Until just a few weeks ago, Ira and Karen Smith and their family were looking forward to a Passover adventure. Ira’s younger sister was getting married in Las Vegas the weekend before the Jewish holiday, so the Smiths planned to fly there from their hometown of Evanston, Ill., outside of Chicago, to celebrate the nuptials, then rent a car and drive up to Yosemite National Park. From there, they would roadtrip on to Karen’s parents in Marin County, Calif., across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, where they would attend the Seders and celebrate Passover.

“We had everything booked—the tickets, the car, the hotels,” Ira Smith told Chabad.org. Then the specter of coronavirus began to dawn. First, his sister told him guests had begun dropping out of the wedding party. Then the wedding itself was postponed. Smith still wasn’t quite ready to drop the whole trip, but when his father-in-law, who for decades hosted his Seder for a crowd of 40 to 50 family and friends, called to say that it seemed a large Passover gathering this year wasn’t a great idea, Smith realized that his family was in for something new.

By now, with COVID-19 spreading at an alarming rate—and with cities, countries and borders shutting down worldwide—you don’t have to be an epidemiologist to know that this year’s Passover will be different from all other Passovers.

The Smiths, like countless Jews around the world, will be forced to celebrate Passover this year alone. And for the first time in his life, Ira will lead a Seder.

“We’ve always crashed someone else’s Seder,” he admitted. “It’s going to be weird, definitely different.”

The Smiths are in good company. Passover, particularly among American Jews, is the most widely celebrated Jewish holiday, while the Seder is the most popularly observed Jewish ritual. According to the Pew Research Center, 70 percent of America’s 5.7 million Jews participate in a Passover Seder, gathering with family, friends and community—laughing, arguing and discussing while recalling the Jewish people’s Exodus from Egypt, eating matzah and drinking four cups of wine. This year, they’re all in for something new.

The huge number of Jews celebrating on their own for the first time isn’t the only thing that will be different this Passover. Every year, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement hosts between 10,000 to 12,000 communal Seders in 115 countries, drawing anywhere from a handful participants to more than 2,000 participants—like the colossal ones in Nepal, Thailand and Peru. For generations, hundreds of thousands of school-age children have taken part in its model matzah bakeries or other Passover educational experience, while an equal number of adults—from college students to suburban parents, retirees to seniors—participate in model Seders and Passover classes, sell their chametz (bread or other leavened items) or kosher their kitchens. In addition to general Passover staples—traditional foods, matzah and kosher wine, Haggadahs and other printed materials, do-it-yourself tools—Chabad distributes approximately 3.5 million handmade shmurah matzahs annually for individual use.

This expansive and deep-seated focus on Passover comes directly from the RebbeRabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. Not long after assuming leadership of the Chabad movement in 1950 he pioneered a global Passover campaign, increasing in tempo and scope from year to year. He would personally expend immense amounts of time and energy ensuring that Jewish communities and individuals around the world had everything they needed for Passover, including a special emphasis on shmurah matzah.

Following the Rebbe’s energetic example and direction, Passover aid for Jews near and far became a staple of Chabad’s work. Emissaries from Morocco and Italy to California and everywhere in between became indispensable Passover resources for their Jewish communities. Chabad’s association with Passover became so ubiquitous that when Russian Jews began winning permission to finally leave the Soviet Union in the 1970s—the trickle turning into a flood in the 1980s and ’90s—Chabad’s mass Passover Seders for Russian Jews in Rome, New York, Jerusalem, Boston, Melbourne and other cities was their first Western Jewish experience.

Coronavirus, of course, did not cancel the Festival of Freedom, nor did it change the imperative for the Chabad movement to bring Passover far and wide. It just means that a new playbook is being written.

This year’s unprecedented circumstances have thus led to what may very well be the largest-ever coordinated Passover campaign in history.

The five centers of Chabad of Greater St. Louis, in partnership with communal organizations like the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, are offering every Jew in the city a free Seder-to-Go kit with Passover DIY tools.
The five centers of Chabad of Greater St. Louis, in partnership with communal organizations like the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, are offering every Jew in the city a free Seder-to-Go kit with Passover DIY tools.

More Seders Than Ever

Ironically, this year’s inability to join together in large groups means more Jewish households worldwide will be hosting their own Seder than ever before, many of them led by individuals who have never done so before.

In a way, the Jewish people have not had a Passover like this since the first one took place in Egypt more than 3,300 years ago. Back then, G‑d commanded the Jews to remain home, together with only their immediate families, and avoid the plague that was to smite their enemies.

“The historic importance of Passover in 2020 cannot be overstated,” said Rabbi Yisroel Shmotkin, founding director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Wisconsin. “Just like the very first Seder revealed for posterity G‑d’s intimate involvement with the physical world, so, too, will our Seders this year forever proclaim the essential sanctity of our homes.”

