It’s been just about three weeks since our world changed. Since we were told to stay inside, away from each other, to flatten the curve to save lives, either our own or other people’s. To connect emotionally through the suspension of physical connection. Since we were told to pay attention to the science.
Since then, the situation has worsened. The novel coronavirus stalks us like the malach hamevet, the angel of death. But we meet online, we go out for (we hope!) solitary walks or runs, we laugh as much as we can.
But there is one thing that is changing. Pesach is coming closer. How will we handle it? How do we do this?
Two weeks ago, we talked to some local rabbis. Here, we revisit them, looking backward to what’s happened and forward to the sedarim and the holiday beyond them.
Rabbi Zev Goldberg is the vice president of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, the local Orthodox rabbis’ group. He’s also the leader of the Young Israel of Fort Lee.
“Nothing has changed,” he said flatly. “It’s too early even to see a flattening of the curve. The numbers are continuing to increase, certainly at least in the New York hospitals. We need to keep up our policy.”
That means, he said, that “what has emerged even more strongly is the need to stay home for Pesach.”
That’s hard, he said. “It is painful. It is really challenging to think about having Pesach not with families, not with children or grandchildren or parents, but it is what these times call for. We have to place the preservation of life above everything else at this point. As painful as it is, we are encouraging everybody to do it.”
One way to provide leadership is by example, Rabbi Goldberg said. Usually rabbis invite as many people as they can to their seders; this year, “the RCBC and the rabbis are modeling by not having company. We are just plain staying with the people we already have been exposed to.”
Members of his community generally have been “following the guidelines,” he said. “They have not been holding minyans in the houses. They’re going out for walks, but staying far away from other people. And we have been doing a lot of online learning.”
Like other local Orthodox rabbis, he’s leading services, usually mincha and maariv. They’re not a minyan because he can’t count people as being present if they’re online, so people “daven on their own, and then the rabbi speaks in between mincha and maariv.
“It’s just like they’re in shul — but it’s a far cry from being in shul.”
He is experiencing this new world both as a leader and as a person. He and his wife have four children, ranging in age from 1 to 10. His wife is a psychologist who sees her clients — virtually, that is — in the morning, and Rabbi Goldberg teaches his students in the afternoon. They have to do all the household chores that two working parents generally outsource; they are their children’s sole companions. “It’s challenging,” Rabbi Goldberg said. “It has brought a lot of blessings, but it’s challenging.”
He recalls a lovely moment from last Shabbat. He led a virtual kabalat Shabbat service, from the beginning until the end of Lecha Dodi, safely before sunset, when the community welcomed in the Sabbath Queen. He used Zoom, as he does for classes, because “it allows us not only to hear each others’ voices, but to see each others’ smiling faces. I generally mute everyone, because it is not great to sing together over Zoom” — this is a point that just about everyone who uses Zoom make — “but I stop and ask what is this family or that family doing, and use their name, and unmute them, and they smile and wave and say Shabbat shalom.”
Rabbi Daniel Fridman, who leads the Jewish Center of Teaneck said that as the last few weeks have unfolded, “and this is true both of our shul and across town, the real story is about the chesed volunteers who deliver food to people who can’t go out, because it’s not safe for them. It’s a story about community resilience.”
One of the members of his community, Debbie Cohen Mlotek, has chaired a group that organizes over WhatsApp and pairs people who cannot leave their houses with people who can, and who are willing to shop and deliver groceries, prescriptions, and other necessities to them. It’s a powerful example of community in action, Rabbi Fridman said.
As for his seder, it will be small. He, his wife, and their three small children — they’re 5, almost 3, and an infant — will be alone together. “We usually have thank God a lot of people from the shul and from our family at our seder, but as they say, this year is different from all other years.”
Rabbi Jennifer Schlosberg leads the Glen Rock Jewish Center, and she’s the treasurer of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis. She’s told her Conservative congregation that this Pesach, they must stay home. “That’s the number one point. Please, just stay put.”
She also is urging her community “to distinguish between their needs and their wants,” particularly as they prepare for the seder, and for the rest of the week that follows. “Often many of us go to three or four different places, with multiple lists, and we end up buying way more than we need. And then we have leftovers, and at the end of Pesach we look at the expiration date on the can and decide to save it for next year.” We don’t have the luxury of shopping in many places — or necessarily in any, except online, which often is a frustrating experience — and we should be aware of the dangers of hoarding relatively hard-to-find resources. “Do you really need to make that favorite recipe this year? Do you really need that trip to the store, or even that delivery that someone else has to make for you? Everything you take is taking away from the resources of the entire community, especially if it would be a need felt by the most vulnerable among us.”
