BALTIMORE — About 17 percent of American adults have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and about a third of adults have received at least one shot of the vaccine, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 vaccine tracker.
For those Americans, gathering in person with others who are vaccinated has become much safer. But the majority who are not yet vaccinated are having to confront another socially distanced Passover, and some may be looking for advice on new ways to find meaning in this year’s holiday.
“While there are good trends as more people get vaccinated and things open up, my sense is that a lot of people are experiencing the runway to Passover with a little bit of deja vu all over again,” said Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg of Beth Am in Baltimore. “Why was last Passover different from all other Passovers? Because we thought it would be. We thought by this time we would have sorted this out. A lot of people are going into this Passover feeling a little bit of malaise and frustration that we have not returned to normal.”
Similar to last year, many are having seders with a smaller in-person group than usual, and non-Orthodox Jews may also be participating in seders online.
“People are very worried about being isolated and being very sad that we all said, ‘Next year in person’ last year, and we’ve come around to another year, where sadly it’s still not safe for many of us to be having our seders with all the people we wish we could have them with,” said Rabbi Rory Katz of Chevrei Tzedek Congregation in Baltimore.
Last year, a Zoom seder came with a sense of novelty. Though that novelty has long since worn off, there might be some ways a Zoom seder this year has a leg up this time around, Katz noted. After a year of celebrating holidays online, community members are more knowledgeable on how to make virtual celebrations more engaging experiences, she explained. Similar to an in-person celebration, a lot of this comes down to planning. It may include thinking through ways to supplement the virtual experience with physical objects or asking participants to bring songs or stories to the seder.
For Orthodox Jews, for whom a Zoom seder is not an option, holidays may come more with a sense of loneliness, rather than of Zoom fatigue, said Maharat Ruth Friedman of Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue in Washington.
That some people are vaccinated and some aren’t creates a challenge for synagogues to figure out how everyone can feel included, Friedman said. Until vaccines are available to everyone, Ohev Sholom is not changing any of its pandemic practices. That means that prayer services are still outdoors, and they are offering extra programming on Zoom.
“Pesach is occurring during a really crazy time right now because vaccines are constantly coming in, and guidelines around vaccines are constantly changing,” Friedman said.
Outside of the seder, people can also embrace the themes of Passover by heading into nature, Katz said.
“Passover is not traditionally thought of as an outside holiday,” Katz said. “So much energy is put into the seder, which is usually indoors, but if you think about it, Passover is a holiday about the Jewish people transitioning from living in slavery to spending 40 years living outside, living in the desert, and it’s this moment of this entrance into a new world, a world of freedom, that is outside. It’s a time I would invite people to look outside and look at the opportunity to see the nature that gives a sense of renewal and a sense of freedom.”
Those interested in exploring this nature theme can go on a hike or observe new flowers or young animals like tadpoles, Katz said.
Burg had similar advice for finding meaning in Passover beyond a traditional, in-person seder.
“After a long winter, people are going to be super excited to get outdoors and enjoy nature again, a safe activity during the pandemic,” he said. “The best thing this year is to really focus on the celebration of spring. One of themes of Passover in our tradition is Chag Ha’Aviv, festival of spring, and celebrating the budding flowers and the emerging atmosphere is going to be a really nice way to celebrate Pesach this year.”
Passover is also a holiday about transition, Friedman said. It’s another theme that may resonate strongly this year, and considering this theme is perhaps a way people can find meaning in the holiday.
“When have we felt those moments of redemption? When have we felt those moments of setback? When do we feel like we’re still prisoners to this virus?” Friedman said. “The pandemic brings a new lens of thinking about the story, of the experience of the Israelites.”