Judaism through Zoom: Emissaries in the Diaspora Prepare for Pesach
Straus-Amiel emissaries to Jewish congregations throughout the world cope with current challenges and struggle to continue Jewish life even during the Corona epidemic
Orly Harrari | April 8, 2020
Candle-lighting through Zoom, distributing mezuzot to homes of community members, and online lessons in preparation for Seder night: emissaries of Ohr Torah Stone’s Straus-Amiel Rabbinical Emissary program recount the many experiences and challenges they are coping with due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Communities are struggling not only with health challenges and financial worries, but also the fact that the upcoming family-oriented holiday of Pesach is being celebrated in isolation. Specific foods are required at a time when basic necessities cannot always be found.
“Jews of the Diaspora who adhere to religious law face far greater complexities than we do in Israel. There are gaps in halachic knowledge regarding how to act in an emergency as this information is not as accessible to the public as it is in Israel,” explains Rabbi Kenneth Brander, President and Rosh HaYeshiva of the Ohr Torah Stone network of institutions, which includes the Straus-Amiel Rabbinical Emissary program that prepares emissaries to the Diaspora.
“This is not caused by anti-Semitism, but because sensitivity towards Jewish tradition does not exist in the rest of the world as it does in the Jewish State – it is a different reality.”
Rabbi Brander adds, “Our rabbis face many widely varied challenges, ranging from preparing bodies for burial and questions relating to burial on Shabbat by non-Jews in order to avoid cremation; how to buy food that is kosher for Pesach in a regular supermarket; and finally how to care for older adults and solitary people in the community – who are barely coping with the situation as it is – when there will not be a communal Seder night. We are proud of the dedicated work of our emissaries throughout the world as they help Diaspora Jewry and the Jewish people.”
Despite the fact that circumcisions are not taking place, the challenges of preparing bodies for burial, disruptions to travel and lack of supplies caused by lockdowns, the closure of synagogues and mikvehs, Diaspora Jewry still manage to maintain community life within the impossible routine forced upon the world.
Rabbi Ariel Tal, a Straus-Amiel rabbinical emissary to New Zealand, relates how his community in Wellington, numbering some 2,000 Jews, is coping. “Until the middle of last week people in the community were anxious as the shipment of matza was delayed and had not yet arrived. However towards the end of the week kosher for Pesach food was delivered to New Zealand’s capital, and it can now be distributed throughout the community according to government guidelines limiting the movement of residents and forbidding people to congregate.
“We are coping with a challenging reality in which for the first time it is forbidden to hold a large communal Seder,” says Rabbi Tal. “So we are broadcasting content through the internet. Many questions have come up regarding kosher for Pesach products; if sugar, salt, and other basic products may be used if they are not kosher for Pesach. I answer some questions privately, some through emails I send out to the community, some by recording classes and uploading them to Facebook, or by live classes with the option of asking questions through Zoom or Facebook.”
Apart from community members, Rabbi Tal is trying – together with local Chabad representatives – to assist dozens of Israelis who are stuck in New Zealand because of the situation. Some found temporary quarters and were given a brief course in preparing homemade matza, others were left with no money or means to find kosher food. “We’ve gone to the virtual sphere in almost every field – from daily prayer minyans to kosher food supervision – but there are some things that require us to go from place to place, so we do that and take care of whoever needs help. We make sure to provide basic help to anyone who needs halachic or logistic help, of course while adhering to government regulations.”
Rabbi Pinchas Punterello, liaison and rabbi at the Ibn Gavirol Madrid school, told us: “The Coronavirus has hit Spain mercilessly. Initially outbreaks were registered in Catalonia, but the virus quickly spread to other provinces in Spain.
“We have basically been in lockdown since the day after Purim. Schools were closed and we immediately began long-distance schooling,” said the rabbi. “Many schools adhere only to general content, but as a Jewish school we wanted to maintain the routine of Hebrew and Jewish studies. The children have one hour of Torah studies and three hours of Hebrew studies a week, and lessons in Jewish history, heritage, and more. We are also holding a Pesach party for the students through Zoom.”