But suddenly faced with making Passover and under such unusual, even frightening, circumstances requires an altogether new form of education and aid. Ridding their homes of chametz, koshering their kitchens for Passover and myriad other details are just a few of the things that need to be done for Passover. Working at a frenetic pace, Chabad emissaries in more than 100 countries have launched thousands of Zoom, Google Chat and Facebook Live model Passover Seders and Passover-related classes to help guide people in preparing their homes, their Seders and how to engage their children—16,000 such classes will have been given by the time the first night of Passover dawns. This week’s Zoom class schedule at Chabad of Laguna Beach, Calif., includes a class on “Trusting in G‑d,” “Passover 101” and “Passover Prep in the Kitchen.” Passover is in essence a season of questions, and emissaries are reaching out to hundreds of thousands of people during these weeks by text, email, phone and social media to address all their Passover questions and concerns. In Manhattan, to handle the huge numbers, Chabad of the West Side has set up scheduled time slots for people to be able to chat with any Chabad emissary on their team.

As the world has frozen and life has moved online, Chabad.org—the world’s largest Jewish website—is experiencing a surge of web traffic, especially people logging on to its Passover sections. Working out of living rooms in 12 countries, more than 50 team members have in recent weeks created Chabad.org/corona, as well as Chabad.org/coronapassover, to steer the more than 10 million individuals who are projected to visit during this year’s Passover season to learn (in one of eight languages) how to lead a Seder, gain general holiday knowledge and inspiration, or download DIY tools and guides. Chabad.org’s Ask-the-Rabbi service is also working around the clock to keep up with heavy caseload—whether it be questions the team answers throughout the year or ones specifically focused on Passover or COVID-19, offering guidance and a helping hand during this challenging time.

Last year, 90,000 individuals sold their chametz through Chabad.org’s online chametz-selling service. With synagogues closed and social distancing and/or total lockdown in place in many parts of the globe, more than 350,000 people are expected to sell their chametz through the service with more than 1 million selling it through their local Chabad rabbi, online, by mail or by phone.

While this Passover will certainly be something never before seen, this year of COVID-19—of homeschooling, confusion, loneliness, hoarding, quarantines and lockdowns—will in some ways be no different.

At left, Rabbi Dovid Flinkenstein, director of Chabad of Wilmette, with Ira Smith at this year’s Chabad Chanukah Bowl
At left, Rabbi Dovid Flinkenstein, director of Chabad of Wilmette, with Ira Smith at this year’s Chabad Chanukah Bowl

When Smith realized that he wouldn’t be at his father-in-law’s familiar Seder table, he knew he and his family had to start preparing. The Smiths are active members of the Fraida-Cameron Chabad Center for Jewish Life and Learning in neighboring Wilmette, and just as the new reality of coronavirus world began sinking in, Ira received an email from Chabad of Wilmette with a How-to-Guide, step-by-step Passover preparation list and countless ways that he could learn about leading the Seder from classes via Zoom to concise articles.

Working with a local kosher caterer, Chabad of Wilmette and other Illinois Chabad centers are also offering all Jews of any and all backgrounds a Seder-to-Go kit that offers multiple options for a catered Passover meal to be delivered safely to their homes, including all the items for the Seder plate and, of course, the shmurah matzah. Each package will also include a Haggadah and a printed how-to guide. It’s a service that in the age of coronavirus—when a growing number of cities and states are issuing open-ended “stay-at-home” orders just weeks before Passover—needed more than ever. At Chabad of Wilmette, a local donor has also stepped forward to cover the costs of Passover needs for whomever cannot afford it.

When the Smiths—Ira, Karen and their 13-year-old daughter, Isabelle—sit down for their Seder, through Chabad they’ll have matzah, a full Seder plate, a catered meal, and most importantly, the knowledge of how to proceed with the retelling of the Exodus story with all of the associated blessings.

“Usually, during this time of year, we’re delivering shmurah matzah to people’s homes, sitting with them, schmoozing,” explained Rabbi Moshe Teldon, Chabad of Wilmette’s program director. “Now we can’t walk in at all. We’re not even talking face-to-face, though we’re delivering a Seder-to-Go to the door of whomever needs it during the day and classes over Zoom on how to do it at night.”

Like the Smiths in Illinois, Ana Marciana, a kindergarten teacher in Florida’s St. Lucie County Public School, will be receiving all the Passover supplies, matzah included, from her local Chabad—Chabad of Martin and St. Lucie County—led by Rabbi Shlomo and Daniella Uminer.

