Upended traditions: Boston’s Jewish community grapples with COVID-19 through virtual Passover Seders

“This holiday is really all about resilience, and now's the time that people and communities are showing that resilience.”

A Passover Seder at a home in Jamaica Pond in 2013.
A Passover Seder at a home in Jamaica Pond in 2013. –Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff

With Passover approaching, David Manchester would normally be in New Jersey with his parents, sister, brother-in-law, two nephews, aunts, uncles, and cousins preparing for their Wednesday evening Seder. This year, the 35-year-old would have been gathering with his girlfriend, her sister, and her mother, too. 

“Probably a week or so ago it really hit me that none of that was happening,” Manchester said. 

Like many in Boston’s Jewish community, the pandemic dismantled Manchester’s observance and took away any opportunity to practice age-old rituals, like watching his father hide the afikomen — a broken piece of matzo, which is the unleavened bread eaten at Passover — and then helping his nephews search for it. Instead, Manchester will meet with his family from behind a camera, signing onto Zoom, pulling up a powerpoint Haggadah, and holding Seder in his Cambridge apartment alone. 

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“I think we’re going to try to make as much of it feel normal, so going through and having everyone there, everyone speak their part as we go around. I think for the kids, it will be actually harder just sitting in place with a screen is not as easy,” he said. “And I think there just won’t be that personal element of it.”

But to keep some part of the tradition alive, he said he’ll be using family recipes to cook enough food for a Seder of five. 

“It’ll leave me with lots of leftovers to enjoy,” he said.

For some, Manchester said the loss of traditional foods can hit home, which is why he stayed up until midnight reserving an Instacart full of ingredients to make some of his family’s homemade dishes like his mother’s brisket. 

Though his order was a couple hundred dollars just for himself, he knew cooking the food he’s used to would ease the digital transition. 

“I think that’ll provide an element of comfort,” he said. 

Of course, Manchester noted that food alone isn’t enough to ease the loss of connection. 

“For being such a family-oriented holiday, it’s going to change a lot of practices for me,” he said. “It’s been really tough to recognize that I won’t be with everybody.”

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He said there’s symbolism he’ll be missing, too. 

“There’s a tradition of opening your door for Elijah the prophet,” Manchester said. “And part of the symbolism there is that everybody should have a place that they can eat.”

The idea is that by opening your door, you welcome people into your home.

“And that idea, I live in an apartment building and I do not plan on opening my door because who knows what that could allow in, other than just a prophet,” he said.

‘It doesn’t have to be perfect’

Kali Foxman, director of JewishBoston.com, said many are feeling the same way. 

“I think people are just understanding that this year is going to be different and that we will all be doing the best that we can,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be perfect — you can build the Seder plate, even if you don’t have any matzo or all the elements needed. You can host it in a way that’s meaningful to you.”

Foxman said this year in particular, JewishBoston.com, an online initiative of Combined Jewish Philanthropies’ created to connect Boston’s Jewish voices, has focused on finding innovative ways for people to stay virtually involved in Jewish life. 

She said they’re constantly listing virtual events, like a choose-your-own-adventure Seder or a Passover cooking demo with Israeli chefs, and resources for sustaining the Passover experience in a digital realm. 

As of Friday, she said she’s also seen nearly 4,000 people download the site’s free, printable Haggadah, which is designed to be accessible for everyone no matter their level of Jewish practice.

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“I think that there’s a way that everyone can find meaning and participate in Passover,” she said, noting how the Haggadah offers tips for hosting a Seder, and interactive discussion questions. “I would say that people don’t have to feel like they’re alone, that there are resources out there for them, that there are people to connect with, and that people want to offer virtual support as much as they can.”

Foxman said knowing everyone is in the same boat and facing the same issues helps them feel connected during this time. 

“This holiday is really all about resilience,” she said. “And now’s the time that people and communities are showing that resilience.” 

Manchester said this pandemic Passover will just stand as another trial.

“I think it’s a reminder of the struggles that Jewish communities and societies have faced over the millennia,” he said. 

‘Life will be better at another point’

In the days leading up to Passover, Manchester said he’s thought a lot about whether hosting this year’s Seder would bring more emotional hardship than religious and spiritual value. The other night, he asked his girlfriend’s mother the same question. 

“She was like, you know, when my father was in the Holocaust, in the concentration camps, every year they did something to recognize the Seder as that marker that life will be better at another point and that we need to remember the history,” Manchester said. 

And with that, he’s been reflecting on what he can take away from this shift.

“I’ve been mostly just kind of thinking and recognizing that it’s important to continue living our lives as much as we can,” he said. “A sense of normalcy is valuable in this time and we’ll see what we can make of it.” 

Another challenge, Manchester said, was realizing he may have to be more lenient with himself this year. 

Normally, people would begin clearing their pantries and cabinets of flour and yeast-based products that aren’t kosher for Passover, often handing them to neighbors, but COVID-19 has restricted that routine. 

Instead, Manchester said he’s decided to hide it out of sight so he still has it later. 

“This isn’t about the short-term challenges, it’s about getting through what could be several months of coronavirus, and so I could break Passover if I really feel like I get to that point,” he said. “I’ll try not to but I think that preparation is also something I’ve never done.”

Yet even though the virus has challenged his practices, Manchester said he’s still searching for any shred of positivity. 

“I think one of the really interesting things that I see,” he said, “is the trans-generational transmission of cultural knowledge or family tradition that’s happening.”

He said people often take for granted the ceremonies they have, or the way family recipes are made.

But this year, “there’s that moment to say distribution is important to me, and this is the year I’m going to learn how to do all of these things.”



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