Madrid’s seven synagogues are closed and the only minyan to be found today is a virtual one whose main components are missing for halachic reasons. Nevertheless, the Jewish community is managing to function: the mikveh is open and constantly being disinfected and cleaned, and permits access to only one woman at a time. Kosher supermarkets are open and offer the option of ordering food ahead of time and arranging a pick-up time – so there is no problem with kosher food in the city for the holiday.
“There are classes through Zoom throughout the week. On Saturday night we hold a communal havdalah ceremony and every week I send out two video clips through YouTube. The children learn on the computer until 2:30 pm every day, and the youth movements conducted an online Playstation competition and successfully stay in touch with the kids.”
One of the main concerns of Jewish communities, especially in Spain and Italy, is the issue of cremation. Currently, however, things are very organized. “Even the Hevra Kadisha is working normally, using masks, of course, according to local Health Ministry guidelines. We are maintaining community life as much as possible,” Punterello emphasizes.
Rabbi Michael Cohen is a community rabbi and Straus-Amiel emissary to Bern in Switzerland. The community numbers 500 members, and although it is not large the effects of the Corona virus have been felt there too. Switzerland limits congregating so Bar and Bat Mitzva celebrations have been postponed.
Other celebrations have also been postponed, including the Yom Ha’atzma’ut party scheduled for the end of this month. “This coming Pesach will be challenging not only from the halachic aspect, but because of the severe damage to community life, which is centered around Jewish and Israeli holidays,” says Rabbi Cohen. “Despite the issues, we are trying to infuse the holiday with meaning, which is why we decided to hold a communal Seder through Zoom before sunset and before the holiday begins. Once the holiday begins each family will continue the Seder on their own. We hope that this will give the members of the community a sense of togetherness, and it will also help guide people who are conducting the Seder on their own.”
Preparations for Pesach included distributing a special haggadah to the congregation with specific guidelines, so the whole community will read from the same version, uniting all the families who will read from the same haggadah at the same time.
The community is all set regarding food that is kosher for Pesach, and is prepared to provide for holiday needs. “We are lucky that we could buy kosher for Pesach food by mail order. We have matza, wine, and foods sold in a shop in Bern. Not everyone has the means to buy for themselves, so we got together and purchased food for those who cannot do so on their own. Most of the food is purchased in Zurich, which is an hour from here, and one of the main things we have experienced is the rabbis’ ability to understand the situation and help us, particularly this year. For instance, the Straus-Amiel institute organized sessions with rabbis who answered halachic questions relating to Pesach and the current situation of fighting Corona, which is a great help in understanding and coping with the situation.”
Here, too, the challenges posed by the virus are countered by technological means. “We share Torah lessons, reading the Torah portion, a newsletter, podcasts with religious content, online guidelines, and more,” explains Rabbi Cohen. “Although meetings in person are prohibited, we are here to provide information and content and of course we play a central role in community life at this time as well. In order to provide community members with the sense that they are part of something larger we offer Kabbalat Shabbat and havdalah ceremonies through Zoom, and many people join in, mainly for Kabbalat Shabbat. It is important to remember that a major part of community life is the sense of safety that a community can provide, and it is important to retain it in these times also, or to be precise – especially in these times.”
Rabbi Yoni Dreyer, deputy rabbi of the Orthodox community in Omaha, Nebraska, says, “At present it seems that our situation is a little better than it is in Israel. Time will tell if this is only complacency or actually true. Media reports are of only 100 infected people, but residents fear that the situation is actually worse because tests are not being conducted.”
Regarding guidelines, at the time this goes to print gatherings of more than ten people are forbidden, some stores are careful to maintain a minimal number of shoppers at all times, and many stores and restaurants are closed. Schools and kindergartens are closed, as is the synagogue, of course, and the Jewish Center. “The synagogue closed its gates and activities due to a genuine concern for community members, many of whom are older adults. There is no doubt that our work is now more difficult, but we are making every effort to continue routine activities at regular times, albeit online.”
