‘Crisis creates opportunity’ for Jews to stay connected this Passover, says Winnipeg rabbi

By | April 8, 2020

While COVID-19 makes it impossible for Jews to celebrate Passover the way they usually do, Rabbi Allan Finkel sees a silver lining in physical distancing.

“In many respects, this year looks like it’s the worst possible time of year to have Passover,” said Finkel, spiritual leader at Temple Shalom, Winnipeg’s reformed Jewish congregation.

“I do believe that crisis creates opportunity.”

That opportunity lies in technology.

Finkel is among Jews across the world celebrating the beginning of Passover Wednesday night. The eight-day holiday marks the liberation of the Jews from slavery and their exodus from Egypt 3,000 years ago.

But this year, Passover won’t quite look the same.

COVID-19 travel restrictions mean cousins, aunts and uncles from far afield won’t be converging in one place for Seder, the traditional Passover meal often enjoyed in large family groups.

Rabbi Allan Finkel is the spiritual leader at Temple Shalom in Winnipeg. (Submitted by Allan Finkel)

Instead, many will connect remotely by video, using apps like Zoom, Houseparty and others.

Even those who aren’t particularly technologically inclined are finding ways to tune in.

“Everybody is learning how to Zoom,” said Finkel.

“I spent this morning teaching my 89-year-old Aunt Betty how to Zoom so she can join our Passover Seder.”

Seders go live online globally

Finkel is taking part in two such virtual Seders Wednesday — one with members of the Winnipeg Jewish community, and another with Jews in Boston.

Families from two Canadian cities and five American cities will take part in the first; another 30 homes from four Canadian and four American cities in the second.

Zoom is a group video chat service that allows conference calls with multiple people able to join simultaneously. (Dado Ruvic/Illustration/Reuters)

Thousands more will be “lighting up the internet” across North America, said Finkel.

“They’re incredibly ambitious, far beyond anything that they normally would have done,” he said.

“These are huge Seders that go way beyond the capacity of anyone’s dining room to hold them, and there’s no shortage of open chairs and open tables for people to invite guests who would not otherwise be connected.”

The 11th modern plague

Elements of the story of Passover resonate in a new way during the current global pandemic, said Finkel.

In the biblical story, God guided Moses to free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and visited 10 plagues on ancient Egyptians to attempt to persuade the pharaoh to free those who were enslaved.

Locusts darkened the sky, water turned to blood, legions of frogs from the Nile invaded homes, and clouds of ash sent aloft by Moses turned to boils and sores as the ashes settled on Egyptians, so the story goes.

But it was only after the 10th and final plague — the death of all firstborn sons — that the Egyptian ruler freed the slaves.

The Israelite families who had marked their doors with lambs’ blood were spared. Not so for the rest in Egypt.

Finkel said Passover is a time to reflect on those stories and sacrifices, and share them with the next generation.

“Passover has always been a time of a collection of families to remember both the terrible harms done to others and the fact that we were liberated from slavery by that last act.”

Allan Finkel’s Seder plate features roasted egg (symbolizing renewal and life), maror (horseradish, bitter herbs), roasted chicken neck (symbolizing the paschal lamb that was sacrificed for the doorpostd), charoset (mixture of apples, chopped nuts and sweet wine symbolizing the mortar used to make the bricks for the pyramids), vegetable (potato, parsley or romaine dipped into salt water in the middle as a reminder of spring, ‘mixed with the tears of slavery’), followed by a second bitter vegetable. (Submitted by Allan Finkel)

There are parallels that can be drawn to modern plague-like equivalents, such as climate change, refugee and immigration injustices, poverty and other humanitarian issues, he said.

Finkel thinks of coronavarius and its fallout as the 11th modern plague.

“For me I look at the issue of sacrifice as actually taking on personally the burdens of the world right now. 

“Then, we talk more about escape from the burdens that were placed on us by others, so I actually think that in many ways, Passover has taken on a huge new life in the diaspora and in modern times, compared to how it would be looked at in the time of Moses.”

‘Quite a blessing’

In one sense, there’s a warmth generated by a couple dozen loved ones chatting, and eating matzo and other traditional Passover foods in a dining room once the sun sets, that will be missing this year. Finkel doesn’t see it that way.

“I look at it as quite a blessing,” he said.

“We’re going to have … chaos and joy and laughter and people talking over each other online in a Zoom meeting, just like we would’ve had at our Passover Seders,” said Finkel.

“The youngest child will read the stories of why tonight is different than the other night. The four questions will have a fifth, and it will be about how we’ve completely redefined our communities — and I think we’ll only grow extraordinarily as a consequence of what we’re doing tonight.”

Passover ends on April 16.

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