“Think back during the Holocaust,” said Marciana, who because of coronavirus will be celebrating the Seder alone for the first time, “they did everything they could even in those far more dire straits to celebrate Jewish holidays. We need to do what we need to do, and I’m so grateful to the rabbi and his wife that I have the opportunity to do that again this year.”

All told, Chabad centers in the United States alone are preparing more than 250,000 Seder-to-Go kits to be delivered in the next two weeks.

‘Searching for the Exodus’

With many people making Seders for the first time this year or unable to obtain their own materials, Chabad centers around the world are delivering Seder in a Box packages.
With many people making Seders for the first time this year or unable to obtain their own materials, Chabad centers around the world are delivering Seder in a Box packages.

In Milwaukee, Shmotkin’s son, Rabbi Mendel Shmotkin, saw that things were moving quickly and recognized that many Jews in the broader community might very well be lost this Passover if something wasn’t done—and quickly. On March 23, the younger Shmotkin, who directs Chabad of Wisconsin, sent out a mass email. With coronavirus curtailing travel plans and social interactions, Chabad, in partnership with a kosher caterer, would offer matzah and “everything from cole slaw to tzimmes, potato salad, kishka, roasted vegetables, chicken, brisket and more. And for the Seder plate, marror, charoset and bone.” Pickup would be available from any of Wisconsin’s eight Chabad centers.

On a regular year, Jeff and Jodi Warren of the Milwaukee suburb of Mequon celebrate the Seder as a family, their elderly mothers, as well as their in-laws and children, along with them. While they’ve long gotten their Seder matzah from Chabad, this year they signed up for the Seder kit as well.

Growing up, Jeff recalls his grandfather leading the Seder, and in more recent years he would join with others and let someone else lead it. This year it will be just him and his wife, but in a way he’s happy to be pushed to take the lead. “Passover isn’t called off,” he said.

“We’re now ourselves, and we’re certainly more in touch with what’s important,” Jodi added. The Exodus story will also be that much more felt. “When we speak about the plagues in Egypt, we see this plague that’s ours to get through. This year, we’re not exactly free either.”

When Madi Brown first moved to St. Charles, Mo., from what locals call “the other side of the bridge” in St. Louis, she thought she was the only Jew in the area. Slowly, she found she wasn’t, and over the years she’s built up a core group of friends. This past fall, Rabbi Chaim and Bassy Landa established a Chabad Jewish Center in St. Charles County, and Brown and her friends immediately gravitated to the young couple. She recalls Rosh Hashanah having been a happy, communal experience, and her daughter leaning over to her and saying that she couldn’t imagine what the Passover Seder would look like.

Madi will be alone this year. Compounding it, her daughter is expecting a child, and so they’ve been extra carefully with social distancing.

“It’s hard—very, very hard,” Brown conceded. “I told her she couldn’t leave her yard! Last time I saw her felt like ‘Fiddler on the Roof;’ G‑d knows when we’ll see each other again.”

Now, FaceTiming and phone calls are how she stays connected with her family and friends. Bassy Landa calls her regularly as well. On a typical year, Brown would be planning a Passover Seder with her close friends in the area, whom she describes as family

“It’s incomprensible to think of being by yourself at this time; it’s surreal,” she said.

Like Chabad in Illinois and Wisconsin, but also the United Kingdom, Japan, British Columbia, Australia and other countries, Chabad of Greater St. Louis’s five centers—in partnership with community organizations including the Jewish Federation of St. Louis—are offering every Jew in the city a free Seder-to-Go kit with Passover DIY tools. Brown signed herself and her daughter up for the service.

Around the world Chabad has taken on the challenge of providing matzah and other Passover needs to people who were unexpectedly unable to obtain them on their own. (Photo: Chabad of Chula Vista)
Around the world Chabad has taken on the challenge of providing matzah and other Passover needs to people who were unexpectedly unable to obtain them on their own. (Photo: Chabad of Chula Vista)

“I think this darkness helps us to understand what’s truly important in life,” Brown observed. “I know when I eat the matzah at my personal Seder, I’m going to feel the connection with my loved ones, my friends, that feeling that we’re all going through this together. That’s what Passover is, a connection, all of us searching for the Exodus, for the way home.”

The Zohar, the foundational work of Jewish mysticism, calls the shmurah matzah that Jews eat every year on Passover “the food of faith” and “the food of healing.” The world, facing a challenge unseen in generations, could use a healthy dose of both. In Hayom Yom,the Rebbe’s earliest published work, he cites a teaching explaining why faith is specified prior to healing.

When healing leads to faith, the individual expresses their thanks to G‑d for healing them; nevertheless, the fact remains that they had indeed been ill. However, “when faith generates healing, [that means] the person was not sick in the first place.”