During Pandemic, Atlanta’s Jewish Community Prepares For A Different Kind Of Passover
The Jewish holiday of Passover starts Wednesday evening. It’s a celebration of freedom, commemorating when the Jews were liberated from slavery in Egypt.
For the first night of Passover, Morris Maslia’s extended family usually gets together. In recent years, he says, 25 or 30 people have come to his sister’s house in Dunwoody.
“My sisters, my parents, cousins, friends. We’ve had strangers over as well,” he says.
On Passover, people crowd together as dozens pack around extra tables, strategically set up in overflowing dining rooms, for an hourslong, multi-course meal.
But with the coronavirus pandemic, shelter-in-place orders and social distancing, this year will be different from all other years.
Maslia, who recently retired from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and is a member of Congregation Or VeShalom in Brookhaven, will still be sharing Passover with his extended family this week, but not in person. He’ll be joining loved ones via Zoom video conference.
“It’ll definitely be an interesting time to remember,” he says.
A lot of people are planning on this approach for the traditional Passover meal, which is called a Seder.
Rabbi Elana Perry’s family is making that pivot. She works at the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, and her family was going to be on a cruise for Passover. Perry was scheduled to lead a Seder for passengers who wanted to join.
Instead, she’ll have a smaller, quieter Seder.
“We have to reinvent our new norms this year, and I think that it’s a sign of strength and a sign of innovation and ingenuity and creativity that we can do that,” she says.
She says there are also elements of the meal with new relevance this year — for example, hand washing. In every Seder, people are supposed to wash their hands twice. It’s a sacred act, Perry says, representing holiness and purity.
“And I think that people will be thinking about hand washing in a new way this year,” she says. “Perhaps thinking about how safety and hygiene and health is also something to really be considered holy and sacred, and we should never be taking that for granted.”
For people looking for a Seder to join, some synagogues around Atlanta are offering big virtual Seders. Others are helping connect people to each other.
Rabbi Ari Kaiman at Shearith Israel, a synagogue in Atlanta’s Morningside neighborhood, is working with members to have them host guests over online video at their Seders and making sure congregants who need a Seder can find one.
“We’ve been calling our older members in particular, one at a time, and asking them, what are their plans, what can we do to help them,” he says.
Kaiman says he’s anxious this year, heading into a holiday that for many people is about the intimacy around a shared table.
“I don’t want anyone to feel like they slipped through the cracks of the world right now because I think it’s very, very easy to do that,” he says. “There’s so many people who are lonely. And we are a place that is, I think, on the front lines of combating loneliness.”
He says it is OK though to celebrate Passover alone. It’s not breaking Jewish laws for people to just tell themselves the Passover story and to ask themselves the questions built into it.
That’s something Dena Schusterman, a founder of Chabad Intown, emphasizes, too.
“I like the attitude of like, ‘OK, we’re rolling with it,’” she says.
Chabad Intown, a Jewish outreach organization located near the Eastside BeltLine, typically hosts 100 people or more for Seders, Schusterman says.
That’s canceled this year, though, and Zoom isn’t an option for her family. As an Orthodox Jew, she doesn’t use electronics on the holidays.
But she says staying home to help flatten the curve isn’t a sad thing.
“There’s a time and place for everything under the heavens,” she says, citing a line from the Torah. “The time and place right now is obviously not to have guests in our house, because we can’t.”
She says since Passover is a holiday about freedom, this year, she’s thinking about what sheltering in place actually frees her from. For instance, no more ferrying kids to after-school activities.
“It’s really a time to think about, what are the things that I am a slave to? What are the mentalities, what is the psychology, what is my brain so connected to, my body, my physicality that I haven’t been able to get rid of? And now all of a sudden, poof, it’s gone,” she says.
And, she says, it’s also important to bring joy into the holiday – no matter how it gets celebrated.