More gatherings mean third pandemic Passover 'a lot freer' for Metro Detroit Jews

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

When Passover arrived in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had started weeks earlier, sending Hannah Berger and other Jews around the world to mark some of the holiday’s communal traditions online.

A year later, the arrival of vaccines and shifting restrictions allowed the University of Michigan graduate more options to meet in person.

Now, in 2022, although virus cases remain, most followers plan to resume their close contacts as rules governing those gatherings have ended. 

Rabbi Arnie Sleutelberg lifts the Torah or Hagbah, the ritual of lifting the Torah scroll and displaying it to the congregation after the Torah reading.  Jewish Community Relations Council / AJC annual Diplomatic Seder at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan on April 5, 2022.

So, Berger this week welcomed more than a dozen guests into her Ferndale home for a “Friendseder,” a modern take on the Passover meal filled with foods and rituals that recount how Jewish ancestors escaped slavery in ancient Egypt.

“I haven’t had this many people in my house at once in probably two years,” Berger said. “The COVID cases are way down. We feel so much safer. This feels a lot freer."

Passover starts at sundown Friday, launching an eight-day holiday considered one of the most sacred and widely observed in Judaism.

With most pandemic mandates over and the number of infections declining in Michigan, Metro Detroit Jews are ready to celebrate more openly, even if they do so cautiously.

That means plenty of parties with a few attendees donning masks, or smaller audiences for virtual options as synagogues welcome some of their largest groups since 2019.

“This is the holiday of freedom, and carefully, slowly we are leaving Egypt. We are crossing the Red Sea, hopefully,” said Rabbi Asher Lopatin, executive director at the JCRC/AJC, the advocacy group representing regional Jews.

“We’re trying to find a balance. When we can do an in-person meeting, let’s do it, but let’s be careful.”

Some say the newfound openness is the perfect way to restore the bonds lost or hindered during the pandemic as well as reconnect to the themes of the holiday commemorating how God “passed over” Israelite homes during a plague.

Members of Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills plan to accomplish both when they present a “Sensory Seder” for children up to 5 years old.

The event features songs, stories and hands-on activities to explore the seder, which typically unfolds during the first two nights of Passover.

Its genesis emerged from seeking ways to explain the tradition to the synagogue’s youngest members while also uniting in person, said Rabbi Blair Nosanwisch, Adat Shalom’s director of spiritual care.

“All winter we’ve been realizing that as long as we’ve offered safe guidelines around what our practices are, a critical mass of people want to be in person,” she said. “It has been really beneficial to create those spaces.”

With that in mind, rabbinical students studying in Oak Park last week fanned out across the region in “mitzvah tanks” to distribute boxes of authentic, handmade Passover matzah. The type of flatbread is eaten during the holiday to reflect the Egyptian exodus that happened so fast there was no time for the fleeing Hebrews’ bread to rise.

JCRC/ AJC Diplomatic co-chair Carol Ogusky and Rabbi Arnie Sleutelberg light a candle at the start of the Jewish Community Relations Council / AJC annual Diplomatic Seder at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan on April 5, 2022.

Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov, vice president at Chabad Lubavitch of Michigan, which was involved in the distribution, notes the holiday’s reflection on that time. The Hebrew word for Egypt, he said, references “limitations and boundaries. What we all have to learn is that we all could have had limitations on us, but we all can go free to connect with others, with God, with friends. That’s what Passover should mean to us.”

The communal element underscores the “Friendseder” guide long offered through The Well, a Jewish community-building, education and spirituality outreach initiative based in Metro Detroit.

This year, a partnership with Zingerman’s Delicatessen led to more goods for those seeking to host their own version. The Well hosted a Friendseder community brunch at the Ann Arbor location last weekend that featured a Zoom connection.

Rabbi Arnie Sleutelberg chants Torah during the Jewish Community Relations Council / AJC annual Diplomatic Seder at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan on April 5, 2022.

Meeting together, however it happens in the pandemic, “raises the excitement,” said Rabbi Jeff Stombaugh, the Well’s executive director. “The Passover experience has an entry point for different elements of justice and freedom and spirituality.”