Oakland Jews celebrate Passover amid Coronavirus

Sam Schuchat of Oakland prepares for a virtual seder on the first night of Passover. (Photo: Ilana DeBare)

On Tuesday afternoon, Sam Schuchat wrestled with 10 pounds of ground fish and a five pound brisket. He made 90 gefilte fish balls. His wife, Ilana DeBare, made matzah ball soup. Usually, their family hosts 20-25 family and friends at their North Oakland home for the first night of Passover. 

With the full moon visible, Jews in Oakland, the Bay Area, and around the world are preparing for a Passover like no other. Sheltered in place and social distancing to avoid COVID-19, the usually festive meals and participatory ceremonies commemorating the Exodus will largely be replaced by virtual seders.

“We will be doing two seders on Zoom this year, one with family and one with friends,” Schuchat said. “I don’t expect it will be the same, and we won’t be eating the meal in front of each other on the computer screen!”

Schuchat’s daughter, Rebecca, moved back from Berkeley with the family as the virus began to spread in the U.S. Together, they delivered the fish to friends today, most of whom usually attend their seder. Preparing the food for Passover helped take his mind off the pandemic for a moment. “I managed to stop worrying about the virus for a while,” he said.


Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin on the meaning of Passover during the pandemic

Jews observe Passover for seven, or eight, days starting on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nisan, usually in April. Seder is a Jewish ritual and dinner during the first or first two nights of Passover. The holiday highlights themes of rebirth, renewal, and liberation. Amid the pandemic, these themes are resonating during a time of uncertainty.

Dan Fendel, 73, has hosted a seder at his home for the last 40 years. Between him and his wife’s three children, their grandchildren, and his brother and his family, anywhere between 20-30 people might attend their Passover seder. 

Fendell is also hosting a virtual seder for his family. “Most of the same people will be online. And we’ve got room for more.” He’s invited a few people who don’t have family locally, he said, and they’ll likely change the actual ceremony.

Generally, a seder ritual may last from 45 minutes to three hours and includes blessings, filling each other’s cups, washing of the hands, an appetizer, breaking bread, and heart of the holiday, the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Deuteronomy 16 calls for the retelling of Passover. “The telling of stories is really essential to Jewish persistence,” Fendell said.

The story is followed by washing hands again, blessings, a festive meal, and grace and praises. The seder rituals are completed with a closing. This year, some may continue the virtual meal together, but others will only share the ceremony. 

“Although I’m excited about having everyone together, I’m sad about saying goodbye,” Fendel said. “It will go from having 30 to 40 people, to two, in an instance. Me and my wife.” 

OAKLAND JEWRY

Over 350,000 Jews live in the Bay Area with about a third in the East Bay, according to a 2018 study by the Jewish Community Federation, the first to survey Jewish life in the region. The Bay has the U.S. fourth-largest Jewish community. 

Jews first settled in the East Bay in the 1860s and established a Jewist burial ground at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland in 1865, according to author Frederick Isaacs in the book Jews of Oakland and Berkeley. From 1969 to 2005, the Oakland-area Jewish population grew from 18,000 to upwards of 80,000.

The first East Bay synagogue, First Hebrew Congregation, opened in Oakland in 1875. Today, Temple Sinai serves about 1,000 households and welcomes “Jews by birth, Jews by choice, interfaith families, and those wishing to learn more about Judaism,” according to its website. Other local temples and synagogues include Kehilla Community Synagogue and Beth Jacob Congregation

Temple Sinai of Oakland usually hosts a traditional-style community seder on the second night of Passover, as well as a women’s seder focused on justice and women’s liberation, according to Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin, senior Rabbi of Temple Sinai in Oakland. The temple also hosts an interfaith Unity Seder and invites greater community and focuses on shared issues of injustice and oppression in society.

With some Jewish senior facilities restricting visitors for safety measures, individuals and organizations like Jewish Family and Children’s Services (JFCS) are providing home health care, and meal and grocery deliveries. JFCS and the Hebrew Free Loan are providing interest-free coronavirus relief loans.

A NEW PLAGUE

With COVID-19, some Jews are seeing modern parallels or a deeper significance of Passover amid coronavirus. Fendell called it an “eleventh plague.”

“It is ironic that a holiday that features 10 plagues is being disrupted by an actual modern day plague,” Schuchat said. Parts of East Africa have also been afflicted by locusts this year.. 

Fendell noticed another irony due to the stay at home order. “Passover story is from slavery to freedom. This year, we’re moved to a lack of freedom,” Fendell said.

Still, this Passover, many Jews remain focused on freedom and justice as they retell the story.

“Passover for us is a story of liberation that is both specifically for Jews, but also broadly applicable to anyone anywhere who is oppressed,” Schuchat said. 

Virtual Seders in Oakland

A few Oakland congregations are hosting virtual seders and Shabbat and other services online. J, the Jewish Weekly news publication for Northern California, compiled a list of virtual Passover seders

Wednesday, April 8

Passover Sukkah — An interactive seder on Zoom named for this year’s “sheltering-in-place” aspect. Run by Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont. Includes a teaching on how “our exoduses have disenfranchised indigenous people.” 5-6:30 p.m. Free with registration.

Glitter Seder — A gathering on Zoom organized by Glitter, a group for 20- and 30-somethings at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont. Reflections on liberation and solidarity. 6-7:30 p.m. Free with registration. 

Friday, April 11

People of Color Pesach — Kehilla Community Synagogue of Piedmont takes to Zoom for a gathering that will explore themes of collective liberation, engaging in disability and racial justice and new ways of honoring indigenous land. 6:30-7:30 p.m. Free with registration.

About Rasheed Shabazz

Rasheed Shabazz is a multimedia storyteller, urban planning historian, and youth development professional based in the Bay Area. He coordinates Oakland Voices and is currently in the Masters of City and Regional Planning program at UC Berkeley.  View all posts by Rasheed Shabazz →

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