Although it currently seems that the virus is less of a threat in Omaha, the community still faces challenges. “Our greatest challenge is the shared management of the community,” notes Rabbi Dreyer. “Community relations are built up throughout the year, and keeping everyone connected and in touch is very challenging now.”
Rabbi Dreyer explains that together with the community’s rabbi, many activities are carried out to maintain Torah, and there are many Pesach related challenges. “We are actively trying to reach every member of the community, young and old, to make sure they have everything they need for Pesach. We distributed Pesach packages that include haroset, horseradish, wine, matza, activities, games, and Torah ideas.”
Rabbi Dreyer explains that the goal is for all members of the community to celebrate the holiday joyously even though a communal Seder will not take place this year. “Every year there is a community Seder and unfortunately we will not be able to hold it this year. Instead we are conducting a series of activities to bring the Seder to the community while conforming to restrictions. We cannot kasher people’s dishes so we are instructing people how to do it themselves. The team that makes the retirement home kosher for Pesach is also unable to do so this year, which means I will have to do it myself under the restrictions involved in entering an old age home. As we are not in New York or New Jersey there are only three stores that carry kosher for Pesach products, so we need to be more prepared than usual. For instance, two weeks ago we placed an order from a store in New York and we really hope that the shipment arrives before Pesach. The synagogue also ordered matza for the community and we are all praying it arrives without mishap.”
The community provides kosher supervision to a large milk factory in the city which supplies milk to many stores. “We confirmed that they changed their vitamin compound to a kosher one and we are kashering their assembly line for the holiday, so that milk products will be kosher for Pesach.”
Rabbi Dreyer describes several other initiatives, such as A Taste of Shabbat – small, sweet packages that have been delivered to community members before Shabbat ever since the synagogue was closed; Community Clip – every family films itself for a video that will be produced after the holiday; communal Kabbalat Shabbat and havdalah ceremonies through Zoom – every Friday before Shabbat many members of the community come together to bring in the Sabbath through Zoom, and a few minutes after the end of Shabbat they get together for a musical online havdalah ceremony. There is a project to get to know the community, online children’s prayers every weekday morning, lessons for children in preparation for Pesach, guidance on how to conduct Pesach alone for the first time, and more.
“One of the most touching experiences in reaching out to community members, including those who normally do not take part, was to see that every home we reached had a mezuzah on the doorframe. We gave out mezuzahs to a great many people and the phone calls we received, even before Shabbat, proved that it was worth it, people were so happy to get the package. I suggest that everyone think of people far away who need even a small taste of yiddishkeit and a hug showing you care.”
Rabbi Ari Silverman, an emissary rabbi of the Mizrahi movement and the Straus-Amiel program to Manchester, England, says that Manchester has a relatively large Jewish community and kosher food is easily accessible, as are many schools, yeshivas, and synagogues. However, England has also enforced regulations limiting congregation.
“We are working to provide content through the internet, through Zoom and WhatsApp, to support the members of the community, the city’s rabbis, and the older population. There is also a Beit Din that sells chametz to a non-Jew, and the London Beit Din has allowed leniencies on some basic foods that can be used on Pesach. We are conducting community preparations for Pesach,” Rabbi Silverman explains. “For instance, we provided online lessons for children to help families, we generate content so that people will not feel alone, and to help the members of the community. Everything has shifted to the virtual sphere, even funerals and shivas are conducted through Zoom when necessary,” he adds.
Rabbi Silverman says that reports came in from Australia that non-Jewish residents had begun buying kosher for Pesach products because of the shortage of supplies. As a result they began preparing earlier and equipping themselves with kosher for Pesach food.
“Despite the difficulties we are successfully maintaining community life, although it comes at a price.” Rabbi Silverman notes the differences in mentality between Jews in England and in Israel during emergencies. “As an organization we are able to conduct a large event – a Shabbat in which every synagogue joins in with Torah lessons beforehand, followed by a performance – and everything is online. The pandemic has placed us in a difficult and uncomfortable position, but it has enabled many new things. Generally speaking, unlike Israel, England does not have to cope with emergencies and at such a time people really appreciate our help and preparations. They are unfamiliar with emergencies, and our help is very much appreciated.”