This time of year is usually buzzing with family and community. Passover is often referred to as a holiday of freedom, but this year it was for some people the furthest thing from that. As the Rabbi of an ever-growing synagogue and community centre, I host the Seders (traditional Passover feasts) at my home with community members and extend invitations to anyone willing to accept. However, this year there wasn’t anyone to invite.
Leading up to this usually joyful holiday, I became quite dispirited as the calls started streaming in from community members who had lost their jobs or savings in the stock markets and now couldn’t even see their grandchildren. What’s ironic is that throughout the year I am the one chasing community members to bring them to the centre for events and prayer services. I also make calls, send WhatsApp messages and post on Facebook to catch their attention and attempt to entice them through the doors of the synagogue. Now I’m lamenting with them, trying unsuccessfully to find some reason as to why G-d is putting us through this test. The best I came up with was, “we are all in this together, we are all in the same boat”, none of us are unique in this Corona-quarantining.
Then a late-night call last week after the Sabbath really rocked me, a Holocaust survivor, 98 years old, had passed away and I was asked to officiate her funeral. Due to social distance regulations no more than 10 people were allowed to attend the funeral. The lady whom I was laying to rest could’ve been my great-grandmother. I agonised about how I was to console this family who had just lost their matriarch. Who was I, some young rabbi, to give this family comfort and words of healing when they had had such a momentous loss, and their friends and extended family weren't even able to mourn together with them. This woman survived German slave labour camps during the Holocaust and now because of this silent killer was unable to have her grandchildren and great-grandchildren at her farewell.
The reality of the situation is that COVID-19 has fundamentally changed my rabbinic role. As time goes on and this becomes our new normal, the constant calls from community members looking for support has been integrated into my schedule. My role has changed from preaching on a pulpit to one of reassurance and consolation during this time of social isolation and loneliness during the festive season of Passover. Whenever I am on the phone to a congregant I lighten the mood by facetiously joking “thank G-d crèche is an essential service!" With four children of my own under the age of five, or should I say with four babies under the age of five, I would have never been able to do anything if the government had pulled the plug on crèche. I was quietly praying together with my wife that they wouldn’t. I started dreading the upcoming school holidays, what am I going to do for two weeks locked in the house with my kids, especially over Passover? Is my Passover Seder going to be 10 minutes because of nappy changes and bedtime will be in the middle of it?
Incredibly, without guests, my wife and I had the most wonderful two weeks locked up at home with our children. Our Seder was a lively event with re-enactments of the exodus of Egypt, as well as long speeches and songs from my 3-year-old who sang lively way past his bedtime. I even dressed up as Moses one night.
I saw the silver lining in this turbulent time—I finally had time to be fully present with my children, no phone to disturb me—as on Jewish festivals we don’t use electronics, I had no sermon to fine-tune and I was finally able to spend the entire time with my family. My 4-year-old even learnt how to ride a bike without training wheels, an impressive feat that his grandmother told him over FaceTime “your Daddy could only do it when he was 5”. Yes, the fridge has some scratches and dents that came about with children 2 and 3 trying to break into it for some milk. The curtains to their room have been ripped down and I am trying unsuccessfully to find a tradesman to come and fix it. But I must say lockdown was a sort of blessing that I didn't know I wanted. Spending quality time with my kids without having to run to an urgent meeting or being required to write emails, was in a way an Exodus from real life I much needed (hopefully temporarily).
But...I think my wife now needs a holiday.