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Passover during coronavirus pandemic means celebrating in unprecedented ways

Jewish families across the Tampa Bay area are making adjustments to celebrate the ancient festival of freedom.
Left to Right: Sarah Cowart, 6, helps her mother Hana Cowart roll out dough to make matzah in the family's kitchen, as Hana's husband Lyle and daughter Maddie, 2, watch. The family watched a YouTube live presentation by Maureen Sechan, director of lifelong learning, Congregation B'nai Israel of St. Petersburg, on their computer.
Left to Right: Sarah Cowart, 6, helps her mother Hana Cowart roll out dough to make matzah in the family's kitchen, as Hana's husband Lyle and daughter Maddie, 2, watch. The family watched a YouTube live presentation by Maureen Sechan, director of lifelong learning, Congregation B'nai Israel of St. Petersburg, on their computer. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Apr. 1, 2020|Updated Apr. 1, 2020

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A Boca Raton gathering of cousins around the Passover Seder table won’t happen this year. Nor will a gathering of more than 20 family members at Jay Kaminsky’s St. Petersburg home.

With the coronavirus continuing its stealthy pace, Jews across Tampa Bay are preparing to celebrate Passover — which begins at sundown next Wednesday — in unprecedented and determined ways.

Hana Cowart had planned to drive with her husband, Lyle, and daughters, Sarah, 6, and Maddie, 2, to the annual get together at her Aunt Lory Brenner’s home in Boca Raton.

“This year, my aunt, who is immune-compromised, can’t host us. She can’t even see her grandchildren. We have decided as a family to have a Zoom Seder,” Cowart said. “On every given year, we will have between 20 or 30 people. We do a lot of cooking in the house. My daughter is the official apple peeler. Everyone has their jobs. We spend hours in the kitchen talking and cooking and catching up. That’s the piece that I’m going to miss.”

Left to Right: Sarah Cowart, 6, helps her mother Hana Cowart mix dough to make matzah in the family's St. Petersburg kitchen, Tuesday, March 31, 2020. The family watched a YouTube live presentation by Maureen Sechan, director of lifelong learning, Congregation B'nai Israel of St. Petersburg, on their computer. The coronavirus outbreak has changed the plans of families preparing and celebrating Passover.
Left to Right: Sarah Cowart, 6, helps her mother Hana Cowart mix dough to make matzah in the family's St. Petersburg kitchen, Tuesday, March 31, 2020. The family watched a YouTube live presentation by Maureen Sechan, director of lifelong learning, Congregation B'nai Israel of St. Petersburg, on their computer. The coronavirus outbreak has changed the plans of families preparing and celebrating Passover. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Next week, Cowart, communications director for Congregation B’nai Israel in St. Petersburg, and her family will sit at their Seder table with a laptop to connect with relatives across the state.

Related: Passover rituals take on childlike wonder at Temple Beth-El's Early Childhood Center

Similar scenes will play out elsewhere. Kaminsky and his wife, Jennifer, and 7-year-old daughter, Rowan, are planning a virtual celebration with Pinellas County relatives. Though their large gathering had to be pared down, the Kaminskys are planning a special Passover meal delivery.

Jay Kaminsky
Jay Kaminsky [ Courtesy of Jay Kaminsky ]

“We are going to take the show on the road. We will mass produce everything and put it in to-go boxes and to-go containers,” Kaminsky said, adding that the packages will be delivered Wednesday. He and his wife also will include copies of the Haggadah, the book that sets out the ceremonial order of the Seder. Kaminsky said his wife has also downloaded and printed colorful pictures of the Seder plate — which holds symbolic foods — and pasted them onto plastic plates that will accompany each delivery.

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In Tampa, Rabbi Josh Hearshen of Congregation Rodeph Sholom agonized over whether his parents — both in their 70′s and just a few minutes away — should join him and his wife, Carrie, and daughters, Ayelet, 11, and Galit, 11 weeks old, at their home for Passover.

Rabbi Josh Hearshen,his wife, Carrie, and daughters, Ayelet, 11, and Galit, 11 weeks old.
Rabbi Josh Hearshen,his wife, Carrie, and daughters, Ayelet, 11, and Galit, 11 weeks old. [ Rabbi Josh Hearshen ]

Hearshen, a trained crisis counselor, said he is concerned about the isolation mandated by the pandemic. "I really worry about what the cabin fever is going to look like for all of us,” he said.

