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‘The lesson of Passover is we are faced with challenges.’ Newton’s Jewish community celebrates with resilience, hope

Members of Shaarei Tefillah in Newton Centre arrived for the early Passover prayer service Monday morning.
Members of Shaarei Tefillah in Newton Centre arrived for an early Passover prayer service.CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Newton’s Jewish community observed its second COVID-19 era Passover with a renewed sense of hope. For the first time in a year, many families were able to gather and celebrate together in their homes and some synagogues opened their doors.

In Newton Centre, Congregation Shaarei Tefillah offered small, in-person Passover services with masks and distancing, said Rabbi Benjamin Samuels .

Samuels said a few of his synagogue’s members have been fully vaccinated and planned to join families in-person this year — but most were likely to spend the evening in nuclear families or by themselves.

“The feelings of abandonment are less acute this year than they were over the past year,” Samuels said. “But it doesn’t make it easy, it’s certainly not easy. It’s just different.”

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The weeklong holiday commemorates the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. Family and friends typically gather to celebrate the first two nights with the Seder, a ceremonial meal in which participants retell the story through narrative, prayer and song.

Last year, the community was “in shock” for Passover, said Rabbi Allison Berry of Temple Shalom in West Newton. It was the first Jewish holiday to take place after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

More than one year into the pandemic, Berry said, people have settled into the new normal.

“What we’re seeing now is more acceptance of the reality, more of a sense that we know how to do this,” Berry said. “We know how we’re going to feel in the sense that we’ve actually emotionally been through this, so the emotions aren’t new.”

Temple Shalom offered a brief Zoom Seder, according to Berry, although she said Passover is traditionally “a home holiday.”

“Really it’s supposed to be about all we have in our own lives, in our homes and in our families,” Berry said.

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Ronda Jacobson said she and her husband, Josh, planned to host two small, in-person Seders in their Newton Centre home.

Last year, after their plans to fly to Israel fell through, Jacobson said they opted for a Seder on Zoom — a difficult decision for the observant couple, who refrain from using technology on Shabbat and holidays.

This year, they extended their dining room table to allow for 6 feet between groups, Jacobson said. All but one attendee had been fully vaccinated.

“We feel like, vaccinated, we can do this,” Jacobson said. “It wasn’t an easy decision, but it wasn’t a hard decision either. It just became a given.”

She said certain parts of the Seder were likely to feel strange — like singing underneath masks — but the reduced crowd size made preparations feel more peaceful than the usual “frenzy.”

“I’ve got three soups made, two desserts — what else do you need? The beginning and the end of any meal,” Jacobson said. “There’s a gentleness to the atmosphere.”

Karen Andres said she and her husband, Aaron Cohen, also were planning on a pared-down spread. Unsure how they would feel after receiving their second shot March 16, the couple opted for a “Seder in a box” from a local caterer.

Andres said she was initially “really broken-hearted” that she would not be able to meet virtually with observant family members, who do not use electronic devices on Shabbat. Last year, Passover fell on a Wednesday, meaning they could Zoom before the sun set and the holiday officially began.

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“Certainly it’s much more fulfilling to be in person, but we had a really good time last year,” Andres said. “We got together with this big family that we would probably never get together with because they live in New Jersey, they live in Chicago.”

Instead, Andres said she organized a virtual Seder with members of clemency advocacy group Second Chance Justice who were looking for the opportunity to attend a Seder.

None of her guests were Jewish, though most have attended Seders in the past, Andres said. She recommended they also order boxed kits.

“We’ve been trading emails back and forth about how to prepare, and I think it should really be interesting,” Andres said. “It’s a freedom holiday, and they are advocating for someone’s freedom.”

Rabbi Samuels of Shaarei Tefillah said the story of Passover, which highlights liberation and mutual responsibility, was especially resonant during the pandemic.

“The lesson of Passover is we are faced with challenges,” Samuels said. “And yet, with perseverance, with resolve, with resilience, resolution, with collaboration and good will, we can surmount that.”

For Amy Newman and David Preiss of Newton, overcoming this year’s challenges meant crossing the Canadian border and undergoing a mandatory two-week quarantine.

Both have parents in Toronto, and neither has any local family, Newman said. Preiss said the family usually makes the drive for Passover.

Last year’s Passover Seder consisted solely of the couple and their three kids, Newman said. For the Modern Orthodox family, a virtual Seder with the grandparents was never a consideration.

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“Everyone is grieving something right now, and I’ve just been so sad that our parents completely missed the ages 3, 6, and 8 of our children,” Newman said.

The family was required to take three COVID-19 tests in addition to quarantining — once before leaving, once at the border and once 10 days after arrival — per the country’s travel restrictions.

“We knew a lot of things had to go right,” Newman said. “If our tests were delayed, if anything happened with the tests, we knew there was a possibility that we would end up not having Seders with our parents because we might get trapped in quarantine for more days.”

Although the couple split up for Seders — Newman and the kids staying with her parents, Preiss with his — Preiss said celebrations would otherwise feel relatively uninhibited inside each house.

“Normal is an unusual feeling when you haven’t felt it in a while,” Preiss said.

Daniel Kool can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.