Last April, Sam and Ruth Borin travelled 200 miles from their home in York to Kent, to mark the start of the Jewish festival of Pesach, or Passover, with the rabbi who had conducted their wedding. Friends and members of the rabbi’s extended family crowded round the table for the traditional Seder feast, served on the first night of the holiday.
By tradition, the youngest person present starts the ritual by asking four questions, which are the cue for the maggid, the telling of the story of the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt. Among the foods consumed over a long evening of eating, singing and reading aloud are dry matzo biscuits, vegetables dipped in salt water (to represent tears), and bitter herbs.
This year, Passover will be rather different for the Borins and millions of other Jewish families. Instead of vast gatherings of family and friends, many Seder feasts will be held at tables for four, two or even one. “It will just be me and my wife this year,” said Sam Borin. “It will feel very weird, but it’s out of the question to invite people.”
The Borins are self-isolating after Ruth developed a fever. Their quarantine will end a day or two before Passover begins on 8 April. “So we will have a chance to go to the supermarket to buy matzo.” They, along with others, accept that they may not be able to source traditional Passover foods such as gefilte fish and matzo ball soup.
This year’s unusual circumstances have led the London Beth Din, or religious court, to issue a list of products not made under special supervision that Jews will be permitted to eat.
The “kosher for Passover” label usually appears on many foodstuffs in Jewish groceries and delis, indicating that a product has met the strict requirements of the eight-day festival. Chametz – any product made from grains that have come into contact with water and been allowed to ferment – is forbidden.
Rabbi Jeremy Conway, of the kashrut division London Beth Din, said: “We are acutely aware of the pressures on individuals and families, particularly on older, vulnerable and isolated members. We already know why this Seder night will be different from all other nights, and this Pesach unlike any other. The kashrut division has been working overtime to support kosher shops and manufacturers, as well as to put together new guidelines just for this Pesach, for those without access to fully supervised products.
“This list should be used when regular supervised products are not available, or for people who are older or in isolation, and unable to go shopping or have Pesach products delivered.”
Other rabbinical organisations have issued Passover guidelines. An umbrella group in the US has urged Jews to cancel their travel plans. “Everyone must plan to celebrate Pesach where they are currently,” it said.
Orthodox rabbis in Jerusalem have given special dispensation for people to use Zoom video conferencing on Seder night to connect with one another. However, families must turn on their device and open the Zoom app before sundown to comply with the prohibition on the use of electricity, computers and phones on holidays.
The rabbis said this was “to remove the sadness from seniors and the elderly and to give them motivation to keep fighting”.
Ben Rich, a member of the York Liberal Jewish Community, said: “The expectation is that you gather your family and anyone who hasn’t got anywhere to go. We typically have about 20 people, but this year our family is going to meet by Zoom.”
Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, senior rabbi to Reform Judaism, will be streaming Seder to hundreds, although there will be only a handful at her table. “What’s happening right now is hard,” she said, “and there is a real fear of losing people. But Judaism is hard-wired for adaptation, and we will adapt.”