There’s a part of the seder that we don’t usually focus on but should, Rabbi Schlosberg said. “So often we focus on the liberation, but there is a very important part of the liturgy that tells us to see ourselves as if we were slaves in Mitzrayim,” in Egypt. “To feel that we’re in bondage, to not have control over of our destiny, over our sense of self. I image that people are going to feel that this year anyway, but they’ll feel it more if they really are distinguishing between needs and wants.
“I have a box of Yehuda matzah from 2019, and you better believe that I’ll use it. Chances are that it’s fine — and it probably won’t taste any different than it would have last year. Normally I’d throw it out.
“I’m thinking about food waste. Normally when we do our cleaning, we throw chametz away. What I’m sharing with my community is that I can’t promote the disposal of chametz when we are going through a pandemic. So we will use the rabbinic loophole of selling our chametz, so that during a period of time we theoretically don’t own it, even though it stays in our houses. Right now, we shouldn’t throw away frozen bagels or pasta.
“This year, we shouldn’t encourage stringencies. This isn’t the time for them. We should rely on the leniencies that the rabbis allow in times of emergency — and if there is anyone who doesn’t see that it’s a time of emergency, that I really don’t understand.
“I also am encouraging people to think about the differences between ritual cleaning and coronavirus cleaning. There is a shortage of cleaning supplies these days, or at least it is hard to find them. So do we really want to be using all of our bleach and antibacterial cleansers for wiping down our cabinet? We can just use soap and water, or even just a rag and water, to save those cleaners for wiping down the things that come into our homes. To use them to fight the virus.”
As for Pesach, Rabbi Schlosberg knows that “there are many people who are stepping up to lead seders who never have done it before,” and like other rabbis, she’s trying to come up with videos, either alone or in partnership with them, that will offer advice and reassurance as people face what seems to them to be a daunting task. She’s not encouraging people to use Zoom, because of the halachic difficulties it poses, but “I know that the Rabbinical Assembly,” the group of North American Conservative rabbis to which she belongs, “has approved it under certain conditions. I am aware that this is happening; I am not discouraging it, and I don’t know that anybody in my community would be constrained from using it.”
Rabbi Schlosberg also is thinking a great deal about the members of her community who have covid-19 or have relatives who now have it or who have died from it. “I have partnered up with a social worker to do a Zoom session on grief and morning,” she said. There are many losses with which people now and in the coming months will have to face, even beyond the deaths of people they love; “loss of freedom, loss of jobs, loss of security. Those losses can be triggering. If we don’t addresses them and deal with them, they can lead to bad consequences And there is also the anticipatory grief of knowing that there are going to be people who will die, and at some point we will know these people. Some of them even may be members of our own families.”
Like so many of her colleagues, Rabbi Schlosberg has young children at home — hers are 4 and 7. They’re young enough to be protected from fully understanding what’s going on, she said; children that age always are a lot of work, but children of any age pose a challenge to their parents right now. “It’s really hard to get teens to stay in the house,” she said. “They want to be out with their friends.”
At first, Rabbi Schlosberg said, like other rabbis she rushed to provide classes and groups online, but those intellectual offerings are being supplemented with emotional help, “by making use of our chesed committee, but calling our people who are vulnerable; the ones who are homebound, the ones who are by themselves.
“This is a time of vulnerability, and we need to tackle those vulnerabilities, or at least to recognize them and name them, and to encourage others to do that as well. To acknowledge that this is really hard.” That’s why it’s a good thing that many of the videos and live meetings that she and other rabbis hold necessarily show them “at home, in their sweatshirts, with their dogs and cats and little humans interrupting them. There’s something raw and real in that.
Rabbi Elchanan Weinbach, who leads the traditional Congregation Shaarey Israel in Suffern, knows about humanizing. Like so many of his colleagues, he’s had to learn a lot about how to use technology, and to learn it very quickly.
“I taught an online class, and it worked the first day, but the next day I couldn’t upload it,” he said. “I spent six hours on it. And then I finally learned that you have to verify your account.” That’s because there is a difference between using an iPad and a laptop. These are real-world considerations that ensnare rabbis as well as the rest of us. “It’s a massive learning curve that we’re all going through,” Rabbi Weinbach said.
“My emphasis has been on producing content that can be shared with our congregants, including conducting daily services twice a day,” he continued. “Because it’s virtual, it’s not a minyan, but it allows people to participate. My rule of thumb is that anything we can do to allow people to find a measure of religious comfort, we have to try as best as possible to allow. There is the ever-present danger of setting a precedent, but leaders who take responsibility have to make those choices.”
Like so many of us, rabbis and laypeople alike, Rabbi Weinbach is learning the distinctions between synchronous content — that’s live, either interactive or not — and asynchronous content. In simpler times, we would have called it prerecorded.
