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Pandemic Passover 2.0: What Have We Learned?

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As Pesach approaches Nathan Abrams argues that we need to step up to help remote Jews.

As Pesach approaches it is a good time to take stock of the past year and what we have learned from the ongoing pandemic and continued lockdowns.

In July last year, I wrote for JewThink, how things were looking up from a cultural, historical and intellectual viewpoint:

“For me, the pandemic has produced a welcome democratisation of British Jewish culture. No longer is living in a remote fringe of the United Kingdom, a hindrance to full participation in British Jewish cultural life. 

The current situation has led to a levelling up: Jewish culture, once previously inaccessible either because of location and/or cost, is now free and accessible. 

I no longer miss out being stuck in north Wales where there is little to consume in terms of Jewish culture and to reach London takes half a day and £100, or Manchester 2.5 hours.”

At Bangor, Wales. Photo: Wikipedia and Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net).

Nine months later, I can still access lectures from all over the world. I now can choose not to go to lectures I couldn’t have previously gone to!

From a more religious or communal viewpoint, there are online services, learning, lessons, shiurim, celebrations of Purim, Chanukah and the like. But some aspects of Jewish life have stood still.

I shall take one example. Attempting to get hold of an all-in-one kit for the Seder.  Last year, my brother kindly ordered these from Muswell Hill Synagogue and had them couriered to north Wales where I live. This enabled us to hold a Seder, with my Mum in London, over Zoom. We had all the ingredients for the Seder plate, as well as a kosher, hot three-course meal that was generous in the extreme and although portioned for four fed double that as leftovers.

Each of the six items arranged on the plate has special significance to the retelling of the story of Passover—the exodus from Egypt—which is the focus of this ritual meal. Photo: Wikipedia

This year I had hope for the same. On visiting the United Synagogue website, however, not only had they sold out (my bad) but were only delivering within the M25! Well, so much for the ‘United Synagogue’ then. You can’t claim to speak for all of Britain’s Jews, as the Chief Rabbi does, but then not be able to send them food if they live beyond the Home Counties!

And does Jewish life not exist outside of the M25? You are basically saying, to steal the title of David Baddiel’s new book, that outside of the M25 ‘Jews don’t count’. We can put an orbiter into outer space but can’t get kosher l’pesach food to someone outside the London orbital.

Departure of the Israelites (David Roberts, 1829). Photo: Wikipedia

Imagine if we had this attitude leaving Egypt? The logistics of organising some kosher food for Jews seem harder to organise than the Exodus from Egypt.  ‘Well, you can leave but you won’t get manna beyond the Goshen to Sinai goat track’, I can hear our community elders saying. It was that generation, remember, that was forced to wander for forty years because of their mentality.

So I began my odyssey to find a Seder kit. I tried contacting the other major organisations but to no avail. I learned about something called Jewish Futures which is doing a Seder initiative, but their website is under construction and my email still hadn’t been delivered after two days.  

As the coronavirus sweeps the globe, Seder-to-Go kits are supporting thousands of families in quarantine or practicing social distancing, with more than 7,000 kits being shipped out in the United States alone. Photo: www.chabad.org

Via complaining on Twitter, the one that has come through is Chabad, in Islington, north London, of all places (not far from where I am from originally). Of course, Chabad is known for making an effort at outreach to find and assist us remote Jews. But now that all Jews are, to all intents and purposes, remote you would have thought that the other organisations would have stepped up and upped their game over the past year. Seemingly not.

My point here is that some Jews have always been remote and not always out of choice. Now that all Jews are remote and not out of choice can’t the community cater for everybody equally or at least extend equality of opportunity across the board?

Can there not be a central point of contact for all of us everywhere in the UK to order a Seder kit? Given how many of us have been receiving so much through Amazon, DPD, Yodel, etc. it should not be rocket science.

Chag semeach.

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I teach film studies at Bangor University in north Wales where I live. I research, write and broadcast regularly (in Welsh and English) on transatlantic Jewish culture and history.
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