Passover in isolation dampens holiday mood in Israel

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An ultra-Orthodox Jewish men wears a face mask as children burn leavened items in final preparation for the Passover holiday in the Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, Wednesday, April 8, 2020. Jerusalem authorities have said they will gather the bread and burn it in a big bonfire in one location to avoid large gatherings. But, some in the Mea Shearim neighborhood shunned the orders. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

JERUSALEM – Each year, Patricia Sheetrit and her family gather with in-laws for the first night of Passover, bringing together some 20 people for the holiday’s main event, the festive meal known as the Seder.

But like most Israelis, Sheetrit and her husband will be stuck at home this year — holding a bare-bones Seder for two.

“Everyone is sad and alone, and everyone is worried about one another,” Sheetrit said.

As a modern pandemic afflicts the globe, Israeli Jews are being forced to scale back or cancel beloved traditions and rituals marking Passover, the holiday celebrating Israelites’ freedom from Egyptian bondage and referencing biblical plagues.

Communal preparations have been canceled. Police are enforcing stay-at-home orders and a general lockdown through Friday morning. Families are turning to videoconferencing in hopes of capturing a small slice of the holiday spirit.

“There’s a lot of families, a lot of seniors, a lot of singles who will be having Seder alone, and that’s very challenging because this is really the family holiday,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, president of Ohr Torah Stone, a network of 27 modern Orthodox institutions.

The week-long festival starts Wednesday night with the Seder, a large meal that retells the Exodus story. A highlight of the joyous dinner is the chanting of the 10 plagues — the biblical afflictions that pushed the Pharaoh to free the Israelite slaves.

Ordinarily, most Israeli Jews — religious and secular alike — spend the Seder with extended family in an experience akin to Thanksgiving. It also is customary to invite strangers such as lone travelers or students.