May 27, 2020
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Jews scale down Passover seders amid gathering restrictions

Elaine Thompson | AP
Elaine Thompson | AP
Seth Pollack pours wine for his family, wife Jessica Choe and children Micah and Mina Pollack, as they being their Passover meal Wednesday, April 8, 2020, in Seattle. With physical distancing guidelines in place because of the coronavirus pandemic, Jewish communities are being forced to scale back or cancel beloved traditions and rituals marking Passover, the holiday celebrating Israelites' freedom from Egyptian bondage and referencing biblical plagues. The week-long festival began Wednesday night with the Seder, a large meal that retells the Exodus story. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

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Every Passover, Jews around the world ask: Why is this night different from all other nights?”

The answer this year is the same as it’s always been: “On all other nights we eat bread or matzah, while on this night we eat only matzah.”

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But the circumstances this year certainly aren’t the same.

The coronavirus has forced Jews everywhere, including Steven Mogul and his family in Bangor, to limit their celebratory Passover meals known as seders from extended families and friends to small, one-household affairs.

“This year will be different,” said Mogul, an attorney who grew up in Bangor. “It will be a small gathering of three.”

Mogul’s daughters and their boyfriends are staying away because he and his wife, and also his mother-in-law, are considered to be in high-risk groups for contracting the virus.

“We [usually] gather together – my wife, my mother-in-law, my two daughters, a couple of friends and one or two boyfriends,” Mogul said. “ We sit around our dining room table and take turns reading from the Haggadah, recounting the story of the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt.”

Passover began at sundown on Wednesday and will continue for seven days. Mogul said it will be difficult for his family to practice social distancing during this time — Passover is their favorite Jewish holiday.

As Jews are doing around the world, the Moguls are relying on technology to help bring their family and friends together.

But in Bangor, Congregation Beth El and Beth Israel were forced to cancel community seders that draw more than 100 to the synagogues’ separate events because of restrictions put in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

“The outbreak of COVID-19 has absolutely disrupted the inter-generational character of the holiday,” said Rabbi Bill Siemers of Beth Israel, the city conservative shul. “For many communities, I think including Bangor, the community [seders] are highlights of Jewish life. This year we will be in our houses, and this year I think when we recite the plagues that preceded the Exodus, it will be in a heavier tone.”

The seder commemorates the time Jews spent as slaves and the freedom that followed. Unleavened bread or matzah is traditionally served because the Jews left Egypt in such haste there was no time to allow the bread to rise. The seder includes bitter foods, such as horseradish, to remind them of their bitter years in slavery. Charoset, a sweet mixture of fruit and red wine, is served to remind them of the sweet taste of freedom.

Lynne Fort | BDN
Lynne Fort | BDN
The Seder plate (foreground) and the matzah the traditioonal ingredients of the Passover meal. photo: gabor degre/ bangor daily news/ In Edscan 4 15

Passover’s power to bring both observant and secular Jews to the seder table is unparalleled among their religious holidays.

Seven in 10 Jews reported participating in a seder the previous year, compared with 53 percent who reported fasting during Yom Kippur, the holy Jewish day of atonement, according to 2013 polling by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

Rabbi Noam Marans, director of interreligious relations at the American Jewish Committee, described the gravity of Passover during the coronavirus by reciting a key portion of the Haggadah, the sacred text Jews recite on the holiday.

“‘This year we are enslaved – next year we will be free.’ That aspiration is very real this year,” Marans said, looking ahead to a future victory over the disease.

Mogul expressed that sentiment a bit differently.

“We are free, and we are able to celebrate,” he said. “We are all healthy — knock on wood — and we have much to be grateful for. And like the Jews who fled Egypt, we will face this adversity and come out stronger. Next year we will celebrate with a full table once again.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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