Coronavirus pandemic. Passover matzo and protective face mask on white background, top view

Passover matzo and protective face mask on white background, top view

As increasing numbers of people get vaccinated, pre-pandemic behavior is becoming more common. Still, Passover will be challenging for some this year, whether because they haven’t been vaccinated, they’re unable to travel or they’ll be separated from family and friends.

Jennifer Brauner, director of Jewish Family & Children’s Service’s Senior Enrichment Center in Phoenix, was worried that many of her senior participants would be alone on Passover. She told them about JFCS’ Passover food drive thinking some might have need of it. Instead, many seniors offered to help and to donate.

Brauner is confident anyone with a concern about being alone would reach out to her, and said the fact that nobody has is a positive sign. “Maybe it has something to do with the fact people are getting vaccinated and they feel more comfortable getting together with families,” she said.

She also sees the Center’s Zoom offerings as a silver lining of the pandemic. Zoom has allowed seniors to come together and connect with others who are living alone, especially around holidays.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” she said. They enjoy greeting one another on Zoom, and “they’ve built relationships.” While last year Zoom seemed alien and even frightening, seniors now feel more confident and are able to use it to enjoy the holiday.

Amy Gold, a social worker and information and referral specialist at AgeWell at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s Jewish Community Center, has also been talking to seniors about Passover strategies.

Along with encouraging people to contact their doctors about personal health concerns and review CDC guidelines, Gold promotes pre-holiday communication.

“Every individual and family has their own comfort level,” she said.

Questions concerning mask wearing, hugging and distancing can be addressed well before breaking the middle matzah. Some families may decide that another year of Zooming or outdoor visits is the best approach, continued Gold. “We just need to remember that our older adults are especially vulnerable and you have to weigh the risk and the benefit of being alone or gathering,” she said.

Jack Silver, the director of training and Jewish counseling for JFCS in Phoenix, said that while people are expressing more anxiety and more loneliness than before, he’s been heartened by people’s resilience. “If you’d asked me a year ago about this,” he said, “I would have had a much more bleak outlook, and I would have predicted more drastic problems.”

Still, he acknowledged that as social animals, “being disconnected from people, especially older people, can be deleterious to psychological and physical health.” But seniors have adjusted to the new reality, and a holiday like Passover is likely more surmountable this year than last, he said.

Rabbi Dovid Small has been thinking about the impact of isolation this Passover. As director of pastoral care at the Jewish Association on Aging in Pittsburgh, Small is organizing a model seder for residents and staff prior to the holiday’s start. He hopes to record the event so it’s accessible for later viewing.

“One of the most important things is connection,” said Small. Whether it’s a phone call or delivery of a food item, “some sort of connection makes the holiday more meaningful.”

Reaching out yields mutual benefits and reflects a theme of the holiday, he continued: “Passover is a time of personal freedom, and finding that personal freedom in your own life, leaving Egypt in your own life, I think it’s special when we can share that with people who are special in our own lives.”

For some seniors, this Passover comes after a year of tremendous loss, and that more than anything will shape the holiday.

Janet Arnold Rees, senior concierge and creative aging coordinator for JFCS in Phoenix, has lost two brothers over the course of the last three months, and though she’s “the family seder person,” this year, she’s not up to the appellation. “I’m just coming up out of the swamp,” she said, via email.

Still, her family is going to try to set up a Zoom seder. “Passover has always been special, and last year we were a bit blind-sided and didn’t do anything,” she said. Even with the losses they’ve experienced, the family wants some semblance of a celebration.

Her brother who passed away last week was always responsible for “corny Passover jokes he would find to start out each of our seders,” she said. “We loved rolling our eyes at him — but we all remember how fun they were.” He had been leading the seders for the last few decades and now “we’ve passed the leadership down to the next generation.”

And when thinking of people who are facing the holiday alone, Stefanie Small, director of clinical services at JFCS in Pittsburgh, suggested people offer them a safe option.

“Reach out and invite someone to sit on your porch with you,” said Small. “Maybe sing some seder songs during the day. Nobody says that all of those have to be done at night.”

With proper planning, popular holiday foods, like chocolate matzah, can be enjoyed by people outdoors together.

So much of Passover is about hope and freedom, said Small. “We’re still not past the restrictions of the pandemic, but with all of the vaccinations and all of the knowledge — the medical knowledge — we’ve gained, we have hope for the future. We’re not in our normal situations, but this holiday can be a beacon of hope of what is yet to come.” JN

Adam Reinherz is a staff writer for Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, a Jewish News-affiliated publication.

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