This April will be the first time Jews around the world will have a virtual Passover seder. It’s a revealing moment for our people as we face deep uncertainty, anxiety and fear amid the coronavirus pandemic. As the exodus story articulates so well, Jews are resilient survivors, and we will certainly find new ways to maintain and move forward as a Jewish community. Today’s challenges offer us an opportunity to glimpse what the future may look like. And this year, as we recite the questions, we must ask a fifth question: How do we rebuild?
Three lessons can be gleaned from our reactions to this plague that can assist our community in adjusting for Passover during this pandemic and strengthen us beyond. First, how we engage with one another this year and in the future will blend online and offline connections like never before. We are already seeing this with the recent historic ruling by senior Orthodox rabbis who have given permission to use the Zoom video-conferencing service during the Passover seder. As many of us sit around our Passover tables with more immediate families “dialed in,” we will be reminded of the traditions and culture that connect us. We will tell the Passover story while actually experiencing what it means to survive a plague. Coming out of the crisis, we will be stronger and more connected for having learned yet again to adapt.
The second lesson we must embrace is that Israel is the glue that binds us together. We see Israel unite us, even with travel restrictions, as Jews around the world look for opportunities to help one another and stay connected. At Masa, our international family has felt closer, despite the physical distancing, because of Israel. We have a network of 160,000 alumni from 62 countries, as well as 4,200 Masa Israel Fellows in Israel currently. Masa: Online, our new virtual platform, hosts a wide range of our programs, including ulpan courses, educational seminars, virtual meals, prayer services, exercise classes, discussions on current events and more. We’ve all been impacted by this pandemic, yet we’re not living in social isolation. The bridges we’ve built through Israel have enabled us to maintain strong relationships digitally, so we don’t feel alone.
Several Masa programs have also adapted to meet public-health needs in Israel. For example, some Fellows have relocated within Israel to rural kibbutzim in order to support farms that provide crucial food resources to the country. It is inspiring that at this uncertain time, many of our young Fellows are still doing meaningful work that simultaneously meets the needs of Israeli society.
The final lesson, which also is the answer to our fifth question, is that in order to recover and build as a community, we must embrace the importance of our Jewish institutions. Most were built at a time of economic stability, growth and possibility. We may have been taking them for granted while they steadfastly created a framework of resources that we must now rely on to care for the needy and most vulnerable in our community. To rebuild our Jewish community after the mental, economic and social impact of the virus has passed over us, we must step up as a community more than ever and invest in the institutions that provide Jewish experiences and crucial resources.
We must help each other stay engaged with our Jewish traditions and the people of Israel. We need to continue our learning and growth so that we stay connected and strong during and after these challenging times.
The Jewish Agency for Israel, Jewish Federations, community centers, synagogues and nonprofits will ensure that Jews have access to experiences and services that will help us heal. We will once again send our kids to Hebrew and Sunday schools, summer camps and Israel experiences. We will gather to celebrate simchas such as births, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and anniversaries. Our institutions will ensure that Holocaust survivors live with dignity, that small businesses and families get interest-free loans, and that our food pantries are stocked. They will offer rehabilitating treatment, mentorship and legal services. Our community will need diverse resources to rebuild, and we are so fortunate to have a web of connected services ready to help us do just that.
The value these Jewish institutions offer our community will only become more pronounced this Passover and beyond. Now is the time to step up and support them—to show our gratitude for being a resilient community that can weather this storm, and to emerge stronger and more connected than ever.
Chag Sameach! And next year in Israel!
Meara Razon Ashtivker is Masa Israel Journey’s North American COO.