U.S. Jews Help Needy, Prepare for Very Different Passover During Coronavirus Quarantine

Prominent organizations provide seder kits and meals to those most affected by the coronavirus, offer discussions on community during the Passover meal

Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
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Rabbi Yaakov Kotlarsky places Passover Seder to go packages into his car at Chabad Jewish Center in Arlington Heights, Illinois, April 7, 2020.
Rabbi Yaakov Kotlarsky places Passover Seder to go packages into his car at Chabad Jewish Center in Arlington Heights, Illinois, April 7, 2020. Credit: Nam Y. Huh,AP
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri

With social distancing guidelines in place and many holiday plans canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, Jewish communities in the United States are gearing up to help those in need as they prepare for a restricted Passover seder on Wednesday night.

The UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Communal Fund said they would distribute 8,500 free Passover seder kits and meals to more than 4,000 “of the most vulnerable and most impacted New York households” by Passover eve. 

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Local Jewish organizations in New York City, Long Island, and Westchester helped the Federation identify families and individuals who are isolated, financially vulnerable or who have previously relied on free communal resources to celebrate Passover. 

“We are doing our small part to help people hold their own Passover seders with dignity and the embrace of the entire community,” said CEO of UJA-Federation of New York Eric Goldstein.

The Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which usually hosts communal Seders in 115 countries, and distributes some 3.5 million handmade matzahs annually across the world, is also gearing up for an unusual Passover. The group will give out some 250,000 seder-to-go kits in the United States, containing the seder plate essentials

It has also launched a special website that provides information about the holiday during the coronavirus crisis, where users can find answers to questions such as “Can I do Passover over the phone or Skype?”; “What if I cannot get the supplies?” and “If I am all alone, how long should the seder last?” 

The Orthodox Union, the world's largest kosher certifier, has issued its own seder instructions for those making their own Passover for the first time in the form of an online Passover toolkit. It contains videos, advice and articles covering subjects such as kashering kitchen appliances, tips to prepare food and educational video sessions about the Haggadah and how to sell Chametz online. 

Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the Orthodox Union's kashrut division, said that the goal was to “help the community make the holiday less stressful” in light of the coronavirus crisis.

In Brooklyn's Borough Park, some rabbis have called on those with the financial means to “please come to the aid of your brothers and sisters who cry out from the depths of despair,” by increasing their yearly contributions to charity funds. 

“There is almost nobody in our community who has not been affected by the terrible situation; some are affected financially and others physically,” the notice, written in Yiddish, said. 

This plea has a historical precedent, said Alexander Rapaport, founder of the Masbia Soup Kitchen Network in Brooklyn. “In the besieged Jerusalem during the time of the destruction of the Temple, the cities most prosperous came together and pledged unprecedented resources to support the community. The rabbis hope that some would follow in their footsteps during the current crisis.”

Rapaport added, “The bottom line is regular fundraising is down, the need is up and urgent, and there is a crisis all over, this is a time to throw out the old playbook and try something new.”

Beyond preparations for the seder, some groups have encouraged those celebrating the holiday to discuss the pandemic during their holiday meal. 

The group Our Common Destiny, an initiative seeking to unite the global Jewish community worldwide, is providing a Haggadah insert intended to generate dialogue about how this year’s holiday “holds historic opportunities for Jews to not only reflect on their common bonds, but how the pandemic is both testing and strengthening those connections.”

“Why is this night different from all other nights? Because tonight we cannot join together with our extended family, friends and community in celebration," the insert reads, playing on a well-known quote from the Haggadah. “This night is different because, as we tell the story of our people from slavery to freedom from Egypt to the Promised Land, we must also tell about our own time, about our own plagues and immediate needs.”

In addition, the insert suggests that as people hold the Matzah up during the seder, they recite: “As we hold the matzah this year, whether with our families or completely alone, may we experience our connection to the story of the Jewish people; to our values and to our shared future.”

The organization T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights also created a COVID-19 seder supplement, offering a discussion for the Four Children section of the Haggadah and a reading to “deepen the significance of opening the door for Elijah."

“We are all scrambling to figure out how to make Pesach as meaningful as we can this year, under the difficult circumstances imposed by the coronavirus pandemic,” the Director of Rabbinic Training at T’ruah, Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson, wrote. “I hope these will be valuable to your seder, whether you are Zooming with a big group or holding an intimate gathering with the people in your home.” 

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