Related: Passover preparations start with cleaning, purging

“Judaism is a religion founded on the premise of the strong bond to a community," Hearshen said. "Our commitments are central to who we are and this whole process has been quite taxing on the Jewish community at large. We can’t gather. We can’t meet face-to-face. We can’t do anything that is emblematic of who we are. We have all resorted to platforms like Zoom and Facebook.”

Passover commemorates the Israelites’ deliverance from bondage and exodus from Egypt. The story is retold during the Seder, following the Haggadah. For Passover, homes must be purged of leavened products, or chametz, a mandate based on the hasty departure from Egypt when the Israelites did not have time to allow their dough to rise and ate only unleavened bread. Matzah is the unleavened bread eaten during the holiday.

Baked matzah is removed from the oven in the home of Hana and Lyle Cowart, Tuesday, March 31, 2020, in St. Petersburg. The family followed a YouTube video presented by Maureen Sechan, director of life long learning, Congregation B'nai Israel, St. Petersburg.
Baked matzah is removed from the oven in the home of Hana and Lyle Cowart, Tuesday, March 31, 2020, in St. Petersburg. The family followed a YouTube video presented by Maureen Sechan, director of life long learning, Congregation B'nai Israel, St. Petersburg. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

As he thinks of Passover 2020, Hearshen said he envisions the 10th and final plague —the death of the firstborn — and the one plague from which the Israelites were not automatically spared.

“They had to do something, slaughter the lamb and put the lamb’s blood on their door post,” he said, adding that he feels more and more like those ancient Israelites huddled in their houses, hoping to be safe from the angel of death and not knowing what tomorrow will bring.

"The other part of it is that the most important force we have as people of faith is hope and optimism. We have an obligation to believe that this is going to be okay and that we will find a way to survive, and that is alive in the Passover story, as well,” Hearshen said.

This week, Rabbi Alter Korf lost his father, Rabbi Gedale Korf, 90, to COVID-19. His father lived in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. Korf, his wife, Chaya, and their children will gather at their St. Petersburg home for the first and second night Seders.

Because of the coronavirus, they and others at their Chabad Jewish Center of Greater St. Petersburg are forgoing the community Seder usually held on the first night of the holiday. “It will be a time of greater bonding with our children and each other,” Korf said last week.

Rabbi Alter Korf of The Chabad Center of Greater St. Petersburg visits a vacant lot at 533 Fourth St. North where a new center will be built. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
Rabbi Alter Korf of The Chabad Center of Greater St. Petersburg visits a vacant lot at 533 Fourth St. North where a new center will be built. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]

This year, the Chabad Center is offering Passover-to-go kits and meals for people who cannot join in a communal or family Seder. People can order the kits for themselves or “take a moment to do it for a friend or somebody else in need,” Korf said. “At a time like this, we might be in social isolation, but the closeness with us has to be strengthened and we have to be more mindful of each other’s needs.”

Kaminsky, director of the Tampa Bay area office of the Jewish National Fund, said the organization is sending “Passover-in-a-box” for American Jews who recently emigrated to Israel and are now housebound for Passover.

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Rabbi Philip Weintraub [ Rabbi Philip Weintraub ]

Rabbi Philip Weintraub of Congregation B’nai Israel also had to change plans. The synagogue had been planning a Seder with about 100 to 150 people on the first night of Passover. The second night was going to be at his home, with about 25 people, including his parents. Now he and his wife and two daughters, 7, and 4, will celebrate alone.

Maureen Sechan, director of life long learning, Congregation B'nai Israel of St. Petersburg, shows a piece of her finished matzah during a YouTube presentation for families, Tuesday, March 31, 2020.
Maureen Sechan, director of life long learning, Congregation B'nai Israel of St. Petersburg, shows a piece of her finished matzah during a YouTube presentation for families, Tuesday, March 31, 2020. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

“Some congregations are doing online Seders. We aren’t," Weintraub said.

“Ultimately with all of this, Passover is a celebration of freedom from oppression and the ability to worship God, and that we can do under any circumstances,” Weintraub said. "There were people who were in the Nazi concentration camps who found ways to celebrate Passover, people in war zones. ... If we’re not to celebrate with everyone we want to, that’s a loss, but we can still celebrate.”

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