Lena Gilbert and her brother, Jack Gilbert, live in adjacent town houses in Springville, but in accordance with social distancing guidelines to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus, they aren’t visiting each other these days.
Instead, they talk from their porches, and Lena sometimes drops off groceries on Jack’s porch.
Wednesday, she dropped off something else; food she cooked for the Seder dinner to celebrate Passover.
“I’ve been slowly making all the special dishes,” she said by phone Tuesday. “Yesterday, I made a big batch of homemade gefilte fish. Most people don’t make it from scratch, but my mother always made it from scratch and I make it from scratch using her recipe.”
Sharing their mother’s recipes is a little bit of comfort in an uncertain time. So is keeping the traditions of their faith going, even if they are doing so alone, Lena said.
“I’m maintaining my spirituality by doing the things I would normally do to celebrate the holiday,” she said. “Also, every Friday is a Jewish holiday, the Sabbath, and every Friday night I’m lighting my candles at home. That keeps me very connected to our faith. It’s simple things; keeping up those simple traditions that are practiced in the home. During all this social distancing, I still feel very connected to Judaism.”
All around the world, Jews are finding new ways to mark one of the biggest holidays of the year for their faith. Passover, which started Wednesday and ends April 16, normally is a time when families and friends come together. But this year, it is a quieter holiday, with get-togethers moved online or curtailed.
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“The big thing you say at the Passover Seder is, ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ And I think this year we’ll hear a lot of, ‘Next year in person,’” said Ashley Carol-Fingerhut, executive director of Iowa Hillel at the University of Iowa. “It’s such a beautiful thing that families and communities gather for. And it’s sad that can’t happen.”
With on-campus classes canceled, the organization’s efforts to reach out to students has moved online.
“We’re doing a Zoom Seder so students are able to connect with us and participate in a Seder all together,” she said. “I think it’s nice to have that option.”
The meal centers around a Seder plate, with ritual dishes that are shared along with the story of the Jewish exodus from slavery in Egypt. For Hillel’s Zoom Seder, students were sent a digital outline to follow from their tables at home. Carol-Fingerhut also sent out a recipe for matzo toffee, so everyone tuning in could make the same dessert.
“We’re trying to bring those community aspects so people can feel less alone. It’s an isolating time,” she said.
“We hope when the students come back to campus, God willing in the fall, they don’t feel like, ‘Oh I have had nothing to do with Hillel or my Jewish community here at Iowa for so long. We hope they feel like, ‘Oh, I finally get to see you in person.’”
Anat Levtov of Iowa City held a Passover get-together over three time zones Wednesday, with a Zoom call between her and her husband in Iowa, her sister’s family in Washington, D.C., and her father in Israel. To accommodate the time difference with Israel, they held their holiday at 8 a.m. Iowa time and she was cooking a special lunch, rather than a big dinner.
Growing up, she recalled community Passover celebrations with hundreds of people, and as an adult she’s often gotten together with extended family in Chicago or invited over friends in Iowa City. It’s not typically a solitary holiday.
Still, she said she was optimistic this Passover would be a good one.
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Working from home now — she is director of Global Engineering and an academic adviser at the UI — actually turned out to be an advantage, Levtov said, because she could make that morning call with her father.
“I was a little bit worried about telling my co-workers, ‘Hey I’m not going to be available Wednesday morning,’ but everybody was super supportive,” she said. “It was nice to know people understand it was meaningful for us to have that opportunity.”
Rabbi Todd Thalblum of Temple Judah in Cedar Rapids also will lead a Seder over Zoom for his congregation Thursday, after having a family Seder Wednesday. Even though it won’t be the same as gathering in person, he said, it will be important.
“The human connection is important for our sanity and our well-being; feeling like there are others out there with you experiencing the same thing,” he said. “That’s part of Passover; we’re all supposed to experience this exit from Egypt, and that’s a moment of communal pride and togetherness.”
Not everyone will have a digital celebration. Rabbi Avrohom Blesofsky of the Orthodox organization Lubavitch in Iowa City said he follows teachings not to use electricity during the Seder. He said he hoped people would see this as an opportunity to focus on the meaning of the holiday.
“Maybe people can have a more intimate Seder this year. A lot can get lost in the shuffle (with a big gathering). The silver lining is, you can focus on the people you are closest with,” he said. “Passover is a message of freedom. We’re all restricted, and hopefully everyone is following the guidelines, but there is a level of personal freedom we can experience through this isolation as we focus on its meaning. … Freedom is not necessarily the freedom to do as we want, but to tap into who we really are as a people.”
Gilbert said she can see connections between the holiday’s origin, when 10 plagues struck ancient Egypt, and today.
“What happened in ancient times was horrible, tragic, sad, but we overcame it, and we are here today as a living testimony,” she said. “We overcame that, we’re going to overcome this as well.”
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