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Exodus to Freedom in New Zealand: Seder night without masks or social distancing

Members of the Jewish community are registered on an app and at any given time they know who needs to self-isolate and who has been exposed to a Covid-19 patient. However, this is insufficient to reduce worry about gatherings, and only half of the community’s members registered for the communal Seder.  When the lockdowns began, the Rabbi Ariel Tal organized Zoom lectures and set up a popular YouTube channel.  However, the religious judge (dayan) and ritual slaughterer (shochet) were unable to fly in from Australia because the borders were closed.

Nitzchiya Yaakov | Ynet News, March 26, 2021

When the Covid-19 outbreak began in April 2020, Ariel Tal, Rabbi of the Wellington, New Zealand Jewish Community Centre, his wife Rachel and their four daughters (Nechama aged 13, Shlomit – 9, Emunah – 7 and Aliza – 3) were busy with last minute Pesach cleaning and preparations in the kitchen.

Rabbi Tal, a graduate of Ohr Torah Stone’s Straus-Amiel Emissary Training Program, recalls: “In one instant we were put on Level 4 – the strictest lockdown level when we were all ordered to stay at home, in our own bubble.  The synagogues were closed down, all communal life came to a halt and we had to cancel all our plans for Seder night, including distribution of Seder plate kits to members of the community.  The days leading up to Pesach are usually the busiest time of the year for me, and now for the first time, I was on vacation during Pesach – but it was very difficult for me to enjoy it, I wanted to celebrate with my community.”

But Pesach 2021 is completely different.  Life in Wellington has returned to normal, and there is great excitement about celebrating the two Seder nights in the community.  “We will be holding prayer services as we were used to, without any limitation on the number of worshippers or social distancing.  We will not have to wear masks.  Back to normal.”

Although life has seemingly returned to normal, the 350 members of Rabbi Tal’s community are still hesitant about attending large gatherings.  So far, only 50 people have registered for the communal Seder, about half the usual number.  All the community members are registered on an app that enables tracking of anyone who enters the Wellington Jewish Community Centre that includes the Beth El synagogue, kindergarten, school, kosher store and a Holocaust memorial museum.  At any given moment, everyone knows who needs to self-isolate, who was in contact with a person with Covid-19 or who has caught the virus.  There are no secrets.

Heartbreaking moments

"Who Knows One?" video
“Who Knows One?”

Rabbi Tal’s daughters continued attending their school for most of the lockdown, since he is considered an essential worker.  After the Shavuot festival, they went back to their class with 3-4 other students, at a time when no one was keen to let their children go out of their homes.  Rabbi Tal explains that “the school year here consists of four semesters.  Every second semester, the Wellington children learned on Zoom.  This was very difficult, even for us at home.  The situation forced us to develop new ways of thinking and to be creative in our attempts to engage the community.  My wife Rachel prepared a short video clip in English of ‘Who Knows One’, the song sung at the end of the Seder night.  I accompanied her with music, and we incorporated videos of the community’s children, who filmed themselves singing or dancing.  This project kept us all busy for a few weeks.  Another successful Covid-19 project was a parody clip from last Purim, called ‘I’m a Rabbi’, which got 1,140 views on YouTube.

“In taking the opportunity to unite and crystallize as a family, we became closer to our community members, as well as to other communities in New Zealand and even worldwide.  This was an amazing time.  We arranged Zoom lectures with speakers from all over the world – at no cost.  In normal times, it would have been impossible to physically bring the speakers to New Zealand.  Before the festival of Shavuot, we set up a YouTube channel featuring lecturers from all over the world who spoke about the upcoming festival.  Each speaker got between 100-150,000 views, which was a real hit.”

However, Rabbi Tal admits that Covid-19 also left terrible memories that he cannot forget.  He refers to the sad funerals that he officiated at for elderly members of the community.  Although they had lived full lives, the lockdown measures meant that their family members could only accompany them in the funeral via livestream.

“I spoke to the camera without being able to see the mourners.  At such moments, you want to be able to look at them, embrace them and comfort them, but it was not possible.  One of the women who passed away was a Holocaust survivor who was well known in the community and in the whole country.  She died aged 86, and under normal circumstances the Ambassador and other important guests would have participated in the funeral with thousands of other mourners.  However, only ten people were permitted to attend her funeral.  Such incidents break my heart.”

In the whole of New Zealand there are 7,500 Jews, most of whom live in Auckland and Wellington.  More than 2,000 Jews live in Wellington where there are two synagogues – one Orthodox and the other Progressive-Reform.  New Zealand’s borders were sealed from the very beginning of the pandemic, and only 26 people have died from Covid-19 in the entire country, none of whom were members of the Jewish community.  In Wellington and Auckland, there were only a few cases of Covid-19 patients.

Rabbi Tal notes: “The Jewish communities are rather conservative and are very careful to abide by all the regulations.  Similarly, the economic situation of the community members was not adversely affected.  On the contrary, three new religious family joined our community.  They left Melbourne, London and Miami and chose to settle here.  We have ten religious families living in the city, so the new additions are very welcome – they help us make up a minyan, add numbers to our educational institutions and they buy from the Centre’s kosher store.”

According to Rabbi Tal, the problems still facing the community due to the closed borders are shechita (ritual slaughter of kosher meat) and conversions.  This is because the shochet (ritual slaughterer) and dayan (religious judge) cannot fly in from Australia.  “This is a complex problem that also exists in other countries.  We are trying to get around the problem in delicate ways.”

Read this article (in Hebrew) on the Ynet website

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