'How is this night different from all other nights?' Jewish leaders talk Passover amid pandemic

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As the sun goes down on the first evening of Passover, Jewish families traditionally ask themselves, "How is this night different from all other nights?"

While the question typically leads to a narrative recounting the Israelites' exodus from slavery in Egypt, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat of Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams said that, this year, the question holds new meaning amid a pandemic.

"The Seder will not be like any Seder we've had before," she said, referring to the Passover prayer and feast time.

While, typically, the Berkshire Jewish community holds its doors wide open to welcome all to its festival tables, a fast-moving coronavirus pandemic continues to force people to stay shut in, away from large groups of friends and extended family members.

"The Seder story we tell every year at Passover begins in trauma and in difficulty. It begins with slavery and plagues and sickness and darkness and also the anxiety and fear and all of the things we are now feeling," Barenblat said in a phone conversation Wednesday afternoon, on the start of Passover. "But, it goes from there to a place of freedom and hope. As we celebrate tonight and tomorrow, I hope that we can live into that transition, from the gravity of this moment to the hope of better days."

Barenblat, like other Jewish congregation and community leaders in the Berkshires, has been leveraging telephones and digital technology to stay in touch with congregants. While most families tend to have private first-night Seders with their immediate families, second-night Seders often include the wider community.

This year, she said, "They'll have laptops open at their tables so that they can see each other."

"It's changed the face of everything," said Temple Anshe Amunim member Mike Duffy, of Pittsfield, a local musician.

He said he had lost his grandmother in February, before the outbreak, and knew that this year's Passover already would be different without her.

Duffy will take part in a remote second-night Seder with family, but also planned to down a bowl of matzo ball soup and spend his first night performing a regularly scheduled concert using Facebook Live. He had considered canceling for the holiday but decided to keep the date when fans told him, "See you next week."

"People are really craving connections," he said.

Jewish Federation of the Berkshires Executive Director Dara Kaufman spent the day of Passover helping to distribute 125 kosher grab-and-go meal packages and Seder plate preparations to Jewish families from North Adams to Pittsfield to Monterey. Typically, Congregation Knesset Israel in Pittsfield hosts a community Passover Seder with 100 to 125 guests.

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Instead, the group increased its kosher order from The Crown Market in West Hartford, Conn., to ensure it would have enough food and preparations, which were parceled solely by the federation's kosher food services director, Cindy Bell-Deane, and assistant Ken Conlow, upholding social distancing practices.

"They've done such a tremendous job to make this possible," Kaufman said.

Celebrating Passover this year means making some modifications and adding new twists.

Craig Bero, chef-owner of Pleasant and Main Cafe and General Store in Housatonic said that, because of demand, he is preparing to-go menus and meals for the Passover and Easter holidays this week, including a traditional Seder brisket and Easter Sunday ham.

Seders, as outlined in the Haggada, includes the lengthy rituals of describing and eating different preparations, from bitter herbs to sweet charoset, and the ceremonial consumption of four cups of wine in between prayer and storytelling.

Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch of Temple Anshe Amunim said that instead of broadcasting the last two cups of wine, typically consumed after the Seder feast, she will unmute participants and invite them to share what they are grateful for, in lieu of the third cup of wine, and what they hope for in the year to come, as a stand-in for the fourth cup.

"I hope we can all stay healthy and celebrate in person next year," Hirsch said.

Rabbis also are reminding congregants not to fret if they can't procure all six components of a traditional Seder plate.

"If you don't have anything, we'll be holding those items up so you can see them," Hirsch said. "We know it's imperfect, but it's still an opportunity for coming together and observing community."

Rabbi Barenblat and Duffy said that many Jewish families will be adding a bottle of hand sanitizer to the Seder spread. Typically, the Seder includes ceremonial hand-washing, Barenblat said the addition will remind many of the medical personnel encouraging the public to use best health practices to help flatten the proverbial curve of this pandemic.

Barenblat also offered another reminder: "This is not the first generation to celebrate Seder in tough times. It was celebrated in concentration camps and during the Black Death. ... We've been telling this story for centuries, in good years and in bad ones. I take some strength from that, and it makes me feel less alone."

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.


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