Metro Detroit Jews mark second Passover in pandemic

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Between watching a "burning bush" and figures in royal garb near the Southfield Town Center last weekend visitors and participants could easily glimpse a distant past celebrated in the present.

Drivers who pulled up to “Freedom,” a drive-through experience led by Chabad Lubavitch of Michigan, were regaled with scenes recounting the story behind Passover, the Jewish holiday starting at sundown Saturday  that commemorates how Israelites escaped enslavement in ancient Egypt.

The event unfolded outdoors as a way to keep guests socially distanced in a pandemic  while highlighting a centuries-old tale that has long inspired Jews to persevere in the face of daunting issues.

Some view the juxtaposition as a perfect fit for another challenging year.

Matan Leiberman, 3, sits on the lap of his mother, Brooke, both of Farmington Hills, as they watch from their vehicle.

“The idea of going free is to be able to overcome. That is really what we’re experiencing in this year now,” said Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov, vice president at Chabad Lubavitch of Michigan. “I think Passover is the time that tells us not to be stuck by our limitations.”

Through April 4, Metro Detroit Jews are marking the second consecutive Passover that is different from past holidays. That means most activities are virtual or modified to heed restrictions on gatherings as virus cases linger.

Some synagogues have found creative approaches to presenting the traditional elements such as the Seder, the ceremonial meal that typical starts the holiday with food and rituals associated with the Egyptian exit.

Temple Israel of West Bloomfield Township plans to livestream a Seder Saturday without a dinner, then host another music-themed one online the next night.

A motorist drives through a giant Pharaoh into the parking structure to view Freedom actors.

Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills also has an online Seder this weekend , followed by a family-centered Zoom session, “Matzah and Miracles,” revolving around Passover staples such as flatbread, which represents the ancient Jews’ escape, Rabbi Aaron Bergman said. 

As the congregation becomes accustomed to web-based worship and videos, he added, “what we’re trying to do is have people have a sense of continuity when everything else feels so weird and difficult. Any time we have a chance to connect is good.”

While it's unclear when gatherings return to normal, members seem less anxious and welcome the widening vaccine distribution in Michigan, Bergman said. “People are feeling more optimistic and because there are loosening of restrictions, people are feeling better. … I think people are saying: ‘Let’s just hang in there.’ ”

Imparting that central theme of Passover anchored the “Freedom” event that ran Sunday and Monday.

Kerem Hardy, left, of Inkster portrays Pharaoh as David Camilleri, right, of Detroit plays Moses.

Overseeing and attending the project was producer Ilana Portney-Preston’s primary Passover plans this year. In presenting to audiences the story of Moses, the pharaoh and slaves seeking freedom, the College for Creative Studies student reflected on core values extending beyond the holiday.

“To still be going strong amidst any sort of chaos is a big part of Judaism,” she said. “Pushing through any turmoil — this is something that is really meaningful to be able to tell this story.”

Retracing her ancestors’ journey to liberation enlightened Chana Shmotkin, who worked as a prop assistant on the project.

“It actually so connects with our times,” the 20-year-old from Royal Oak said. “Passover is a time to really break through.”