He’s making videos based on his own personal Jewish library. After an overview, he plans to teach more Talmud. That includes showing what the pages look like and teaching from them; to do that “has required me to learn a new application, and to struggle for many hours to gain basic competency in it,” he said. “The app is called Explain Everything. And then I upload it to YouTube and send links to the congregation.
“I’m my own tech support, in part because you can’t get tech support on the phone,” and that, he assumes, is in large part because so very many people need tech support now. “I have to learn how to light, how to frame; I bought an adapter for my phone, and I have to use a handheld steady cam. None of this is what I learned in rabbinical school” — his smicha is from RIETS — “and I had to do it in a week.
“And it isn’t just me! My wife is a teacher, so I know that teachers also are going through this same learning curve.”
This is a whole new world. “For rabbis, getting in front of a video camera for the gala was a dreaded once-a-year event,” he said. “And now I have to learn to be comfortable in front of the camera because I do it six days a week.
“You learn very quickly what some of your personal habits are,” he continued. “Like touching your face. I learned how often I am doing that, and I have had to discipline myself not to touch my ear, touch my nose, touch my eyes.” His service tends to last for 45 minutes; his self-control must last that long as well.
Like all the other rabbis, his seder will be tiny; just him, his wife, Yocheved, and one of their four adult children. “All rabbis are now dealing with getting their congregants informed,” he said. For example, “some people need an abridged form the seder, which eliminates about 25 percent of Maggid.” That’s the part that tells the story. Why? “Some need it because they are ill,” and they can’t sit through an entire seder. Others “have responsibilities that don’t allow them the time for a full seder. Jewish health care workers are not going to be able to do a full seder.”
Rabbi Brian Leiken, the president of the Rockland County Board of Rabbis, heads Temple Beth Sholom, a Reform synagogue in New City.
“We have a lot of doctors in the congregation who are on the front lines, and hearing their stories is horrifying,” he said. Those stories come up often, when members of the community are together online. “We were doing virtual Torah study on Zoom on Shabbat morning, and we have a doctor in the group who was telling us about his experiences, and about how hard it has been,” Rabbi Leiken said. The group was studying Torah, and another kind of torah — the torah of real life — broadened the discussion. “We are engaging with one another about how we deal with challenges and crises in real life.
“This has brought our community together in ways that nothing before or after ever has,” he continued.
“I am doing two kinds of small adult education sessions, one on a Wednesday morning and one on Shabbat morning. We have been getting 25 people for those, and that’s a lot for us. And on Friday night, our services had over 250 computers” logged into it.
“People seem to need it,” he said.
What’s a typical day like? No one day is typical, he said, but he outlined a recent busy day; it included an early morning board of rabbis call, a call with his staff — the nursery school director, the religious school director, the cantor, the office director — and then a streaming singalong with the nursery school, “where we play songs to get the kids dancing. And they love to hear their names over the internet. The parents text us and we say their names.
“I use YouStream, an IBM platform that I’ve used before. What I like about it is that the quality is better, I am clearer, and the audio is better.
“Then after that I jump on an adult education class. Last week we discussed the opening of the Talmud, and the question of who makes time, God or human beings. This is deeply relevant to our lives today. How do we make Shabbat distinct in a time when the days blur?
“After that I had lunch.”
His day continued, packed with meetings. He did not leave his house at all.
He has had two funerals. At one of them, graveside in a cemetery in Farmingdale on Long Island, “the whole family was there, and other people came too. But everyone else was standing about 15 feet back from the family, and about six feet away from each other. So they couldn’t hear anything. They were just there to offer support.
What about filling in the grave? “The cemetery left shovels out, but I told people to use their hands,” Rabbi Leiken said. And we did very little of that. it was a really tough process.”
Then there’s the virtual shiva. “I muted everybody while we were doing the service, but then at the end I unmuted, and people started to talk, to say I love you. I am here for you. It was incredibly powerful. I talked to the family and they were in tears as they were listening to people.
“People are finding ways to connect despite the challenges, and our communities, our synagogues, are providing the kind of structure that people need now more than ever. I am finding that people are recognizing the importance of community.”
Rabbi Leiken has been planning some online live programs that will help strengthen those bonds. “I have reached out to all the interesting people I know, and I guess that I know some interesting people,” he said. They include a friend who works at the Holocaust museum who spoke to seventh graders who had been discussing the Holocaust. He enlisted a San Francisco-based Facebook friend named Jeff Leiken — the two men met on Facebook because they have the same last name, and assume they must be related but haven’t figured out how — who calls himself a “professional camp counselor” who talked about a Neil Gaiman video. That video says that “when things go bad in life, we should respond by making good art. We should paint. We should write. We should dance. We should sing.” In response to the call to make good art, “we are putting an art exhibit on our website.”
Rabbi Leiken interviewed his father, the former mayor of Shaker Heights, Ohio.
