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Berkshire County Rabbis Prepare For A Strange Pandemic Passover

A piece of matzah - flat white cracker mottled with brown baking burns - sits next to a box of matzah
Photo of machine-made Shmura Matzo eaten during Passover week

With tonight’s celebration of the first night of Passover, Jews around the world are experiencing a unique version of the ancient tradition: the Skype Seder. WAMC spoke with rabbis from across Berkshire County to hear how they’re approaching this pandemic Passover.

With public gatherings prohibited, synagogues shuttered, and families gathering through video calls, the ceremonial meal that kicks off the eight-day holiday – known as the seder – will be unlike any before it in the modern era.

“The phrase that I have running through my ears is ‘mah nish tah nah ha lilah ha zeh,’ a phrase that we say at the seder table, which is ‘how is this night different from all other nights,'" said Rabbi Neil Hirsch. He serves the Hevreh congregation in Great Barrington, a Reform temple of over 360 households.

“I think it’s a Passover that calls for flexibility, and a Passover that calls for creativity,” Hirsch told WAMC.

One silver lining of social distancing is that the Hirsch family gathering will be uncommonly well attended – albeit on screens.

“We often with family spread all around the country, have not been able to have Seder together," said the rabbi. "So I’m looking forward to having Seder with my own parents in Houston, Texas, my brother in Denver, Colorado and us here in the Berkshires.”

Rabbi David Weiner of Pittsfield’s Congregation Knesset Israel will lead a table of five in his family home – as opposed to the communal celebration for a hundred he had planned for at the Conservative synagogue. He sees it as an opportunity for conversation to go deeper than most Passovers.

“Even without the stress of social distancing, we tend not to have those soulful conversations with each other," said Weiner. "But a small Seder, especially after a couple glasses of wine, can provide an opportunity for people to reconnect emotionally and spiritually with each other, with our people’s story, and even with God on a really deep level.”

Weiner observes an echo of the original Passover, which took place on the eve of the Jewish people’s exodus from slavery in Egypt on the way to the Promised Land in Israel.

“The story suggests that they huddled in their homes on that night while the plague – the death of the first born sons of Egypt – raged outside,” he told WAMC.

“The Hebrew word ‘mitzraim,’ which means Egypt, also means ‘the narrow place,'" said Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, who serves Reform congregation Beth Israel and its 100 member units – individuals and families – in North Adams. “So the Seder story begins in a time and place of constriction, dire straits, narrow, tight places. It begins in a moment where there was an enormous gap between rich and poor. It begins with plagues and darkness and sickness and leaving behind everything that’s familiar.”

Her advice to her congregants is to lean into the strangeness of the season.

“For me that means that if as Passover approaches we are feeling constricted or anxious or afraid, then we’re exactly where the story starts,” she told WAMC.

Barenblat points to the journey of the Seder – from trauma and grief and fear to freedom and rejoicing – as a tonic in the gut-churning era of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Every year at Seder we eat the bitter herb to remember the bitterness of slavery. We dip greens in salt water to remember the tears that we shed," said Barenblat. "So there’s a living into the pain that was which can also allow us to live into the pain that we’re feeling now. And critically, we don’t stay stuck in that place of pain – we have to feel it, because there’s no way out but through.”

Passover runs through the evening of April 16th.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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