away visiting, consoling, which we call the shivah (Hebrew for seven).

“Unfortunately, people mourning at this time have to sit isolated so we do use online platforms, to speak with them and be present with them in the way that we can during this time… but it is quite difficult and very different.”

Edwin Shuker and his family have been making the usual preparations but on a smaller scale. Tonight they would usually have 30 for the traditional Seder dinner, but coronavirus means that is just not possible.

Mr Shuker, who is vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, told Sky News that a Passover is “a quintessential festival where families get together around a table and tell a story” which is centred on their children.

He said the board’s work has not stopped, “but it has changed” as they work remotely, adding it is preparing for the challenges of the Passover and the “hardship that will hit individuals, organisations and charities”.

Like so many places, community groups in north London are adjusting to new demands on their services. Volunteer paramedics with the group Hatzalah are providing emotional as well as physical support for the vulnerable.

Joel Greenfield, one of the volunteers, said: “We are an ambulance service so the majority of calls are people really sick, need hospital.

Image:Edwin Shuker says the Board of Deputies of British Jews is continuing to work remotely

“Those are the majority but yes we get calls for advice, people panicking, don’t know what to do, loved ones unwell, temperature, do they need hospital or stay at home, we always follow government guidelines and tell them to call 111.

“We do also offer some support just to explain how coronavirus is affecting and how to self-isolate, if they need something where to get it, so we do offer more practical advice but don’t offer medical advice over the phone.”

Sedar dinner
Image:Families will be forced to celebrate Passover while respecting social distancing guidelines

Technology will be helping many families to connect this year, as they plan to use platforms like Zoom or Skype, even though Jewish tradition normally forbids the use of electronic devices on holy days.

Many will still be celebrating together in spirit, even if they are physically apart.

Sandy Rashty has told Sky News that she was born into a traditional Jewish family in London, and says Passover this year will be “very different”.

Here is her story.

I have been raised to celebrate the key festivals that mark our community’s history, maybe not to the religious letter, but certainly in spirit.

Tonight, we were due to celebrate Passover as a family – a festival that marks the Jewish people’s exodus from slavery in Egypt more than 3,000 years ago.

Ordinarily, around 20 of us would have gathered around my grandma’s dinner table – wearing our best clothes, grabbing as many fold-up chairs as we could find and admiring the spread that would have been planned and prepared for weeks.

Sandy Rashty says for her family, Passover will be very different this year
Image:Sandy Rashty says for her family, Passover will be very different this year

Adults on one end of the table and cousins on the other, we would have argued over the order of the prayers, dutifully said blessings over symbolic foods and laughed until the early hours.

We would have spent the next week observing the rites of the Jewish holiday.

We would have stocked our cupboard full of ‘kosher for Passover’ items – ‘unleavened’ food that is not given time to rise as a tribute to our ancestors who did not have time to bake bread as they fled slavery.

There would be multiple boxes of matzah (unleavened flatbread), substitute desserts and my mum would have pre-prepared meals for us all.

But we are not living in ordinary times. We are living in the midst of a pandemic caused by the outbreak of COVID-19.

For the first-time, my grandmother, in her 90s, will not be around her family.

For the first time, there will be no synagogue services.

For the first time, we have not rushed to the shops to bulk-buy food for the festival.

We have made small sacrifices – sacrifices that pale in comparison to those made by NHS staff and essential workers across our nation.

Matzah (unleavened flatbread), forms an integral part of Passover tradition
Image:Matzah (unleavened flatbread) forms an integral part of Passover tradition. File pic

Yes we are Jewish and it is our traditions that help us identify as a community – but we are also British.

We have a duty to respect our nation, keep our neighbours safe and as a result – adapt our rituals to do so.

So how have we adapted? I have some kosher wine and two boxes of matzah in my cupboard, bought this week from the local Sainsbury’s.

Like so many families, we’ve all downloaded technology that will let us speak or shout over one another during our virtual Seder.

My grandmother’s carer is still working out how to download the technology and hopefully we’ll get there in time – otherwise, we will speak on the phone.

If anything, it’s made us more determined to celebrate our heritage, while respecting the rules imposed by our government.

And all being well, our next Seder night or Shabbat meal will be one we never again take for granted.

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