He’s also going to interview his high school friend, the Rolling Stone political reporter Jamil Smith, and the husband of his mother’s best friend’s daughter, Geraldo Rivera.
Those talks are open only to the congregation. “We want to keep it intimate,” he said. “How do you bring in a speaker and make people think that they really are in a small room with that speaker?
“At the end of the day, we really want to be panim al panim. Face to face.” Zoom and similar technologies are imperfect — they are two dimensional — but “where there is a yearning, there is a way.”
For Pesach, the message is “stay apart. That is the central message. We must make sure that people are staying at home. And we clergy have the unique opportunity to stand up as leaders and continually drive that message home.
“In this country, which celebrates personal autonomy and religious liberty, it is kind of hard to tell people what to do, but synagogues and churches are the part of the American culture where we can get away with it. And we are demonstrating it by staying home ourselves and modeling engagement.”
Rabbi Leiken thinks that the landscape for synagogues might be different once this crisis finally is over. “While there might be financial challenges ahead, I certainly don’t think that we will have any problems making the case for our continued existence in Jewish life,” he said.
Rabbi Dr. David Fine is the president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis and of the North Jersey region of the Rabbinical Assembly; he also leads Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood.
“The board of rabbis sent out a list of caters and markets,” Rabbi Fine said. “We want to make it as easy as possible for people to get food for Pesach. People are nervous about going to supermarkets, and they’re concerned about limited supplies. We want to help the caterers, who like every other business is facing catastrophic consequences, so we reached out and tried to make this available.
“I suggested that they do a bulk delivery to Temple Israel, so I will spend the day carrying boxes to cars or trunks, and we will get the job done.”
He’s working on the details for a Zoom seder for the first night of Pesach; he’s worried about the people who find themselves alone or overwhelmed. “I will put the camera on Elijah’s chair,” he said. “I am working with the federation to make sure that I can use a Zoom platform that will have a lot of people participating. And then people can just Zoom in.”
The ritual committee is working on how to use Zoom or a livestream or both during regular services, Rabbi Fine said. It’s complicated, because the technology is wonderful but imperfect. Zoom is live, and if you are not muted you can talk and everyone will hear you, but “the problem is with singing together is that there is a delay and there is feedback,” he said.
“So there are two options. Either mute everybody, or keep it so that we can hear everyone, and we understand that some people are singing out of tempo and out of key.
“And you know what? It’s usually like that in shul anyway. So I already have learned to live with dissonance.”
Temple Israel “has a regular Friday night and Saturday night service, and a Sunday morning minyan,” Rabbi Fine says. He goes to the shul to do it. “I need the ark,” he said. “But it’s just me. I am alone.”
Physically, that is. He counts the people who are watching online as a minyan, and on Shabbat morning he reads Torah. But he is the only permissible Torah reader, because his ruling is that it is acceptable to be counted if you’re online — it’s the equivalent of being in the doorway, and traditionally people who are half in and half out can be counted as in. “But you have to be in the physical presence of the Torah to have an aliyah. It would be like making a motzi without bread.” So he takes all the aliyot himself, and says the bracha each time. That’s eight times. “If there’s no levi, the cohen repeats it,” he said. “If you can repeat an aliyah once, why can’t you repeat it seven times? Either you can or you can’t.” He’s in charge of halacha for his community, and he says that you can.
He also is not troubled with using electronics on Shabbat and chaggim; the Conservative movement allowed it 70 years ago, he said. “The first Shabbat I just streamed the service, and the second time I also Zoomed it. I put the camera on the amud, and tilted it so that people could see the yad, and the letters that it was pointing to.” They could see the black fire on white fire that is the Torah. “There are people who had never seen it before,” Rabbi Fine said. “So this isn’t something I would do if I weren’t in this situation, but because of the situation that we are in, there are things we can do and tools in our hands that can help us in new ways.”
It will not be easy this Pesach, Rabbi Fine said, but there are essential parts of the seder that will be more clear this year. “In the year 71, there was no pascal lamb,” he said. “We are in that kind of year now. We have to find ways to still do what we can do.
“The point is that the pascal lamb is not the essence. The essence is the telling of the story. The essence is being able to come together in whatever way we can. Obviously being together in person is better, and it would be better if we had a pascal lamb to eat, but we don’t. So we have to make do with what we have.”
And there’s one more parallel, Rabbi Fine added. “It’s eerily familiar.” On the last night in Egypt, the Israelites stayed inside, to keep safe “against the enemy they couldn’t see.” The angel of death. “They were hiding from the malach hamavet.” And so are we.
There are many things that these rabbis disagree about, but they are all together on some things. One is that we must stay apart so that eventually we can come together again. Another is the deadliness of this literally inhuman enemy we face. It’s no joke. And another is the strength of the community. No one wants this situation that we’re in now, but someday it will end. It would be a terrible waste if we did not learn from it.